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The state of Minnesota has purchased and set aside more than 200 acres of land in Red Wing as conservationists race to protect increasingly rare natural lands in the south­eastern corner of the state.

The land, which surrounds the Cannon River, will be open to the public and added to a science and natural areas reserve managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). It runs through a geologically special part of the state where small surviving pockets of untouched prairies, which have been all but wiped out in Minnesota, meet some of the last standing remnants of the ancient old-growth forests that once dominated the bluffs near the Mississippi River.

“There are not many places left where in just a 45-minute drive from the Twin Cities you can find a real wild and natural experience like this,” said DJ Forbes, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that has been leading restoration efforts in the area for more than 10 years.

The entire Cannon River watershed, which includes more than 800 miles of streams and rivers, has been largely impaired over the last two decades as much of the shoreline, old-growth woods and grasslands have been developed or turned into corn and soybean fields.

Less than 20% of the area’s forests, wetlands and grasslands are left, according to the Trust for Public Land.

The Trust bought the 205 acres for $580,000, paid for primarily with money from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund. The land has already been conveyed to the DNR. Over the past 12 years, the state and the Trust have permanently preserved more than 2,000 acres along the Cannon River.

The newest addition includes a calcareous fen, an extremely rare wetland formed when the glaciers melted where groundwater swells out of the surface. The DNR believes there are just 200 of those fens left in the state, making them home to some of the most endangered plant species in Minnesota.

High above the wetland and the river, the preserve also includes small parcels of Minnesota’s last surviving “goat prairies,” native tallgrass prairies that once covered the steep hills and bluffs of the Driftless Area in southeastern Minnesota.

Preserving native prairies has become increasingly important throughout much of the Midwest as ecologists are learning just how hard it is to restore the soil under complex grasslands. Efforts to restore prairies by bringing in grass seeds from hundreds of miles away or across state lines have largely failed. Minnesota’s prairie restoration efforts now depend on using native seeds from the closest pockets of surviving prairie, which makes goat prairies near the Mississippi particularly valuable.

“This area is just an absolutely unique part of the state,” Forbes said.

He said the Trust will continue working with its partners and private landowners to preserve parcels as they become available.

“The need is still high and there’s an incredible amount of demand right now for land like this, so we’ll keep working and analyzing properties as they come,” he said.

Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882