Prairies used to cover over 18 million acres of Minnesota; that’s more than the entire state of Massachusetts. Prior to European settlement, half of Minnesota was covered in native tall grass prairie that stretched from horizon to horizon and was home to many important species such as Bison. Yet today, native remnant prairies account for less than 2% of Minnesota and have become the most endangered habitat in North America. Most of these prairies have long since been turned into agricultural fields. Two of the few remaining native remnant prairies belong to Carleton, and they can give a brief glimpse into what pre-settlement Minnesota would have looked like.
McKnight Prairie is a 33-acre native prairie that Carleton bought in 1967 to give students a rare opportunity to learn about this endangered ecosystem. McKnight is the only significant remnant prairie owned by Carleton, the other being the small Postage Stage Prairie on the hill above Bell Field. Most remaining native prairies, including McKnight, lay on top of hills or on steeper slopes, simply because these areas were inaccessible for agriculture. If you are familiar with the prairies of the Arb, you may find that McKnight has subtle differences compared to most arboretum prairies. For example, most of McKnight lies directly on top of St. Peter Sandstone, so it’s a lot sandier and drier than most of the Arb. This dryness allows many uncommon grasses (and even cacti!) to be found in abundance, whereas in the Arb they would be non-existent or rare.
McKnight is a few short miles to the Northeast of campus and can easily be biked to in an afternoon. If you have wondered throughout our beautiful arboretum I would highly recommend getting out to see this exquisite example of native Minnesota habitat that few Minnesotans have seen.