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An overlooked treasure

Mature oak trees like this one are part of a valuable ecosystem that is disappearing around Minnesota.

It's pretty hard not to notice the large, shady trees along Akin Road.

They've been there for what seems like forever, so no one really pays too much attention to them, right?

Wrong. Two Farmington church congregations do, and their efforts to save what turns out to be an endangered habitat were acknowledged by the city of Farmington Monday night.

When Bible Baptist Church and Farmington Lutheran Church planned out the landscapes on their respective properties, both made an effort to disturb as little of the natural wooded area around their buildings as possible. To leave the trees intact. To celebrate and appreciate the quiet gifts God and Mother Nature had given them.

What they didn't know, though, was that those efforts were not only preserving the large oak trees on their properties - they were actually preserving some of what little is left of the oak savanna ecosystem in Minnesota.

City officials didn't even know Farmington was home to something called an oak savanna ecosystem until late last year, when staff was working on the city's Natural Resources Inventory and Management Plan. While examining the area along Akin Road, they discovered the rare ecosystem.

Oak savanna is one of the state's rarest plant and wildlife habitats, city planner Lee Smick said. When the early settlers came to the area, the habitat was already only present in about 10 percent of the state. Though records indicate it was readily abundant in Dakota County, Smick said much of the habitat was converted to agricultural and urban use. Now, less than 1 percent of the ecosystem remains in the state.

And Farmington has a nice chunk of it, running on either side of Akin Road. The identified boundaries run from the Middle Creek development to 190th Street. Smick figures the residents and property owners who are responsible for preserving that habitat probably didn't even know what they were doing.

A thriving ecosystem

Smick describes the oak savannas as areas that are "dominated by loosely scattered burr or white oaks, in a diverse mix of grasses and forbs," that benefit from the scattered sunlight caused when the sun shines through the leaf cover from the trees. Because the trees cover 10 to 50 percent of the ground beneath them, enough sunlight penetrates the canopy to sustain life on the ground, as well as in the treetops, according to Smick.

The oak savanna ecosystem relies on disturbances like fire, grazing and drought to kill off invasive tree saplings from other tree species. If allowed to grow in the oak savanna, these other types of trees would create a thicker tree cover that would block the scattered sunlight and cause the natural grasses and wildflowers to die or be overrun by other grasses, changing and even eliminating the oak savanna habitat.

Near Farmington Lutheran Church, city officials found an 89-year-old oak tree. Others in the area likely date back 100 years or more. The trees are hardy - they have to be, with a thick bark that protects them from fire and helps to sustain the species - but they require a great deal of moisture. A mature oak tree, according to Smick, can drink up to 50 gallons of water per day though the root system.

"It's important that we try to maintain and keep these ecosystems," she told Farmington city council members Monday.

Anyone can do it

Like many others, Farmington mayor Todd Larson was surprised, but impressed that the community has such a unique ecosystem in its midst.

"I didn't even know that existed in Farmington," he said.

That's probably not all that unusual. The oak savanna has been identified as one the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' five "Key Habitats for Species in Greatest Conservation Need" in the state.

But Smick said just about anyone can help to reestablish the habitat in the community.

Maintaining large oaks and grassy areas on a property is one step, she said, adding that it is good to water the oaks during a drought period. If there is a remodeling project or property development planned, take care to protect the oaks and their roots from injury.

Residents can also help to reestablish the grasses and flowers under the trees by adding natural grasses and flowers like bergamot, black-eyed Susans, asters, purple prairie clover, cornflowers, butterfly milkweed and prairie dropseed to the landscape.

For more information, call Lee Smick at 651-280-6820.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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