If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear the sound? When the tree is a 40-year old buckthorn, mowed down by heavy equipment while a team of volunteers gathers round to cheer, then yes. It makes a sound like maniacal glee, mixed together with dirt, sweat and a cheerful sense of renewal and growth.

A transformation is underway at Sunfish Lake Park in Lake Elmo. Amidst 284-acres of oak and maple forest, there are rolling hills, pocket wetlands, spring ephemeral wildflowers, and rare species of turtles, birds and pollinator insects. There is also a team of dedicated volunteers, working hard to remove buckthorn and other invasive species so that the forest may continue to thrive.

Volunteers originally came together to help build the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center in 2016. Since then, the Friends of Sunfish Lake Park have developed interpretive exhibits, led nature programming, and worked to restore prairie and woodlands at the park.

Last summer, the Friends group secured a $139,000 grant from the Minnesota Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program to remove buckthorn and restore native plants in 40 acres of Sunfish Lake Park.

The City of Lake Elmo will contribute $10,000 to the project and volunteers will provide at least 300 hours of in-kind support.

Sunfish Lake Park visitors will immediately notice the changes on site, where contractors and volunteers have been clearing buckthorn since late winter.

Subcontractor Stantec began with “forest mulching” in the southwest portion of the park, using a track-mounted device to grind up whole buckthorn trees. “If you take a walk in this part of the park, you will notice that the air is permeated with the unforgettable and invigorating aroma of freshly ground buckthorn,” says Tony Manzara, acting director at the nature center. The buckthorn mulch will be used for trails and planting projects.

The next step is to seed 15 acres of newly buckthorn-free woods with native woodland grasses that will help to provide fuel for a prescribed burn next year.

Volunteers will also apply herbicide in select locations to control broad-leaf weeds like burdock. Later in the fall, the buckthorn stumps will also be sprayed to prevent them from re-growing.

Buckthorn on your property?

Buckthorn is a non-native, invasive shrub that can grow to the size of a small tree. It spreads quickly through Minnesota woodlands, choking out native flowers and shrubs that provide food and habitat for birds and wildlife. It also prevents saplings from taking root and growing, making it a long term threat for oaks, maples and other hardwood trees.

Washington Conservation District and Minnesota DNR offer advice for managing buckthorn, including how to identify the shrub and how to kill and prevent it from re-growing. Unlike many trees, buckthorn will grow back from a stump so it is important to either: 1) Pull out roots when removing; 2) Treat stumps with herbicide; or 3) Cover stumps with bags or black plastic.

Learn more about buckthorn at www.mnwcd.org/buckthorn.

To volunteer with restoration efforts at Sunfish Lake Park, contact George Johnson at 651-757-5610, or info@sminc-lake-elmo.org.

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water, a local government partnership with 25 members - www.mnwcd.org/emwrep. Follow her on YouTube or TikTok at “MN Nature Awesomeness” or contact her at 952-261-9599 or angie.hong@mnwcd.org.

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