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Arb Notes: Do You Know About McKnight Prairie?

If you just happen to run into this article in the Carletonian (as opposed to reading it on the Arb’s website), chances are you are one of the students who are totally unaware of the plot of land that Carleton owns seven miles east of Northfield called McKnight Prairie.

McKnight essentially consists of two small hills. Because the hilltops contain remnant prairie that has never been plowed by European settlers, McKnight is an important intact ecosystem and reservoir of abundant, sometimes rare, native prairie species. There are about 300 plant species found, 250 of which are native. 

In the early years after Carleton’s acquisition of the land in the 60s, the significance of McKnight was not well understood. It was referred to as “Jensen’s weed patch” (Jensen being the Carleton professor who proposed the purchase in the first place). But later, the site began to capture the attention of people at Carleton and environmental agencies. Being the largest remnant prairie Carleton has and an ecologically important site in the region, McKnight Prairie was designated by the Nature Conservancy as a Minnesota Natural Area in 2005, and became protected through a conservation easement with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 2010.

One of the reasons the site is considered so important is the presence of rare species such as a federally threatened prairie legume called the prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya). The discovery of such species has been useful for the college to solicit more financial and governmental support in managing the prairie. Indeed, the prairie’s restoration is still an ongoing project that entails extensive labor such as tree-cutting and scheduled burns. Currently, the patches of aspen saplings worry the arb management because they might soon dominate too much of the landscape.

Now that McKnight prairie captures your interest, why not go for a visit before the long winter? You will see some interesting plants such as the prickly pear cactus on the hilltop and find some pocket gopher mounds. It is also a serene place for an idle walk in the afternoon. Just a small reminder: you are not allowed to collect plants, animals, rocks and fossils on the site.

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