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The Belwin Conservancy

The Belwin Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and appreciation of the natural world. The Belwin Conservancy owns nearly 1,400 acres of permanently protected land in Afton and West Lakeland Townships. Their property comprises one of the largest privately owned nature preserves in the region. Its focus is connecting people and the land and it works toward that goal in a number of ways:

  • Providing a facility and use of some its land for experiential outdoor education for area youth and students from the St. Paul Public School System
  • Establishing and providing the Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields through the St. Croix Soccer Association as a youth-only sports facility
  • Restoring and managing its lands to pre-European settlement condition
  • Providing public access to its Croixview and Stagecoach Prairies on walking trails and observation platforms
  • Hosting the Casby Observatory, home to a 10” telescope owned and operated by the Minnesota Astronomical Society
  • Allowing use of its lands for a variety of research purposes

Belwin’s restoration of native prairie and woodlands serves as a model for ecological restoration in the St. Croix Valley. The Belwin Conservancy’s prairies are some of the oldest restored prairies in the area.

The Belwin Conservancy's 1,364 acre preserve includes oak savanna and woodlands, tall grass prairie, wetlands, and fens. It is home to numerous rare and threatened plants and animals. Part of its land holdings abut Lake Edith, a spring-fed lake that appears to be one of Minnesota’s "top-of-the-watershed" lakes.

The 1,364 total acres are divided into six management units:

Bell Oak Savanna

This property was first purchased in 1963 and now totals 337 acres. Currently, the vegetation includes remnant and restored prairies, spruce and pine plantings, lowland hardwood forests, a rich fen/sedge meadow/marsh complex, oak savannas and barrens, a number of ponds, and moderately-degraded oak woodlands. The prairie restorations and remnants are diverse, containing mostly short prairie grasses such as little bluestem, June grass, side oats grama, porcupine grass, panic grass, and upland sedge. The oak woodlands are dominated by either bur oak, red oak, or northern pin oak. Other canopy species include black cherry and quaking aspen, with box elder, elm, and ironwood in the understory. Savanna and oak barrens are also present and are dominated by either bur oak or pin oak. The evergreen stands were planted mostly 70-80 years ago to stabilize soils and also as a Christmas tree plantation. Red pine is by far the most common species, along with white, jack, and Scotch pines, and Norway and white spruce. Along some of the ponds and streams at the Bell Oak Savanna site, lowland hardwood forests are present, dominated by black willow, eastern cottonwood, silver maple, American elm, green ash, and box elder. The wetland complex contains marsh, sedge meadow and rich fen species. The marsh at the north end of the complex is almost entirely dominated by cattail. The sedge meadow on the western end of the complex has a diverse assemblage of sedges. At the southern end of the complex, a floating mat of sphagnum supports fen species such as fen wire grass sedge, creeping sedge, marsh fern, and sundew, and shrubs such as bog birch and meadowsweet.

Afton Hills

The Afton Hills site comprises 100 acres in total with acquisitions dating from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. This site is one of the few areas on the property that was mapped as “Big Woods” based on the pre-settlement land survey. Currently, the vegetation includes early successional hardwoods forests, dry-mesic oak forests, savanna, remnant prairie, and old agricultural fields.

Valley Creek

The property that comprises the Valley Creek Site was first acquired in 1958 and now totals 150 acres. One of the highest quality trout streams in the region, Valley Creek has naturally reproducing populations of brook, brown, and rainbow trout. The cold, relatively clean water of the south branch provides more suitable conditions than that of the north branch due to the warm water discharges from Lake Edith. Valley Creek meanders through a floodplain terrace composed of sandy alluvium. In locations where the grade is more gradual, the creek supports large wetlands and wet forest. The creek, wetlands and floodplain terrace are bordered by steep forested slopes with mostly north-and south-facing aspects.

Currently, the vegetation ranges from moderately intact to degraded. The upland forests are a mixture of oak woodlands and pine plantations. The woodlands have a canopy of somewhat open-grown bur oaks. In areas with greater soil moisture, elm, box elder, ash, and cottonwood can be found. The lowland forests are composed of silver maple, black cherry, bur oak, aspen, black willow, birch, cottonwood, elm, and ash. In the open wetlands, the community composition has intact wet meadow/carr and reed canary grass monoculture.

Lake Edith

The Lake Edith Site totals about 312 acres abutting Lake Edith, a top-of-the-watershed lake formed by the north branch of Valley Creek. The site is a mosaic of restored oak savanna, oak woodlands, old fields, and wet meadows. Some remnant patches of native dry prairie species remain along ridge tops and steep slopes. Grass species include: little bluestem, muhly grass, prairie dropseed, hairy grama, and side-oats grama. The woodlands have a canopy of open-grown oaks, including bur oak and some white oak. In the wetland complex, community composition has intact wet meadow/carr and reed canary grass monoculture along the shoreline, and grades into cattail marsh and open water. 

Croixview Prairie

The Croixview Prairie site totals about 379 acres, most of restored grassland. Prior to purchase, the most of the site was in agriculture. From 2000 through 2004, the majority of the site was planted into tallgrass prairie. Currently, the vegetation ranges from a low to moderate diversity prairie to moderately degraded woodland. The prairie restoration contains mostly tall warm season grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass, with some switchgrass and little bluestem. This site has been hosting bison since 2008. The herd ranges in size from 25 to 35 animals, and annually grazes from June through early October.

Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area

The Stagecoach Prairie Site totals about 279 acres, about three-fourths of which are prairie or prairie restoration, with the remainder woodland. Currently, the vegetation includes remnant and restored prairies, old pastures, pine plantings, a lowland hardwood forest, and moderately degraded oak woodlands. Remnant dry prairies occur on south-facing slopes and are sparsely vegetated. Moderately degraded oak woodlands are dominated by white oak, with some bur, red, and northern pin oaks. The prairie restorations contain mostly tall warm season grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass, with some switchgrass and little bluestem. Forbs are moderately diverse. With the exception of the hardwood forests in the northwest, southwest, and southeast corners of the property, most of the unit was in agriculture or pasture at some point since European settlement. Many of the marginal agriculture areas were planted or underwent succession and are now forested.  Most of the planting occurred sometime after 1938 and before 1964.

Land Management

After European settlement, much of area was either agriculture or pine plantation, the latter of which is slowing but actively being transformed into grasslands and savannas. Long-term and on-going restoration activities include prescribed burning, integrated pest management, prairie and savanna seeding, hand-pulling, rotary and flail mowing, seed harvesting by hand and with combines, and mechanical and chainsaw removal of invasive species to maintain prairies, savannas and woodlands.  No public hunting is allowed, though some large-scale hunts have been used to manage deer populations in the past. As noted above, there are hiking trails open to the public in parts of the Belwin Conservancy Preserve.

At the Lake Edith site, Belwin Conservancy is restoring a high-quality large oak savanna. Much of the savanna on the north side of the lake and marsh is now complete. An extensive multi-year grant allowed for removal of Invasive woody shrubs and trees followed by reseeding and brush management. In 2012-2013 Belwin will begin restoration on the south side of its property by removing invasive woody shrubs (primarily buckthorn) and trees using a combination of burning and mechanical removal.

Facilities

Belwin does not have formal laboratory space. There is a 5000-sq.ft. education center associated with Belwin Outdoor Science. The facility was created to house the St. Paul Public School program and is not open to the general public. In the off-season (non-academic calendar year) and on weekends the building is used for other Belwin program related activities. Two maintenance garages and two other small buildings may be used for short-term storage and sample processing.

Ongoing Research:

  • Phenology Project – a member of the Minnesota Phenology Network.  1992-1998, then 2010 to present.  Part “citizen science.”
  • Assessing and restoring the understory vegetation – Graduate research project
  • Stream monitoring - Washington County Conservation District
  • Stream monitoring - St Croix Research Station 
  • Effects of tree cover on stream temperature - Macalaster College
  • Characterizing the enteric microbial complement of larval Chironomidae – U of M Dept. of Entomology
  • Hydraulic habitat for the caddisfly of genus Glossosoma, U of M Civil Engineering Dept.
  • Bison and soil biochemistry - St. Catherine’s University
  • Bison grazing preferences and effects on biodiversity – Belwin Conservancy
  • Factors affecting detectability of birds in grasslands – U of M Natural Resources Science and Management Program
  • Important Bird Area breeding bird surveys – Belwin Conservancy volunteers
  • Red-headed woodpeckers surveys – Red-headed woodpecker recovery team
  • Bluebird nesting data – Belwin Conservancy volunteers
  • Weather data - On-site weather station

Data sets in support of research:

  • Weather data
  • GIS layers

Belwin Outdoor Science (BOS)

More than 10,000 St. Paul Public School (SPPS) students visit BOS every year, including every third and fifth grader in the district. Belwin Outdoor Science is integrated into the SPPS science curriculum and lessons are closely aligned to Minnesota state science standards. Additionally, nearly 1,000 secondary students visit Belwin to learn field ecology, water quality, and other environmental topics. 225 acres of Bell Oak Savanna are set aside for BOS activities. Participation by researchers in BOS activities is welcome, and represents an excellent opportunity to meet broader impacts obligations of extramural funding agencies.

Research opportunities

Although Belwin Conservancy welcomes all forms of research that are consistent with its land management objectives, several basic and applied research projects are likely to be of particular interest:

  • Baseline surveys on the flora, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and invertebrates at the Belwin Conservancy preserve.
  • Land use / land cover mapping of the Belwin Conservancy preserve.
  • Biological mapping and monitoring, including images from small-scale pilotless aircraft with ground-truthing, in comparison with other areas of the region. 
  • Temporal changes in vegetation and land use, via overlays of mutually rectified historical aerial photos, in comparison with other areas of the region. 
  • Surveying and monitoring known rare and threatened species populations.
  • Bison and prairie ecology including their foraging behavior, physical and chemical differences in soil properties, and responses in the plant community.
  • Grassland bird surveys, breeding patterns, and responses to bison grazing and prescribed burning.
  • Responses in savanna restoration, coarse woody debris, oak regeneration and age class structure, distribution of plant species along a light gradient, responses in faunal community to buckthorn removal and prescribed burning.
  • Oak woodland bird nesting success and predator behavior, winter bird communities, wildlife radio tracking, foraging patterns in nocturnal and diurnal species.
  • Distribution of wetland communities such as rich fen, sedge meadow and shrub carr and marsh along gradients of moisture and nutrients, patterns in reed canary grass invasion.
  • Algorithmic identification of formerly drained wetlands via LiDAR data, for study and potential restoration. 
  • Restoration and land conservation in the context of climate change; carbon storage and sequestration in prairie, forest, and wetland communities in the Upper Midwest; trade-offs in land management techniques to manage biodiversity and invasive species versus carbon emissions.
  • Local adaptive management experiments to test and improve prairie, savanna, and other ecosystem restoration methods in the region, and compare with other areas.
  • Ecology of invasive plant species and their control, particularly buckthorn, reed canary grass, prickly ash, locust and spotted knapweed.
  • Characteristics of top-of-the-watershed Lake Edith with other lakes in the area, and with other top-of-the-watershed lakes of Minnesota.

Currently there is a formal application process outlined on the Belwin Conservancy website. Relatively low administrative overhead involved in securing permissions, and turnaround time for project approval decision relatively rapid.

The Conservancy currently has no funds earmarked for research grants.