There are big plans in the works for a little-used tract of land on the north side of the Fergus Falls campus of Minnesota State Community and Technical College.
College officials are working with community partners on a prairie restoration project that will convert 45 acres of college land into outdoor learning spaces and community walking trails.
The land – now largely unused, aside from the annual hay crop that’s cut by a local farmer – will be restored to prairie flowers, grasses and wildlife habitat. The tract includes five wetlands.
M State biology instructor Matt Borcherding said the project was discussed about three years ago with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, then was revived earlier this year. While Borcherding and his fellow M State science instructors occasionally use the land for water and soil testing by students, the project envisions a much broader use.
“Academically having 45 acres of restored prairie on a college campus is unheard of,” Borcherding said. “The opportunities are endless from a course perspective. We could expand the use of the land from water and soil testing to long-term longitudinal plant community studies, wildlife studies and other ecological interactions. Any academic discipline could find ways to use the restored space, from history to sociology.”
He said South Dakota State University has expressed interest in partnering with M State to develop a wildlife management program, “and the restored prairie would be a natural fit.”
M State’s partners in the project include the U.S. FWS and its Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, Otter Tail County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Fergus Falls campus foundation.
One of the supporters at the FWS is Dave Ellis, who is now an instructional systems specialist with the federal agency but previously taught fourth grade in Fergus Falls and led efforts to create the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center.
“This has the potential to transform higher education,” Ellis said. “There are places around the country that do use the outdoors, but there’s nothing like this within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. M State can use the space it already has, and for $8,000 they can have an outdoor classroom that’s not only good for the mind but for the spirit.”
Fergus Area College Foundation is currently in the midst of a campaign to raise just over $8,000 for the project.
“This project fits perfectly into our mission. We are here to provide resources to enrich learning, living, working and serving,” said Lori Larson, FACF executive director. “This will mean unique opportunities for students attending M State’s Fergus Falls campus. We have seen this concept shine for younger students at the PWLC. What a testament to M State and the people of the Fergus Falls area that we’re able to provide this opportunity at the college level.”
Rick Drevlow is a retired Fergus Falls agricultural banker and former FACF board member who recalls long-ago conversations about the possibility of restoring the college land to preserve the area’s prairie heritage. He’s also a farmer and provided some technical assistance recently during the project’s planning phase.
“There are certain pieces of ground in this country where we shouldn’t be growing corn and soybeans,” said Drevlow, who now grazes 70-80 head of cows. “Anybody who lives in this country should understand what it looked like long ago. It’s sure going to be fun to see a good stand of prairie grass out there.”
The land was sprayed with herbicide this fall to kill the existing plants. Soybeans will be planted in the spring to increase the nitrogen content of the soil and, in the spring of 2017, a prairie seed mix of native forbs, grasses and wildflowers will be planted on all 45 acres.
Dr. Carrie Brimhall, M State’s vice president of academics, said the college has been focused on ways to bring the community to the college and the college to the community.
“We are so fortunate to have a large and beautiful piece of property in the middle of Fergus Falls,” Brimhall said. “Restoring our land and making it useable for community members is an exciting development for the college.”