WATERVILLE — When Molly Tranel Nelson was watching crews cut down large trees, buckthorn and other shrubs from an area of Sakatah State Park last winter, an elderly man stopped by to talk.
"He said he remembered when his father grazed cattle on the land before it was a park. So you know it was all prairie," said Nelson, Department of Natural Resources regional resources specialist for parks and trails.
Getting the land back to prairie was the goal of a major project that only came about because of large grants that aimed to tie habitat restoration with bioenergy.
Over the years the prairie had been invaded by trees due to a lack of natural fires that kept prairies open in the past. "A lot of it was invasive species, Amur maple, box elder, buckthorn, honeysuckle — just a lot of invasive trees that don't provide good habitat."
Restoring the 45 acre site was long a goal of the park, but funding for a major project was elusive. But the DNR was able to get $58,000 in funding from a program aimed at restoring habitat while using the woody materials removed to expand the market for biomass. Trees and brush that were removed from the site were picked up by District Energy, a St. Paul company that burns biomass to convert to electricity.
"They took 44 semi loads so far and there's another 30 loads sitting there waiting for (highway) load restrictions to be lifted," Nelson said.
When such prairie restorations have been done in the past, the brush and trees were usually burned on site. That's partly because few people wanted the wood and partly because of the invasive species being removed.
"With things like buckthorn, you don't want to transport it and dump it somewhere else because it's invasive and you just spread it," Nelson said. "And you hate to just burn it and not get a benefit from it."