Turf-to-prairie park project only the beginning

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The turf-to-prairie area at Burnsville’s Lake Park was seeded in November.

Burnsville plans more environmentally friendly landscapes

A 2.3-acre patch of native prairie grasses and wildflowers will begin germinating this spring in Burnsville’s Lake Park.

Repeat users of the small community park near Highway 13 and River Hills Drive will notice a section of traditional turfgrass replaced by natural habitat, with new inhabitants such as birds, tree frogs, monarch butterflies and caterpillars.

The turf-to-prairie restoration is the first completed under a new city park framework plan and the start of a trend in Burnsville.

“We do plan on mowing a path because we want people to be able to experience the habitat,” said Caleb Ashling, Burnsville natural resources specialist. “Prairie habitats are really rare. There’s just a little over 1 percent of historical prairie areas that remain in Minnesota, and most of that you’re going to have to drive to the rural parts of Minnesota to visit.”

The city’s new park framework plan, completed in 2020, calls for changes in 42 of Burnsville’s 76 parks, including replacing some areas of underused turfgrass with more natural, environmentally friendly landscapes.

That will cut down on mowing, fertilizing and weed spraying, according to the city.

The Lake Park prairie conversion, which was seeded on Nov. 12, will be followed by others, Ashling said. A project planned for 2021 will convert some of the turf on the west side of North River Hills Park, a large soccer complex, he said.

“It’s away from all the soccer fields,” Ashling said. “The soccer fields would remain.”

Burnsville has one large “showcase” turf-to-prairie conversion — the hillside along Nicollet Avenue in front of Civic Center Park, Ashling said. It was completed before the new park plan was written.

The Lake Park project is also a first for the Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation District, whose Native Prairie Restoration Program provides financial incentives for restoration projects, mostly on private land.

Lake Park was the SWCD prairie conversion project in a city park, said resource conservationist John Stelzner, who worked with Ashling on the project and said his agency supplied 75 percent of the funding. Remaining funding for the $5,000 project came from the city and Xcel Energy, which has a power line easement in the park.

“Burnsville was the first,” Stelzner said. “Hopefully we’ll get partnered with Lakeville and Rosemount and other communities that are interested in doing it.”

Converting turf grass increases pollinator habitat, reduces fertilizer runoff into local waters and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from mowing equipment, according to the city.

Prairie plant species have roots 10 to 20 feet deep, creating channels for absorbing water in the soil, Stelzner said.

Turf grass roots are only 3 inches deep, he said.

“Dakota County is looking to improve pollinator habitat,” Stelzner said. At the same time, “The native plants also reduce erosion and help infiltrate water, so we’re also helping improve our soil and water across the county by installing these projects.”

The Lake Park project will have grass species such as big and little bluestem and wildflowers such as blazing star, wild bergamot and purple cornflower, Ashling said.

“I think we’ve planted more than 30 different species of wildflowers,” he said.

Changes that began this year in Burnsville parks included removing little-used picnic tables in six parks, removing horseshoe pits in three and striping basketball courts in three.

Bigger changes are planned for 2021 and beyond, with removal of some parks’ volleyball and basketball courts and ballfields. Two ice rinks are slated for removal. Red rock will be removed from some infields, but backstops will remain. A few park amenities will be enhanced. Some playgrounds will be relocated.

Trends such as a decline in ball-and-bat sports participation are behind some of them. Some will come as amenities such as basketball and volleyball courts reach the end of their life cycles and require major renovations, Garrett Beck, director of parks, recreation and facilities, said in April 2020.

The park system, built mostly in the middle and late 1980s, is due for some updates, he said.

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