Brandenburg prairie project a first in nation

By Katrina Vander Kooi

Rock County will soon have a natural tall grass prairie area, thanks to the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The 300- to 400-acre tract is located in northwest Rock County in Mound Township and was formerly owned by Bob and Barb Loosbrock.

Randy Creeger, president of the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation, gave Jim Brandenburg the credit for making this happen. "Jim was the visionary behind this driving force," Creeger said.

"The piece of land I had my eye on for awhile," Jim Brandenburg said. "It is a little over a mile from the farm where I was born. I always thought it was a magical place. It's a place you can get lost in."

In many ways the land is similar to the Blue Mounds State Park. It is on a high ridgeline with outcroppings of Sioux quartzite rock. Bison once roamed the area and left rocks rubbed smooth. The area has never been farmed but has been a pasture for cattle to graze.

The area is also very unique because it is the last place that burrowing owls were seen. "People will come from long distances to see them," Brandenburg said.

First piece

This is the first piece of land purchased by the federal government to restore the natural prairie.

"This piece is a partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Brandenburg Foundation," Creeger said.

The Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, a division of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, previously negotiated conservation easements with landowners. Easements give the government the right to use the land, but not ownership. The owner still must pay taxes on the land.

The federal government purchased the land in Rock County so it has the title and will make an annual payment to the county in lieu of taxes.

"This is forever," said Creeger. "It will always be prairie and will last for generations."

Ron Cole, manager of Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, in west central Minnesota, heads the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. Its goal is to restore 77,000 acres of tall grass prairie in Minnesota and Iowa Ñ about 25 percent of the native prairie that remains.

"Prairie that remains is fragmented and disjunct. Protecting some of what remains is important not only to wildlife that depends upon prairie, but the refuge also protects some of our cultural prairie heritage," Cole said.

The Brandenburg Prairie Foundation, along with other individuals from the Rock County area, went to Cole asking for him to look at the proposed site.

Cole said he was impressed with the community's determination to restore the prairie.

"I have been doing this for three years, and I have never had a community come to us," Cole said. "That is a very special thing. I hope other communities will follow the example. It's a real economic benefit for the community."

Future prairie

At present, the site is much like Blue Mounds State Park was when it was expanded in the 1970s. The grass was nibbled down to the soil, and native animals and plants were nowhere to be found. After three to five years, the state park land was restored to the way it had been when the settlers came.

"The plan is to restore the new tract by giving it years of rest and prescribed burning," Cole said.

According to Cole, the plant seeds are dormant in the soil and need prescribed burning for them to thrive.

Brandenburg is working on a new book. "I say it's new, but I've been working on it for 30 years," Brandenburg said. It will include pictures shot at the Blue Mounds, and the final chapter will be devoted to the prairie just purchased. "I will follow the re-establishing of the prairie," Brandenburg said.

Brandenburg also announced a documentary that may be shot at the new prairie site. "It will be a documentary showing the progress from a pasture to a very healthy prairie," Brandenburg said. The plans are almost set for the show.

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