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BYRON, Minn. – The fields along the Zumbro River near Byron may not look like much at the moment. Naturalists are still clearing agricultural acreage while the Department of Natural Resources is set to plant more than 40 acres of native grasses this summer.

But the future of the Moon Valley Wildlife Management Area is bright — more than 400 acres of preserved wildland is accessible only 15 minutes from downtown Rochester.

The DNR is ready to accept hikers, hunters and explorers of all kinds at Moon Valley after years of work to secure the largest expanse of preserved land in Olmsted County, as well as one of the largest wildlife areas in southeast Minnesota.

"Finding something this large this close to Rochester is a rare opportunity," said David Ruff of the Nature Conservancy, which helped buy the land and donate it to the DNR. "In some places you might look at a property and try to come to terms with landowners; if it doesn't work out you think, well, maybe it'll come up again in 10 years. Here, 20 years from now, if we didn't protect it, it's probably going to be several houses."

Moon Valley's name comes from the Moon family, who has owned the former farm for almost a century since Leonard Moon bought land there in the 1930s.

The farmstead grew to more than 700 acres under Leonard's son Bruce, but the family decided it was time to sell once Bruce died in 2020. A majority of the remaining relatives decided to sell about 420 acres to naturalists.

"It's a big chunk of land, not a lot of people can afford it," said Jennifer Busch, the real estate agent who helped sell the property. "I did think this would be a very good spot for what (they) wanted to do."

The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Trust for Public Land to buy the property for about $2.7 million in late 2022. It was turned over to the DNR last fall.

Linda Moon, Bruce's younger sister, said the family turned down a much higher offer from someone else in part because they felt strongly about preserving the land for their children, grandchildren and others.

"This was our way of making sure that the property remained pristine," Linda said. "It's a wonderful thing."

The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land will help oversee the land as part of the state's Southeast Minnesota Protection and Conservation Program, a decadelong effort to preserve wildlife in one of the state's most ecologically diverse regions.

The groups have since worked to spruce up the land. About 180 acres is woodland, wildflowers and bubbly springs seeping up through the ground as they make their way to the Zumbro River. Another 200 acres is cropland, most of which will become prairie over the next three years. Naturalists say more than 70 plant species will be introduced in that time, and the first prescribed burn will take place in three to five years.

Moon Valley will also allow hunting for deer, turkey and pheasants among other game. Minnesota has more than 1,700 wildlife management areas, many of which offer hunting.

It's an extraordinary opportunity to preserve area habitats, Ruff said. Moon Valley doesn't have much buckthorn or other invasive weeds, but it does have a larger-than-average number of plants normally found elsewhere — think wetland flowers on the hillside or wooded brush near the river — because of the region's unique geography at the edge of the Driftless Area's bluff country.

"Restoring it to native habitats, getting more of that infiltration, stabilizing things, it's going to be very beneficial not only for wildlife but the area's water quality," said Brandon Schad of the DNR.

The real draw over the next few years will be watching everything grow. The prairie will change every few weeks along with the seasons, offering residents the opportunity to see the land reclaimed.

"You'll just see a whole different shift and change in the area as it comes in," Ruff said.