Local family’s farm is now a prairie preserve

It was a family celebration at the dedication of the new preserve. Left to right: Rich Thomasgard, Ingrid Koester, Paula Thomasgard and Todd, Kate, Nancy, Maren, Craig, Scott, Bjorn, Austin, Stephanie and Matthew Koester. (Photo courtesy of the Trust for Public Land)

His family’s farm in Rice County, southeast of Northfield, Minn., was a wonderful place to grow up, recalled Craig Koester.

“There was a lot of hand labor, of course, but my siblings and I had room to roam and lots of places to explore. It was a privilege to have access to all that open space,” said Koester, Como resident and academic dean at Luther Seminary in St. Anthony Park.

Now many others will have that same privilege.

Recently the former Koester farm was dedicated as the new Prairie Creek Wildlife Management Area, managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“Such a large patch of grassland presents a unique conservation opportunity; not many survive,” said Jeanine Vorland, an area wildlife manager at the DNR’s Owatonna office.

She was referring to the site’s 133 acres of native prairie, a precious remnant of the land that covered much of southern Minnesota before settlers put hand to plow. In addition, there are 115 acres that haven’t been cultivated in a century and a dry hill oak savanna, another endangered ecosystem.

The main activity at the Koester farm was raising beef cattle, a practice suited to the hilly, rocky nature of the land. “My father had a sense of harmony about how the cattle thrived in the open environment,” Koester recalled. “He’d also talk about the wildlife he’d see—deer, for instance—and hearing meadowlarks sing.

“Both of our parents placed a high value on preserving the land, but it was kind of a puzzle to them as to what the future held,” he continued. “Feedlots for cattle were becoming more common and grazing less so. They didn’t see a clear, sustainable way forward for the farm.”

And after the parents’ passing, their children couldn’t either, at least at first. None of them, as Koester put it, “were cut out for agribusiness.”

A contact at Carleton College in Northfield put the Koesters in touch with a representative of the DNR’s Native Prairie Bank. Plant and wildlife surveys were conducted on the site, and in 2011 the original prairie tract was placed in a Native Prairie Bank easement.

Then, with money from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land bought the 460-acre property from the Koester family and transferred ownership to the State of Minnesota.

Wildlife management areas are established to conserve wildlife and natural habitat. There are no amenities such as interpretive centers or toilets and no maintained trails.

“Dispersed forms” of recreating—hiking, bird watching, hunting—are permitted, Vorland said. “At Prairie Creek, you can hike around and get a feel for how expansive the prairie and grasslands of this region once were.”

During a recent visit, strong breezes whipped the prairie’s grasses, bobolinks chased each other across the expanse, monarch butterflies fluttered from flower to flower and a white-tailed fawn peered cautiously out of its hiding place.

“The Koester family did quite a bit of prairie and grassland restoration work themselves—cutting brush, removing exotic and invasive plants—and we’ll continue that,” said Vorland. “We’ll also be establishing the boundaries with signage this summer and developing a parking area. There’s also some reforestation work to be done on the approximately 50 wooded acres.”

Why was it important to Koester to preserve the land?

“Growing up, this part of the natural world provided us with a sense of discovery and spiritual renewal,” he said. “We were able to thrive there because of the care that previous generations had given the land. We can provide the same type of opportunity for generations to come, a gift they would otherwise not have.”

Learn more                                                   

To learn more about the Prairie Creek Wildlife Management Area, go to https://sites.google.com/site/friendsofprairiecreekwma/

To find out more about the work of the Trust for Public Land, visit https://www.tpl.org/our-work

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