HENNEPIN — The Wetlands Initiative (TWI) will be kicking off a project in July on the Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge which will restore a rare oak savanna and more than double the existing hiking trail, which will allow hikers to explore the interior of the nearly four-square-mile site for the first time.
The Oak Ridge Trail and Restoration project will take more than two years to complete, with the estimated conclusion of the project in October 2016. A 70-acre section of high-quality savanna, marsh, prairie and sedge meadow located between Hennepin and Hopper lakes — often referred to as the island by TWI — will be restored through the project. TWI has received $50,000 in federal funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act Small Grants Program.
"Oak Ridge is one of the few remaining areas at the Refuge where intensive ecological restoration has not taken place over the past 13 years," TWI senior ecologist Dr. Gary Sullivan said. "The area is already characterized by its many bur oaks including some very old trees, but the understory is not diverse and is dominated by invasive species. We'll be managing those as well as aggressive cattails in nearby Oak Ridge Pond and planting a great diversity of native species throughout."
Public access to the refuge will be expanded with a small parking lot on the north levee and a new 2.25-mile hiking and biking trail which leads south to Oak Ridge in the center of the refuge. A nearby viewing platform situated within the trees will let visitors overlook the nearby pond which is an excellent spot to view migrating fowl.
"With the wet meadow restoration project and the carp removal efforts of the last three years successfully completed, we can now focus on the opportunity to restore Oak Ridge," TWI Executive Director Paul Botts said. "This project will add to the already excellent biodiversity at this designed Wetland of International Importance. And we hope many people will enjoy the new trail system which will give them a truly immersive experience of the refuge's natural areas.
"Oak savannas are very rare. To some degree, this is a step that we've always had on our minds." Botts said. "We think this can be a big step in luring people to come see the site."
The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, just south of Hennepin, was corn and beanfields for more than 100 years before TWI began restoring the habitat in 2001. Today, it's one of only 35 sites recognized as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance in the country, and the only one to have been entirely a restoration project.