What is an Oak Savanna? ~~ Why is it so important that we protect and restore them?
Oaks savannas are characterized by large, open-grown oaks interspersed with prairie grasses and wildflowers: a few trees in an otherwise prairie-like system, but not so many trees that it becomes a woodland. Oak savannas maintained this open character through a mix of grazing by large ungulates such as bison and through fire, both natural-caused and human-mediated. Oak savannas once dominated much of Minnesota, but the ease of clearing them, coupled with their rich, fertile soils, meant that much of the land was cleared for settlement and agriculture as Europeans colonized the state. Today, 99.9% of Minnesota’s historic oak savanna habitat has been eliminated. Only scarce fragments remain.
Besides being one of the state’s rarest ecosystems, there are a host of other reasons why protecting and restoring oak savannas is such an important undertaking. Not only are oak savannas imperiled, but so are many of the species that depend on oak savannas. Red headed woodpeckers, for example, are dependent on oak savannas for nesting, preferring cavities in large, old, open-grown oaks. Savanna grasses and wildflowers also provide important habitat for ground-nesting birds like savanna sparrows, and for pollinators such as the federally endangered Rusty Patched bumblebee. With continued declines in both grassland bird and pollinator populations, oaks savanna habitat is badly needed to reverse these trends.
Savannas also provide a host of other ecosystem services like water quality benefits, carbon sequestration, and climate resiliency. The deep-rooted grasses and wildflowers of a savanna filter and retain water, and create healthy soils as they die and re-grow. Deep-rooted savanna species also hold soil in place, preventing nutrient leaching and sedimentation into our waterways. Savannas also store a surprising amount of carbon – mostly underground in root masses – reducing climate change impacts. And because of their diversity, savannas are resilient systems, able to withstand various climate conditions.
The former BTT property contains roughly 70 acres of degraded oak savanna habitat. While challenged by invasive species and tree disease issues, the savanna still retains its historical structure and has strong restoration potential. It’s rare that an oaks savanna property of this size exists, let alone in the metro area. The opportunity to protect and restore this property should not be overlooked.
How to fund restoration projects
One common question about preserving the natural areas at BTT is how the County would pay for the restoration and maintenance. Fortunately, partners can help make this work possible at little cost to the county. Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) and other non-profits are uniquely positioned to assist the County in planning, funding, and executing projects like these.
FMR does not have to be the entity that leads this restoration process, but is just one example of the type of partner that could assist the County in making this a reality. FMR currently manages over 30 active restoration projects, and works with partners such as cities, counties, and state agencies to accomplish our shared habitat protection and restoration goals.
As an example of how a partnership could work, FMR and the County could co-fund a natural resource management plan to guide future restoration of the property. Once a plan is in place, FMR can then apply to state funding sources to pay for the restoration – sources like Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (LCCMR) or the Outdoor Heritage Fund (LSOHF). These grants cover restoration and maintenance costs, usually for 3-4 years.
At BTT, a general cost-per-acre estimate to restore and maintain these acres for that initial period might be $5-6,000/acre, or $350,000-$420,000 for the entire site. FMR has successfully secured annual Outdoor Heritage Fund grants of this size for ten years, so this project cost is very attainable. And as a place-based organization, FMR would stay involved for as long as the County wanted to oversee monitoring and maintenance of the restored acres, including bringing subsequent grant funding to cover additional maintenance.
Through a partnership like this, the financial burden to the County would be minimal, and might only include a modest contribution for creation of a management plan (which could also be funded through state grant sources), match dollars for grants, and/or in-kind project assistance.
More about Oak Savanna from MNopedia.