Over the past few summers, residents of Nicollet Island might have noticed the river is getting easier to see. Dense foliage that once choked the edges of the island is steadily disappearing thanks to the diligent efforts of the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi (FMR).
To the untrained eye, grass and bushes might just seem like grass and bushes, but much of the vegetation on the island was actually invasive; according to ecologist Alex Roth, buckthorn and garlic mustard have been the worst offenders. Some islanders approached Roth during the initial removals, upset that so much greenery was being ripped up, but Roth explained that ultimately this will be good for the island’s environment, and the four-year plan to rehabilitate its natural prairie vegetation will be worth the effort.
FMR is in year three of the program, and things are starting to fall into place. The intensity of the work has decreased; big projects are finishing up; all that’s left is general maintenance and a few patch-up jobs to help the island heal. The next objective is to fight soil erosion along the riverbanks. Buckthorn spreads fast, and kills off native plants whose roots normally hold the soil together. Now that the buckthorn has been taken out, local flora can regrow, but in the meantime there’s very little holding the riverbanks together, so contractors are installing terraces and retaining walls.
Grassland restoration maintenance is getting underway as the weather gets warmer. Last summer, volunteers led by Roth planted raised flower beds along walking trails on the eastern side of Nicollet Island in an area where native prairie grasses had been sown the year before. This is the second spring the natural field has seen, and the first for the curated flower beds. Throughout the summer, volunteers will continue to oversee progress on the habitat, but for the most part, they’ll let the prairie take care of itself.
“We’re now letting nature do its work,” said Roth. We’re letting things jockey for dominance…but we’re helping it along by removing a few of the weedy species to keep them from getting into the prairie.”
Soil erosion work is handled by contractors, but the prairie maintenance is a part of FMR’s volunteer program. Most of what needs to be done this year is replanting anything that didn’t survive the winter, and removing stubborn weeds like garlic mustard to keep the desirable plants from getting choked out.
“You’ll never have a 100% success rate,” said Roth. “We’ve had squirrels digging out plugs, and we’ve had people digging out plugs too, which is frustrating.” He hopes the raised flower beds educate people about native plants and their importance to the ecosystem.
Normally, May and June are FMR’s busiest volunteer program months, but COVID-19 has quashed many of the nonprofit’s events. Governor Walz’s stay at home order and the general advisory for social distancing made it hard for FMR to justify bringing large groups of people together to work in close proximity on field maintenance. Additionally, they had to work around the safety requirements of their contractors and partners, so several projects fell through the cracks. Overall, FMR has 32 active restoration sites, three in Minneapolis, and balancing all of them has proven tough.
As the state reopens, some events will go forward as planned, but in a reduced capacity for safety’s sake. The next volunteer opportunity will be a planting event on June 11 from 6 to 8 p.m., and will focus on bringing some fresh vegetation back to the flower beds along the island’s hiking paths. Rather than hosting 30 people, only 10 will be allowed to sign up. All registrations will be handled online, and tool sharing will be limited (usually there’s a community pile everyone can use, but now each volunteer will be assigned their own tools, which will be sanitized after use). For more information on upcoming volunteer opportunities, visit fmr.org/volunteer.
Below: Native flowers and grasses are growing in designated spaces across Nicollet Island, and samples like the Prairie Smoke flowers seen here are isolated in planter boxes along walking paths to help the public identify them. A contractor from Native Resource Preservation drove stakes into the hillside overlooking the river on the west end of Nicollet Island. The stakes are to support some of the retaining structures being put in to stop soil erosion after the removal of invasive buckthorn bushes. (Photos by Alex Schlee)