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Burning for a better bluff

A Conservation Corps Minnesota crew member watches as a controlled burn takes hold on Barn Bluff Monday afternoon. About 20 acres were burned as part of conservation efforts. (Republican Eagle photos by Danielle Killey)2 / 7
Grasses and plants on part of Barn Bluff are lit during a controlled burn Monday on Barn Bluff. 3 / 7
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Conservation Corps of Minnesota members light a fire on Barn Bluff as part of a prescribed burn Monday aimed at eliminating invasive plants and reinvigorating natural grasses.5 / 7
Smoke fills Barn Bluff on Monday afternoon.6 / 7
The controlled burn on Barn Bluff Monday was clearly visible throughout town Monday afternoon. (Republican Eagle photo by Tim Alms)7 / 7

The crackle and heat of an intense fire spread quickly over Barn Bluff on Monday afternoon as smoke filled the wooded area and billowed over the bluff, visible throughout Red Wing.

Nearby, a crew clad in yellow gear watched the grasses and plants burn. But instead of stopping the blaze, one aimed a torch and touched it to the dry leaves, spreading the flames.

The controlled burn, carried out by the Conservation Corps of Minnesota, was part of an effort to reinvigorate the bluff’s natural plants and get rid of entrenched invasive species, one piece of an overall conservation plan.

The city has been working in partnership with organizations such as CCM, Friends of the Bluffs, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon Minnesota’s Red Wing chapter on conservation efforts, city of Red Wing Assistant Planning Director Steve Kohn said.

“We want to make sure we maintain this unique environment and we don’t lose the things that make the bluffs so special and the things people want to come and see,” he said.

With improvements such on bike and walking trails and work at Memorial Park, the bluffs are getting as much use as ever, Kohn said. Friends of the Bluffs has done a lot to clean up problem areas and work toward conservation goals.

The city has sharpened its focus on the work in last few years. Conservation plans for Red Wing area sites have been developed and money dedicated from grants and donations, including from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Friends of the Bluffs, toward key areas. Top of the list are Barn and Sorin’s bluffs and the Billings-Tomfohr area.

“The main priority was working on and preserving the native prairies and oak savannas first,” Kohn said.

A group of partners in the effort came together to talk about the priorities and what would be done, Kohn said. The bluffs are a visible and important part of the area landscape, Friends of the Bluffs president Dave Anderson said.

“They’re important not just to Red Wing but the state of Minnesota and the United States because of the history,” he said.

The city also has plans for other spots, such as the Upper Harbor area.

The city’s contract with the CCM crew is for work this year, but it will be re-evaluated in the spring to see if the experts need to come back, Kohn said.

Conservation Corps works with the DNR and also has a separate contract with the city.

On top of burns, there is also work done with cutting and other plant removal. The goal is both to get rid of the invasive species and to stimulate the natural grasses and plants.

“It’s a tool,” Doug Ekstrom, Southern District Manager of Conservation Corps, said of the burns.

CCM is a nonprofit organization that works on conservation, natural resource management and emergency response. It also offers service learning opportunities for youths and young adults. They work on conservation efforts throughout the state and region, Ekstrom said, and on wildfire response as well.

Controlled burns, such as the one on Barn Bluff this week, typically are planned for the fall or spring, Ekstrom said.

On Monday, about 20 acres were burned on the bluff. Crews use fire stops to make sure the flames don’t creep into other areas.

The blackened section is clearly visible on the bluff from town. But while it had a temporary visual impact, the overall effect will be good for the natural processes there, Kohn said.

The goal was to get to problem plants, such as buckthorn and oriental bittersweet, that have settled in.

“The seeds are super aggressive,” Ekstrom said of such invasive plants. Just pulling or cutting them down often isn’t enough to keep them from coming back. “The fire will hopefully be hot enough to stop that re-sprout.”

The hope is eventually only to need a maintenance cycle in the future to keep the land in its natural state, Kohn said.

“We’re hoping to knock everything back and maintain the native prairies through fire,” he said.

Still, the work will take time, Anderson said.

“It’s a process,” he said. “It’s not going to disappear in one year.”

Danielle Killey

Danielle Killey covers local government for the South Washington County Bulletin. She has worked as a reporter for other Forum Communications newspapers since 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a journalism degree.

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