Nature’s tiny gems set in Twin Cities
It was a quiet, sunny morning at Wolsfeld Woods in Medina last week, about 20 minutes west of Minneapolis. ¶ Quiet except for a pileated woodpecker drumming on a wooded hillside, the whirring of crickets and tree frogs in a small wetland and the guttural exchange of two elegant white swans cruising across Wolsfeld Lake.
Let's try again: It was a peaceful morning in Wolsfeld Woods. The jack-in-the-pulpits were just pushing up beside tiny purple and white violets that grace a stretch of a sloping trail in the spring before critical sunlight is blocked by leaves in the 100-foot-tall canopy above.
Maybe you haven't heard of this rolling, 220-acre remnant of the Big Woods forest that once stretched from St. Cloud to Mankato. Wolsfeld and its 200-year-old red oaks and sugar maples are below the radar of even longtime outdoor enthusiasts.
The virgin hardwood forest is one of 155 Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) in Minnesota, 17 of which are tucked into undisturbed corners of the seven-county metro area. Wolsfeld is one of the few with trails and a parking lot, borrowed from adjoining Trinity Lutheran Church on County Road 6 at Brown Road. No SNAs have buildings, but all harbor rare plants and animals and offer scenic bluff views of waterways, woodlands, restored prairies, spring wildflowers and brilliant fall foliage.
The low-profile gems are managed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which recently decided to call attention to them to attract more visitors. In January, the DNR assigned Kelly Randall to publicize the program and improve its website.
The main focus is letting people "know these sites are available. You can visit them. They are not all locked up. You can see what Minnesota's natural history is and has been," Randall said. "They are not like a park. They are typically not places with trails, bathrooms or facilities. They are preserved for the natural features found on them."
The DNR has received state Natural Resources Trust funds to publicize the wild and scenic areas, hold informative events and recruit volunteers willing to check on them occasionally, said Peggy Booth, supervisor of the program. She estimated the state has spent about $22 million to buy about 6,000 acres for natural areas around the state since 2000. The program started in 1969. The state's largest SNA is the Red Lake Peatland with 82,783 acres in the northeast corner of Beltrami County.
The DNR wants to "communicate that these are places to look at and understand nature, not to hurt nature in any way," she said. "If we see signs of damage or overuse, we will address that. But I think people are very respectful of wild places."
Two women, one armed with a camera, watched the regal swans on Wolsfeld Lake on a recent morning. It was the women's first visit, said Kit Ferber, of Anoka. They came for the wildflowers and saw lots of slender jack-in-the-pulpits and purple and yellow violets, she said.
"This is beautiful," added Cindy Wetzell, of Minneapolis, looking across the lake. "To have an oasis like this 20 minutes from downtown is remarkable."