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The Red River Valley is a special natural place

One afternoon many years ago, a University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, professor of mine asked me what my thoughts were on people's notions about their sense of home. He postulated that if more areas surrounding our communities were restored to...

One afternoon many years ago, a University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, professor of mine asked me what my thoughts were on people’s notions about their sense of home. He postulated that if more areas surrounding our communities were restored to prairie grasslands, would this help to keep more people here?

Moreover, he added, “Would natural areas - places for people to freely roam and experience the prairie - keep some people from leaving and thus, provide a deeper sense of home, of place, for those living and visiting here?”

I agreed with him that, yes, more natural areas should help instill a sense of place, because, “...it’s what drew people here in the first place”.

The Red River valley is a special place. However, I must admit, I often wish there were more natural areas, more places where we can visit and experience historical landscapes and their associated native floral and faunal inhabitants. After all, early settlers documented in their journals and letters, “. . . of lands rich in wildlife and lush with grasses and prairie flowers.”

It’s easy to imagine pioneer families calling the Valley “home.” But soon after, wheat replaced prairie grasses and much of the wildlife within it. And today, the business of agriculture has all but replaced the expansive prairie and its natural diversity that so awed those pioneers of long ago. Furthermore, since this great basin, a basin that once contained the largest lake in the world - Lake Agassiz - annually provides everyone with bountiful harvests and economic gain, conserving and preserving some natural features is only right.    

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Thankfully, more and more people are recognizing the value of our natural heritage and evidence of this is happening right here in the northern Red River Valley.   From the book “Valley of Grass” a printed map reveals a host of eco-tourism destinations in the Red River region. Thousands of acres of preserves, state wildlife management areas, grasslands, and other natural areas dot this map.

That withstanding, there are glaring gaps where few natural areas can be found, especially in the Grand Forks area.  However, changes in the landscape - along with people’s points of views - are occurring. The authors write, “...a tourism circuit is developing along a route that extends from southern Manitoba ...and into southeastern North Dakota.” And to illustrate just how communities are responding to eco-tourism, Pembina, North Dakota (north of Grand Forks near the U.S./Canadian border), has a $2.2 million museum where visitors and residents alike can experience prairie grasslands, wetlands, wildlife, including other interpretive centers and museums, along this swath through the Red River region.

And it doesn’t stop there. The “Pine to Prairie Birding Trail”, Minnesota’s first birding trail, links dozens of natural areas and communities from Warroad to Fergus Falls where wildlife viewing, especially for birds, along highways 11, 32, and 59, can be fully enjoyed and appreciated. This trail’s establishment was the result of many agencies, organizations, communities, and local people that, together, designed a route that’s complete with signage and colorful brochures to help motorists and birders become acquainted with the region’s landscape and wildlife.

The Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, east of Crookston, has added nearly 38,000 acres of contiguous restored tallgrass prairies and wetlands to the landscape, not to mention tens of thousands of acres of scattered state wildlife management areas, federal waterfowl production areas and national wildlife refuges spread across the landscape from Traverse County to Kittson County.

Additionally, the 2,200-acre “Greenway” along both sides of the Red River in East Grand Forks and Grand Forks preserves and conserves the natural beauty of the Red River of the North by providing abundant recreational opportunities. As written on the Greenway website, the area “... features several parks, a campground, two golf courses, three disc golf courses, over 20 miles of multi-purpose trails, shore bank fishing sites, and so much more!”  Places like the Greenway and others have linked communities up and down the valley to important natural heritage elements and has created a sense of place for everyone.

Indeed, while more can be done to preserve and conserve throughout the valley, our local farmlands today are intermixed with prairie in a union of bounty and diversity. Portions of the valley is benefitting from restored wetlands and water impoundment projects that act to retain, filter, and purify water before it reaches the rivers, not to mention the benefit to wildlife and flood control.

There are places that continue to provide dancing-grounds for prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse and places for big blue stem, blazing star, purple prairie coneflower, and countless other native flora, to live and grow and bloom and revitalize the soil from nutrient loss while protecting it from further erosion.

While more can and should be done to protect natural areas on both sides of the Red River, a vision is being accomplished through numerous collaborative efforts between landowners, conservation groups, universities, citizens, watershed districts, and federal, state, and local government agencies. Such cooperative ventures are investments that pay untold dividends for future generations as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at bklemek@yahoo.com .)

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