Composed of 430 acres of forest, prairie, and wetland: the St. Olaf Natural Lands offers recreational and research opportunities for the wider St. Olaf and Northfield community as well as providing habitats for a multitude of plants and wildlife. “The Natural Lands are land that the college has decided to set aside as a space for conservation, recreation, and education,” Natural Lands Manager Wes Braker ’18 said. “It’s really a place designed for students along with conservation in mind.”
Five days a week, student workers help with invasive species removal, seed collection, prescribed fires, and many other tasks required for Natural Lands maintenance. This allows students to play an active role in conservation as well as acquire job experience. “We either hire [students] because they have done natural resource work, or we hire them because they have some sort of interest in working outdoors,” Braker said. Job experience includes plant identification, working with animals, and designing trails to be more accessible for people.
The two major Natural Lands employment opportunities for students are becoming St. Olaf Naturalists or Natural Lands Technicians. “[Naturalists] are more of a social presence for the Natural Lands,” Braker said. “Technicians are more involved in land management.”
Naturalists lead weekly nature walks and host Natural Lands related events while Technicians are trained in land management practices such as cutting buckthorn and collecting seeds for restoration and replanting. Both groups are trained in prescribed burning.
When asked about the importance of prescribed fires, Braker said that these are done in prairie settings to decrease the number of trees or in woodland areas to eliminate invasive species. Wind needs to be monitored to regulate the effects of prescribed burning on the community around the Natural Lands.
Humidity is another factor that must be considered as certain humidities will make it challenging for grass to burn when ignited.
“I’m constantly watching the weather to make sure we’re within our parameters…so we don’t smoke out the campus,” Braker said.
Many Natural Lands projects involve restoring pieces of former farmland. “We have a nine-acre piece of former soybean field that’s immediately adjacent to the prairie, and we’re working on restoring that for the fall,” Braker said. Most of the seeds from recent seed collection efforts are going into this former soybean field to restore the prairie. There are also two adjacent forest restoration projects underway. “[These restorations] are our last little pieces of farmland that we’re putting into long term vegetative cover for better conservation and better habitat continuity,” Braker said.
The Natural Lands is also building up its volunteer opportunities and improving its community engagement by organizing more volunteer activities or getting specific classes involved in projects.
Fewer visitors come to the Natural Lands than other nature parks in Northfield. “Please utilize this resource,” Braker said. “The more people that get out there, the more it benefits us, because more people know about us.”
Community involvement is a crucial part of how the Natural Lands is maintained and protected for visitors. Despite having fewer visitors than other nature parks, the Natural Lands continues to be cherished by many members of the community.
To learn more about the Natural Lands and read blog posts by the Naturalists, visit their webpage at stolaf.edu/naturallands/