Late last month, Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa member Liam Pender and his crew mates cleared invasive buckthorn and other brush to allow native prairie plants to grow on the south side of Sugar Loaf.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Aysaiah Harris dripped sweat as he hauled brush away from the trail. He and a crew of teens from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa gave Winona’s Sugar Loaf bluff some care and attention late last month, combatting erosion and making room for native prairie plants to grow.
The crew spent a full day decommissioning trails on the bluff’s south side where a tangle of paths there used to provide unofficial access to Sugar Loaf from West Burns Valley Road, before the city built a new, official trail on the bluff’s north side accessible off East Lake Boulevard near Edina Reality. The south-side paths are badly eroded. Water has carved one section into a waist-deep gully. Harris and his crew members filled those paths with brush to close them off from hikers and built water bars to divert runoff from carving the gullies even deeper.
Erosion-wise, the city’s new trail on the bluff’s north side is not perfect, but it is a definite improvement, Winona Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Ross Greedy said. “That is not the finished product,” Greedy said, gesturing to the new trail. “It’s a work in progress, but even as it is, it’s more sustainable than the south side.”
Greedy toured Sugar Loaf with officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) when the new trail was still being planned. They were struck by the remnant “goat prairie” on the bluff’s south slope. Goat prairies are steep bluffside prairies that were once common, but without occasional wildfires, many have become overgrown with trees. Sugar Loaf was just such a case. Greedy recalled the DNR officials telling him of Sugar Loaf, “A lot of that remnant prairie is really quality and could make a come back, but it was at a critical junction.” Native trees and invasive plants were on the verge of choking out the goat prairie for good. “We got to it just in time,” Gabe Ericksen said.
Ericksen owns LandSpirit Design Landscape and specializes in prairie restoration. The city hired him as a contractor to direct the Conservation Corps crew in eradicating invasive buckthorn and Oriental bittersweet, as well as clearing out birch and juniper.
Right now, the results of the crew felling trees and treating stumps with Garlon 4 herbicide look a little austere. “I know it will be a shock to some people, but it’s significantly healthier and it’s a return to the species that have been choked out,” Greedy said. “It’s not about the stuff we’re removing. It’s about the stuff we’re protecting,” Ericksen added. “This is the rarest ecosystem and the most diverse ecosystem [in our region].”
Underneath the shrubs and trees, prairie flowers were still growing: compass plants, butterfly milkweed, flowering spurge, and prairie coreopsis. “You name it, there are all the rare plants in our region,” Ericksen said.
For the city, Sugar Loaf is one of its most iconic landmarks and a natural outdoor recreation destination. The development of the new trail, and the work to mitigate erosion and restore native prairie represent the city’s first serious effort to manage Sugar Loaf in years. Greedy and other Winona Park and Recreation staff members are currently working on plans for trails that would connect Sugar Loaf to Garvin Heights and Holzinger trails, linking the city’s bluffside parks with one through trail. City staff hope their plan can win grant funding from the state’s Legacy Amendment.