m3050 BC-MN-Topic-UrbanWildli 04-07 0964
Near MSP, Minnesota Valley is among few urban wildlife refuges
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By MARY JANE SMETANKA
Star Tribune of Minneapolis
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) — Every evening, deer come out of the woods and knock the bird feeders outside Charlie Blair’s office off their stands so they can eat sunflower seeds. A wild tom turkey has been hanging around, too, preening and attacking his reflection in the window.
Until you see the jets flying low in the sky, it’s hard to believe that Blair’s office at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge is virtually across the street from the airport, the Mall of America and Interstate 494.
The noise and pollution seem enough to repel a nature-lover like the refuge’s new manager. But Blair says the refuge’s location in the heart of the Twin Cities is an advantage. It is one of just four urban national wildlife refuges in the nation.
"If we want this place to exist for our children’s children, we need to support people’s need to know ... about wildlife refuges," Blair said. "We have the opportunity to contact so many people."
Blair became manager of the 14,000-acre refuge two months ago, taking over at a time when it is challenged by underfunding, pollution and occasional conflict between people who want to walk and bird watch and those who use trails for biking.
But Blair, 56, had worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minnesota before.
This is where his three children grew up. Though he was managing another national refuge of 49 islands off the coast of Maine when the Bloomington job opened up, he was eager to return.
"You hear a lot about how wonderful Minnesota is and there’s a lot of truth in it," he said. "I really missed the people and the culture."
Minnesota Valley has been called the biggest wildlife refuge no one ever heard of. Established in 1976, it stretches along the Minnesota River in eight units for 45 miles from Fort Snelling to Belle Plaine.
Painted turtles, fox, beaver and coyote thrive in the refuge, which has great blue heron breeding colonies and eight active bald eagle nests. The wetlands are part of the Mississippi Flyway, the north-south migration route used by millions of waterfowl and songbirds. Within sight of the Mall of America, a tiny trout stream emerges from a bluff and trickles through the refuge’s forest. This month, the refuge is a stage for the spectacular "sky dance" of the male American woodcock. The pudgy brown birds, normally nearly invisible on the forest floor, fly hundreds of feet into the air at dusk and dive in a zigzag toward the ground, twittering madly to attract a mate.
Though the refuge is a fertile place for wildlife, nature sometimes needs a helping hand. The trout stream was stocked with fingerlings last year, something that will be done again this year. Prairies and oak savannas need to be burned periodically to replicate natural cycles, and the refuge hosts a wildfire response team from spring to fall to handle burns on refuge land as well as fires elsewhere in the state. Fighting illegal hunting and invasive plants like buckthorn and purple loosestrife is a constant battle. The refuge also manages a 14-county Wetland Management District that stretches from Blue Earth to Chisago counties.
All of that is Blair’s responsibility. With a $2.1-million budget and 27 employees at full staffing the job keeps him hopping. Federal budget cuts over the past three to four years have tightened staffing and hours at many refuges across the country. Last winter, Minnesota Valley’s visitor center in Bloomington was open just one Saturday a month, though hours have been expanded again for spring and summer. About 800 volunteers help run education programs.
Blair said that this year much of his work will focus on the Rapids Lake Unit of the refuge, south of Carver. The refuge is being expanded in that area with land purchases from willing sellers.
Funding for the expansion comes from the Minnesota Valley Trust, which was set up to mitigate the impact on the refuge of the new north-south runway at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. A one-time, $26 million payment from the Metropolitan Airports Commission allows the refuge to expand by at least 4,090 acres and is paying for new visitors and educational centers and trails in the area.
One priority is acquiring land near the river where waterfowl will reproduce. Farm fields will be stripped of tile and drain systems, dikes will be built and land will be replanted in native grasses to restore them to the wetlands they once were.
It’s a rare chance to preserve land for wildlife, Blair said.
"Our greatest challenge is making the refuge work in the urban environment," he said. Though the wildlife service’s priorities for public use emphasize people — hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, environmental education and interpretation — "wildlife comes first, that’s clear," he said.
One of Blair’s greatest pleasures is being outdoors, and he said he tries to walk somewhere in the refuge every day. In his job, he can wear his hiking boots to work.
He’s also hoping to resume a tradition he had when he worked here before.
"I used to make trips to the Boundary Waters," he said. "I like to go a couple of times a year, if possible."
Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com