Fall 2006 Currents > Garvin Heights
Story by: Currents Staff Writer
A Clear View
Garvin Heights restoration project brings park back to life
Spend an hour or so up on Garvin Heights and you’ll begin to appreciate even if you don’t know anything about plant ecology, preserving native species, or environmental issues in southeastern Minnesota why it so important to bring this unique piece of the bluffs back to life.
First, walk up to the overlook and take in a bird’s eye view of traffic rushing up and down Highway 61, with Winona and the Mississippi River flattening out to meet the Wisconsin bluffs on the horizon.
Then turn your back on the dizzying scene below. Now you see a prairie falling sharply down the back side of the bluff. Tall grasses dotted with yellow, purple and white wildflowers, sway in the breeze. Here and there a squat burr oak punctuates the scene. You’ll notice a path sloping through the grass, so walk down into the shade. Thin prairie gives way to oak savannah, then woodland, an environment that’s luxuriant with trees and dense undergrowth, receding at the bottom and then rising up again to the next bluff. It’s a rare landscape: arid, dry prairie and savannah side-by-side with deciduous forest. And it’s one worth preserving not only because it’s unique, but because it’s beautiful, too.
The overlook on Winona and the Mississippi has always been there, and, short of a 500-foot rise in the river, always will be. But until Dr. Carol Jefferson came along, the view of Garvin Heights back towards the bluffs was close to disappearing, the victim of rampant buckthorn, honeysuckle and other invasive plants that were choking the life out of the native prairie.
Jefferson, an ecologist and biology professor who retired from Winona State University in 2006, along with a group of students and volunteers, has devoted the last five years to restoring Garvin Heights and advocating for extending protected bluff lands. Working with staff from the University and the city of Winona, the group has made the overlook more accessible to visitors and helped bring the ecosystem back to the way it was centuries ago.
So far, about eight acres at Garvin Heights have been restored. The effort has involved careful planning and backbreaking manual labor. Future plans include expanding managed areas and establishing an interpretive center at the overlook to make the park more accessible to an estimated 50,000 visitors each year.
“THE BLUFFS are the gateway to Winona. Everybody takes visitors to the Garvin Heights overlook," says Judy Shepard, a member of the city’s Environmental Comprehensive Plan Subcommittee.
Rising to 700-feet or more, the bluffs are one of the region’s most distinctive features. At about 530-feet, Garvin Heights isn’t the highest peak in the area, but its rocky outcrop provides spectacular views of Winona and the Mississippi River Valley in three directions. The winding drive up Garvin Heights Road and a network of hiking trails make it a popular tourist destination. Environmental groups like that it’s so accessible, but worry about the impact that visitors have on native habitats.
When Jefferson arrived in 1976 to join the biology faculty at Winona State, it was to study the river and the surrounding wetlands. An applied plant ecologist, she collaborated with Dr. Calvin Fremling on large river studies and developed a wetlands delineation system still used today to identify and protect endangered areas.
However, the bluffs were never far away. "This is a great place to be an ecologist" says Jefferson. "You have the river, the bluffs and the prairies, a complete range of ecosystems all around you." She worked on natural heritage programs looking at rare plant species in Minnesota and consulted on an ecological map project for the city of Winona while on sabbatical in the early 1990s.
While working on the projects, one of the things that she noticed was the pervasive threat of buckthorn an invasive bush that was taking over native habitats all over southeastern Minnesota.
BUCKTHORN arrived in the United States from Europe in the 1800s. With round, egg-shaped leaves and black or red berries, it was planted as a hedge all over Minnesota as early as 1850. It is aggressively invasive, out-competing native plants for nutrients, light and moisture. Because it forms a thick wall of vegetation and dense shade, buckthorn can overwhelm sensitive prairie plants and close off nesting and foraging areas for wildlife.
Nurseries in Minnesota haven’t sold buckthorn since the 1930s, but that hasn’t stopped its relentless spread. Still present in many residential areas and in the bluffs, buckthorn made its way to Garvin Heights Park as a barrier along the walking paths. In 1960 state land managers introduced another non-native species to Garvin Heights, planting fast-growing honeysuckle as a hedge. By eating their berries, migrating birds helped both buckthorn and honeysuckle spread throughout the park.
Removing buckthorn can seem daunting. It spreads quickly, and at heights up to 25 feet, plants can reach the size of a small tree. Cutting buckthorn down to the stump, then applying, and often re-applying, herbicide is the most effective method of eradication. Cut branches have to be dragged up or down the hillside for chipping or burning.
Bruce Fuller, who oversees upkeep for more than 3,200 acres of parks as the city of Winona’s maintenance superintendent, guesses that the Garvin Heights prairie was nearly gone before the restoration project got underway. "Look at the before and after pictures. Buckthorn was everywhere. Honeysuckle was climbing everything. The path to the overlook was overgrown, and the vistas over the bluffs were shut off," he says.
Before the Garvin Heights restoration project began, Jefferson estimates that buckthorn infested about 35 percent of the prairie and all of the savannah and woodland. "About ten years ago, Garvin Heights was at the tipping point for buckthorn. The prairie had deteriorated almost to the point that the native vegetation most likely would not come back. It would not be worth saving."
“Natural ecosystems are rare things, like valuable antiques," says Steve Haines, who works for Prairie Moon Nurseries, a supplier of native plants and seeds for Garvin Heights and other restoration projects. "Garvin Heights is one of these, and Carol is saving it."
HERBERT C. GARVIN, an executive of Bay State Milling, donated several parcels of bluff land to what was then Winona State Teachers College in 1918, 1924 and 1941. From artifacts and burial mounds, there’s evidence that Native Americans inhabited the land about 12,000 years before Garvin came into possession of it. When European settlers arrived in the 1850s the bluffs were taken over for grazing, and they used buckthorn as a hedge to mark off property lines.
Garvin built the original overlook from 1920-22 and paid to have it renovated in the 1930s. In the 1950s land owned by WSU became Garvin Heights State Scenic Wayside Park. Additional land was acquired over the years by both the University and the city of Winona, but until Jefferson came along, both were unaware of just what they owned in the bluffs. The city maintained the parking lot and walkway leading into the park and the overlook, but nothing else.
The bluff and others like it in the region are unique for several reasons. About two million years ago, a major ice sheet covered Minnesota except for a small region in the southeast, centered around Lanesboro and Winona. That left a driftless area, or, as Jefferson calls it, a "donut hole" free of glacial gouges and deposits. When the glaciers receded, an unusual topography remained with exposed bedrock, steep cliffs and slopes producing distinct microclimates with rare plant and animal species.
“The topography is extremely varied. It’s an ecosystem with dry and wet and high and low microclimates, sort of like from the desert to the rain forest" explains Haines. "That makes for a higher diversity of native species. Some are seen here and maybe nowhere else."
A distinctive feature of bluffs in the region are xeric or "goat" prairies. They’re easy to spot as you drive along Highway 61: brown, grass covered meadows standing out from wooded slopes. Usually xeric prairies are located on the south or southwest sides of the bluffs, where direct sunlight makes them warmer and drier than the rest of the rise, creating an arid microclimate that supports dry grasses and low-growing plants.
ONE OF THE FIRST STEPS to restoring Garvin Heights was to determine the size of the park and who owned it. Jefferson searched archived maps and property records and found a patchwork of University, city and private plots. She set to work on linking up the parcels and developing a scheme for shared restoration and upkeep. It took until 2001 to get a restoration project in place, then another couple of years to begin work on top of the bluff.
For the past three years over 200 people, including about 130 students from schools and colleges around the region, have cleared out buckthorn and honeysuckle, picked up trash, rebuilt trails and scattered native prairie seeds. In addition to restoration work, there were mundane tasks to take care of, such as repairing signage and fencing and persuading city officials to increase trash pickup at the overlook.
“You’re dealing with the university, parks and recreation, public works, the state, and private individuals," says Bruce Fuller. "She has a way of figuring out what the problem is and finding a way to fill in the holes in responsibilities. It’s not easy."
Winona State and the city have both taken over a bigger role in maintaining the overlook, repairing markers, paving the parking lot and picking up trash. Jefferson makes regular visits and says she’s removed more than 40 gallons of broken glass left behind by visitors and revelers since the park opened in 1918.
In addition to making way for the return of native vegetation to Garvin Heights Park, Jefferson has re-introduced the natural cycle of fire and re-growth that keeps prairie ecosystems healthy. Before city services reached the bluffs, blazes scoured contained areas every five years or so, destroying non-native growth while allowing more resistant native species to thrive. Along with a crew of volunteers and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officers, Jefferson has conducted regular controlled burns on the slopes. "Settlement repressed the fires, so she’s simply recreating a natural land management process," says Haines, of Prairie Moon Nurseries.
Besides restoring the bluffs to their native condition, Jefferson wants to increase access to the public. She’s already overseen the funding and restoration of two hiking trails, one that circles through the park and another leading up the west side of the bluff from Lake Boulevard. Another path at the top of the park is undergoing repair.
To help visitors understand what’s going on in the bluffs, Jefferson designed interpretive signage and has convinced Winona State to fund and install them. Her long-term goal is to turn the park into an outdoor classroom for both the University and the public. "This is the best overlook on the river," says Jefferson. "On clear days you can see for 17 miles."
Ecologically, it has everything. People need to see it and appreciate it."
With development closing in on the park, time is running short to preserve native ecosystems. “Intact ecosystems are rare and disappearing," warns Haines. "The next few years will be crucial to identifying them and saving them."
Jefferson continues to work with the city of Winona and University to delineate the lands they own and make plans to manage them responsibly. Since the project began, donations and title searches have more than doubled public land in the park. The University is working with the William Schuler family, founders of the Schuler Candy Company in Winona, to add over 30 acres of bluff land adjacent to Garvin Heights. Jefferson thinks it’s possible to create a nearly continuous preserve and hiking trail from Sugar Loaf, at the southeast end of Winona, all the way to Minnesota City, about 6 miles north of town.
“People here talk about the river, but they look at the bluffs," says Jefferson. "Transforming our piece of the bluffs is a little step, but it’s our obligation to do it."
“This was always a great view," says Judy Shepard. "But now we see what it once looked like. Now we see the whole story."
If you would like to contribute to ongoing maintenance of Garvin Heights Park, direct your gift to the Garvin Heights Fund, or contact the Winona State University Foundation for more information.
Garvin TIME LINE
Native Americans inhabit area, leaving pictographs, stone tools and burial mounds.
Ownership changes several times; hillside and prairies used for grazing.
Herbert C. Garvin donates land that comprises overlook, parking lot and adjacent woodland and prairie to Winona State Teachers College. Garvin donates additional parcels in 1924 and 1941.
Overlooks and flagstone paths constructed at Garvin Heights.
A donor gives about 2 acres of land to the City of Winona. This is today's location of the radio towers.
Garvin finances renovation of the overlook and park by National Youth Corps.
College land becomes Garvin Heights Scenic Wayside Park.
Minnesota Park Service renovates portions of overlook and park. Southern portion of park, including parking lot and first overlook, are given to City of Winona by state park service.
Everett Eiken family donates land west of the parking lot down to Garvin Heights Road to Winona Township, which later becomes part of the city.
Land surveys add 7 acres contiguous to the park and another 17 in nearby parcels, bringing park to approximately 30 acres.
Restoration of Garvin Heights begins.
William Schuler family begins donation of nearly 35 acres of land to park. Park will grow to about 65 acres.
First phase of restoration project completed.
“I found out what I wanted to do."
Peter Simon (‘06) runs his own environmental management company
We found Peter Simon at the top of Garvin Heights Park on a hazy July morning, hauling barrels of topsoil out to the western edge of the overlook. Simon and a helper, both of them drenched in the 80-degree heat, filled the barrels from a pile in the parking lot, pushed them as far as they could with hand trucks and then rolled them down a steep path where they were building up eroded sections of the park.
The Mauston, Wisconsin, native graduated from Winona State this past spring with a biology degree. He began working on Garvin Heights when he was a sophomore, and his experiences grew into a company called Simon Industries, that specializes in environmental restoration, maintenance and management.
Inspired by a passion for plant ecology and a love of the outdoors that came from growing up on a farm, Simon volunteered for the Garvin Heights restoration project and was trained by Dr. Carol Jefferson. He began by doing typical cleanup and then put together a proposal to clear brush while still an undergraduate at WSU. He won the job, and spent the next two summers getting rid of buckthorn, honeysuckle and other non-native species on about 2 acres at Garvin Heights.
His next assignment was restoring the paths that lead up to the park. Simon led the project - digging out the original flagstones, constructing crib steps and replacing the pavers - enlisting the help of volunteers and Winona State students.
“That job was a little bigger than I thought it would be, but I enjoyed the work and it was a good way to pay for my education," says Simon, whose powerful build is an asset in the steep bluffs, where everything has to be carried in or out by hand.
Simon learned that he had to do everything the hard way. He tried using a small all-terrain vehicle to transport tools and materials and speed up the work, but a couple of rollovers on the steep grades convinced him to change his tactics.
The original path renewal project was completed in October, 2006. Simon Industries is now contracted to rebuild a series of paths that meander around the top of Garvin Heights, build up and control eroded areas adjacent to the overlook, install signage and maintain natural areas in the park.
“I'm proud of what we've done," says Simon. "Now I want to get people up there to see it and understand it."
Although Simon is scheduled to complete the third phase of restoration this fall, he thinks there is plenty of work left to do at Garvin Heights. "When I was a student at WSU, I was inspired by the original idea of restoring Garvin Heights. I found out what I wanted to do."
Last Modified: Friday, October 06, 2006 9:12 by Heather Alt