With trees downed by a tornado that raced through the area and invasive buckthorn choking out native species, the Cannon River Wilderness Park may be the most obvious example of a Rice County park needing some TLC. But Matthew Verdick isn’t about to stop there.

Last month, the county’s parks and facilities director primed the pump if you will, bringing a group of natural resources and environmental policy students from the University of Minnesota before the Board of Commissioners to discuss the 850-acre natural park, which features miles of walking and horseback riding trails, several miles of the wild and scenic Cannon River and a canoe launch, and implore the board to give it the attention they believe it deserves.

Verdick, who took the Rice County job last year, plans to ask commissioners to increase the parks budget in 2022.

“We have the assets,” Verdick said late last month. “What we have is amazing.”

The problem: Rice County’s parks haven’t been properly tended.

Verdick hopes the board will soon approve a parks study, an in-depth look at the county’s existing parks, and options for modifying and maintaining them going forward. A study, when complete, will allow the county to qualify for grants that can help implement the completed plan.

It’s not as if the wilderness park has been left untouched. But it’s a massive job. Dozens of volunteers, including County Commissioner David Miller, worked to cut and remove many of the wilderness park trees felled by the 2018 tornado. But despite their work, an untold number remain.

That timber is a fire hazard, says Verdick.

“We have to make sure we maintain them,” said Miller, who snowshoed in the wilderness park as a youngster, of the parks.

Verdick’s been in contact with the Nature Conservancy, which holds the deed to the wilderness park. And though the deed requires the park remain in a natural state, Conservancy officials told Verdick that “doing nothing doesn’t equal leaving it in its natural state.”

“You’re actually changing the natural state by doing nothing,” he said.

The U students, in their report to commissioners, recommended the county budget for buckthorn removal annually, and explained that shrub, often with bright green, glossy leaves, “drastically alters forest ecosystems by reducing soil nitrogen and outcompeting other native understory plants.” They noted that buckthorn, which can grown up to 20 feet tall, can survive in all types of climate, moisture and nutrient conditions, making it incredibly difficult to eliminate.

Buckthorn threatens dogwoods, honeysuckle, tree saplings and wildflowers. The disappearance of these species, the report said, would drastically change the ecology of the area. And, it added, without intervention, buckthorn could take over the park.

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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