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Nonprofit looks to expand land restoration work in southern Minnesota
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The snow has melted, and soon greenery will pop up and rivers will flow, welcoming an array of wildlife back to the area. Southern Minnesotans can do their part in ensuring habitat is available for flora and fauna.

Great River Greening is looking for volunteer supervisors to lead groups of five to 20 volunteers through ecological restoration events held in the region. Activities such as planting native flowers, trees and shrubs, as well as removing invasive plants, will help restore the land.

“The supervisors like the connection that they get with the volunteers a lot,” said Amy Kilgore, GRG outreach program manager. “There’s always something super rewarding about teaching and seeing people learn, and inspiring them in that way.”

GRG is a nonprofit organization that hosts community-based restoration projects on-site from the headwaters of the Mississippi River through the Anoka Sand Plain to the Twin Cities metro and down into southern Minnesota. The organization holds large scale habitat restoration events on public lands and natural areas, relying mostly on volunteers to get the work done. In a typical season, GRG hosts six to eight volunteer events both in the spring and in the fall, totaling around 18 to 20 events in a year.

Pre-pandemic restoration events could see anywhere between 100 to 200 participants, but have since been scaled back, with an event participation cap around 30 and designating volunteers into staggered shifts.

Activities include planting native plugs to enhance biodiversity and creating healthy habitats, as well as removing invasive species like Buckthorn.

“That’s usually the first step, to get these invasive out and then we can come back in and do habitat maintenance or enhancement with native plants,” Kilgore said.

Volunteers participate in a seeding event at the Big Woods Heritage Forest Wildlife Management Area in Lonsdale. Great River Greening is currently looking for volunteer supervisors. “Supervisors are passionate about the outdoors and the environment and they share that passion with other volunteers and the general community,” said Amy Kilgore, GRG outreach program manager. (Photo courtesy of Manu June Photography)

Those interested in becoming in a volunteer supervisor position are asked to attend spring training from 10 a.m. to noon, March 20 via Zoom. During the training, prospective supervisors will learn more about GRG’s background, mission and different leadership skills, while focusing on teachable moments to engage small groups of volunteers during the event. Scientific and natural resources knowledge is beneficial, but not necessary, according to Kilgore.

Those interested in continuing the volunteer supervisor process will then be invited to participate in field day training from 10 a.m. to noon, March 27. Participants will be seeding at Sunktokeca Creek Wildlife Management Area located northwest of Faribault or Dora Lake WMA west of Faribault.

“It’s gonna be a field day for those newly trained supervisors to kind of connect in person with one another and with Great River Greening staff, just to get a little more of a hands-on feel for what we’re doing and get additional background to the work that we are doing in southern Minnesota,” Kilgore said.

Kilgore hopes supervisors sign up to attend at least one event per season to keep them engaged with restoration work and occasionally retrain. Prior to the events, volunteer supervisors will get additional information about the specific restoration activity and should plan to arrive early to go over last-minute details with GRG staff. The supervisor will help divide volunteers into smaller units to work on specific tasks. Kilgore wants supervisors to feel confident and supported in their work, so that confidence can be translated to community volunteers.

“Becoming a supervisor is a really great way to connect with other supervisors, volunteers and a great way to connect with the natural area in your community,” Kilgore said. “Some of these spots, especially in southern Minnesota, that we are working on are lesser known, they are not big regional parks, a lot of them are wildlife management areas.”

Even if southern Minnesota residents aren’t interested in taking on a leadership role, they can participate as community volunteers. Event volunteers will divide into staggered shifts to allow for greater social distancing and are required to wear face coverings.

In April, GRG will host a tree planting event at Big Woods Heritage Forest WMA near Lonsdale, with plans to plant 3,500 trees, Kilgore said. GRG has been working on the site for a couple of years, according to Kilgore. Volunteers are working to restore the land to its original pasture state prior to the land being cleared for agriculture. A team of volunteers helped seed the WMA last fall.

“It’s going to look really different eventually,” Kilgore said.

A volunteer works at a seeding event at Big Woods Heritage Forest Wildlife Management Area in Lonsdale. (Photo courtesy of Manu June Photography)

Kilgore hopes GRG events expose people to green spaces and build a sense of responsibility to the environment. Volunteers will be making a difference, Kilgore said, highlighting that volunteers who return will be able to see the environmental benefits of their work from previous events.

Today GRG is looking to build a network of volunteers and partners further into southern Minnesota. Kilgore anticipates as the organization grows, and the pandemic subsides, that the organization will offer opportunities in other areas of southern Minnesota, including the Minneopa State Park, Seven Mile Creek area and other lesser known areas in southern Minnesota.

“We’re really kind of building that network of work down in southern Minnesota now,” Kilgore said. “Our goal is to connect with local community members, so we try to do targeted outreach and networking through partners like the Cannon River Watershed folks, to schools, to colleges and corporations, things like that to try to get as many people engaged.”

Bridgewater wants to negotiate proposed Dundas annexation
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Thirty-four new single family homes could soon be coming to Dundas as part of the Bridgewater Heights expansion project — but it’s likely to come at a cost for the city.

The third part of the four phase project was reviewed by the Dundas Planning Commission at its meeting last month, with final platting expected to be approved next month. The discussion was triggered in part by the move from townhomes to single family homes.

Planning Commissioner Member and Councilor Luke LaCroix said that the shift makes sense, as demand for single-family homes locally is currently significantly more than for townhomes. With prices in the $300,000 to $350,000 range, they will cater to a more upmarket crowd.

But the project will require the annexation of two plats currently in Bridgewater Township. At Wednesday night’s meeting, the Bridgewater Township Board of Supervisors agreed to send a letter to the Planning Commission contesting the annexation.

Both plats are located in an area designated as part of the Annexation Reserve District in the current Dundas-Bridgewater annexation agreement. Though recently modified, the overall agreement was approved back in 2004 and will last until 2034.

Planning Commissioner Bruce Morlan, one of three Planning Commissioner members from the Bridgewater Township side, noted that under the annexation agreement, that Bridgewater would receive compensation from a portion of the tax revenues generated by the expansion.

Another provision allows Bridgewater to contest the annexation if Dundas hasn’t yet developed already annexed land. That’s part of Bridgewater’s concern — but the broader goal is mainly to trigger the start of formal negotiations.

Bridgewater Township Board Chair Glen Castore said that he hopes to see a swift negotiation, in line with the terms set out in the annexation agreement. He expressed support for the overall project, but said the main objective is to ensure that Bridgewater gets a fair shake.

“Broadly speaking, it’s a good thing for the whole area,” he said. “This is why we make land available under the annexation agreement.”

If approved by the Planning Commission, development of the third phase of Bridgewater Heights is expected to take place starting in May. A fourth and final phase of development is expected to take place subsequently.

Passenger rail advocates push to study line through southern Minn.
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Local passenger rail advocates are once again asking Minnesota’s legislature to fund a feasibility study that could help connect the Twin Cities to Rochester and beyond using existing infrastructure, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to win over the long skeptical Minnesota Senate.

Under legislation introduced last month by Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, $500,000 in state dollars would be pay to study a proposed passenger rail corridor from the metro to Albert Lea. The bill would also study an east-west auxiliary line that could run from Winona to Mankato. Connecting in Owatonna, this additional route would provide easy access from Rice and Steele counties to the Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center in Rochester.

It’s the first time Lippert has introduced this bill, but discussion about bringing passenger rail to the region has been ongoing for some time. Last session, legislation was carried by Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount, to study the Northfield corridor route.

Northfield City Councilor Suzie Nakasian has been a tireless champion of passenger rail, founding the Minnesota Regional Passenger Railroad Initiative to lobby legislators as well as the Minnesota Department of Transportation. MRPRI is an all-volunteer organization, but it makes up for its limited financial resources with grassroots energy. With backing from seniors, students, commuters and more than 40 cities, it pushed the Northfield corridor route to the top of MnDOT’s statewide rail plan in 2015.

The Northfield corridor route is something of a successor to the long dormant Dan Patch Line. The product of entrepreneur Marion Willis Savage, the passenger rail route connected Minneapolis with Northfield more than a century ago. The Dan Patch line was named after Savage’s famous racehorse, Dan Patch. The initial route connected Minneapolis to Savage’s farm and then to Antlers Park, an amusement park on the shores of Lake Marion.

The venture was reasonably successful, providing Savage with the cash needed to extend the line to Northfield. However, the line found itself increasingly struggling with debt from failed expansion projects and entered into bankruptcy after Savage’s death.

Passenger rail survived until 1942 with limited ridership, but the route has since been used for freight rail only and is now owned by Union Pacific. Efforts to resuscitate the route were made some 50 years later, and it was identified as a priority in the 2000 statewide rail plan. The plan garnered strong opposition from west Twin Cities metro communities, and in 2002 the state passed a “gag rule” preventing further discussion of the Dan Patch Line. Instead of running through the west metro, the proposal backed by Nakasian would run through the east.

Nakasian said the project was launched out of a frustration with the lack of mass transit in the region.

With Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna continuing to grow, she said that local roadways will grow increasingly clogged unless transit is added.

“How will we accommodate additional traffic expansion?” she asked “As you go north on I-35 into the south metro, we’ve built the interstate as thick as it can go … travel demands require that we have another form of transportation.”

In addition to clogging roadways, Nakasian said that the lack of mass transit is extremely inconvenient for many, including young people, seniors and lower-income residents. By adding passenger rail, she says the region could significantly broaden its appeal.

“It’s well attested that our young people, international businesses are looking for cities where you don’t have a car,” she said.

Founded on the rail line

Another potential benefit to adding mass transit is that it could significantly reduce emissions. While the state has managed to make its electrical supply much greener over the last decade, emissions from transportation have remained stubbornly high.

Most of all, Nakasian said the route would provide particularly strong value by utilizing existing rail infrastructure. In Northfield for example, the city’s historic depot could easily be utilized once again to accommodate passenger rail riders.

“When you think of rail, you may think of high-speed rail, and it’s fancy and urban, but the cities of southern Minnesota were founded on the rail line,” she said.

The route could be particularly beneficial for Northfield because according to Nakasian, roughly 60% of the city’s residents commute to Hennepin or Ramsey Counties. Lippert said he’s heard from many constituents who say passenger rail would make that commute much easier.

Northfield’s City Council is expected to discuss authoring a letter of support at its Tuesday night Council meeting, and Rice County could be soon to follow. Faribault’s City Council has expressed support for the project in the past, and Mayor Kevin Voracek said he thinks the plan makes sense.

“Any time you can get more efficient means of transportation, it’s great,” he said. “You can only fit so many people on a road.”

Rice County Commissioner Galen Malecha said he hopes the project will be part of what he sees as a long overdue rethink of transportation priorities in Minnesota, with an eye to reducing both costs and pollution.

“As we go into the future we will see more demand for rail,” he said. “Unfortunately, Minnesota is behind on the rail system compared to many other states.”

While several other rail lines have been proposed across the state, Lippert said the Northfield corridor route is among the most promising. That’s because with investment from Iowa and other states along the way, it could follow the I-35 corridor all the way down to Texas.

Nakasian has been in contact with leaders on other portions of the route and is optimistic that now could be a time to secure federal funding, with President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg promising to increase rail funding.

The project has support in Congress as well, with Nakasian citing newly elected Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper as a longtime backer. Coloradans could benefit from the new line because it would enable them to travel north or south without having to go through Chicago. At the federal level, backers like Hickenlooper will have outsized influence due to the extremely narrow Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. In Minnesota, a similarly small Republican Senate majority could doom the proposal’s prospects.

Republicans have traditionally opposed rail and other mass transit projects, seeing them as primarily benefiting the metro at the expense of rural areas. However, the investment in the existing rail line could be much more efficient than building new high-speed rail lines.

Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, didn’t rule out supporting funding for the rail study but indicated that the project would need the support of Canadian Pacific Railway to get his support — and expressed concern that it could make a backlog of freight shipments on the rail line worse.

Nakasian expressed confidence that an arrangement could be worked out to bring the railroad on board. With proper investment, she believes that the railroad could both add passenger rail and move freight more quickly and efficiently than it does now.

“This is the nation’s artery system, these are its capillaries,” she said. “If we put money into it to make it run better for people, and invest it correctly, I think we could get freight rail trains to go faster as well.”