Just about 45 minutes north of the metro area in East Bethel, lies a unique piece of land that few people know about yet is home to some of the most well known ecological experiments in the world. I am, of course, referring to the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, a nine square mile patch of land that is owned and operated by the University of Minnesota and is credited with being the birth place of the modern science of ecosystem ecology back in the 1940’s.
Cedar Creek is unique in many regards but can be defined by its amazing biodiversity. It is the point where the three largest ecosystems within North America meet; housing western prairies, northern evergreens, and eastern leafy forests. The Minnesota County Biological Survey gives Cedar Creek its highest ranking of Outstanding Biodiversity Significance, and the Nature Conservancy has named Cedar Creek an Ecologically Significant Area.
The thing that I think is the most fascinating about Cedar Creek is the decades of experiments that it has produced. Radio collars for animal tracking were invented by University of Minnesota scientists at Cedar Creek. Prescribed burning has been implemented on the property since the 1960’s, making it one of the world’s longest running fire experiments. And if anyone has ever taken an ecology class in the past few decades, they are probably aware of the famous experiment by Dave Tilman, the current Director of Cedar Creek, were he observed the effects that biodiversity has on productivity in native prairie. Some of their current research focuses on topics such as biofuels, succession and invasion of abandoned agricultural fields, climate change research, and nutrient cycling.
While the internal trails of Cedar Creek are not open to the public due to the delicate research experiments within its borders and the equally delicate ecosystems, there are ways for the public to experience the wonders of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Each summer is an annual Field Day where the public is welcome to come and take tours exploring the inner spaces of Cedar Creek. Educational groups are encouraged to contact the Education and Outreach Coordinator to schedule tours for students and staff. And tours are given periodically, covering topics such as Red-Headed Woodpecker bird watching, and various bog tours.
There is also the Fish Lake Nature Trail, a 1.5 mile trail located at the southeastern corner of the property that is open to the public year round. This trail covers several ecosystems starting with sand prairie near the parking lot, then moving into Bur Oak Savannas where you can see Red-Headed Woodpeckers nesting in old Oak trees. The trail then moves through a Cattail wetlands on the left and Fish Lake on the right as it enters the beginning of the deciduous forests. Cross a few more boardwalks in the Cattail marsh and the trail ends in the forest. Walking back, you are sure to spot something you had missed before; possibly some Sandhill Cranes in the wetlands (my favorite part). If you are into geocaching, good news! There are five geocaches located along the trail. And if summer is a little too warm for you, in the winter it turns into a cross-country skiing trail.
Cedar Creek is an amazing place and I think that every person should experience this little slice of heaven at least once. I had the pleasure of working for Cedar Creek for four years and cannot even begin to explain my love and appreciation for those nine square miles. There is something breathtaking about being so surrounded by nature and experiencing things you wouldn’t normally encounter in everyday life, like blueberry picking in hip waders in July, seeing baby pheasants running across the road, seeing acres upon acres of prairie on fire at once, and seeing Sandhill Cranes so big that your coworker thinks they are deer in the distance. The research they are doing is phenomenal and the conservation taking place is beyond compare. It is too late to go this year but, please, go to their next field day; you won’t regret it.