Thinning forest concerns residents near Wirth Park

BRYN MAWR — South Theodore Wirth Park has long been a cherished oasis for Southwest residents. Nestled between Glenwood and Xerxes avenues, Interstate 394, and Theodore Wirth Parkway, the 125-acre park is home to numerous animals such as foxes, turkeys, and deer, as well as a myriad of plants in the nation’s oldest wildflower
garden.

But in the past few years, with the popularity of cross-country skiing and the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s (MPRB) buckthorn removal project, some Bryn Mawr residents are worried that the forest is getting too thin.

“I can still remember a distinct set of deer-only trails that you used to have to duck and weave your way through,” said Martin Wolfe, who lives on 20th and Sheridan and has been walking in the woods every week since 1991. “Now I think there are only two sections like that left.”

Much of the park now consists of paths up to 30 feet wide where there used to be 1- to 2-foot-wide hiking trails.

According to MPRB Project Manager Deb Boyd, this is due to cross country ski trails that were put in for regular use and for the City of Lakes Loppet, a two-day cross-country ski race, as well as the removal of large amounts of buckthorn, a type of invasive shrubbery.

“This fall, there was an opportunity to move part of the Loppet and ski trail,” she explained, adding that they also removed a lot of buckthorn. “I would agree that it doesn’t look pretty, but they didn’t take out any mature trees.”

“Our hope is to eventually limit the number of trails and repair areas where there’s erosion,” she said. “It’s not very environmentally friendly to have so many trails.”

As Boyd remembers it, concern over the trails in South Wirth Park began three years ago when the Park Board decided to remove an asphalt path abutting a fence that borders the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, turning the space into a Loppet trail.

The board failed to ask residents for input, and the move caused uproar in the neighborhood. As a temporary decision, staff relocated the trail 20 feet from the fence for the 2005–2006 ski season.

To reach a more permanent solution, the board formed a Trail Overlay Committee made up of representatives from the Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association, Friends of the Wildflower Garden, Audubon Society, Nordic Ski Foundation and Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists.

According to MPRB documents, the group met three times between November 2006 and February 2007 and came up with a plan to permanently move the ski trail away from the wildflower garden; separate hiking and skiing paths as much as possible; discontinue using pavement; forgo developing an off-road cycling track; and redeem the historic nature of the area.

The group did not, however, come to a consensus regarding the layout of the trails.

Representatives from Bryn Mawr and the Friends of the Wildflower Garden were adamant that all of the Loppet trails in South Wirth should be removed.

“I would’ve preferred to see the Loppet have been located in another part of Wirth Park so that South Wirth could’ve remained the nature preserve it’s traditionally been,” said J. Pam Weiner, president of Friends of the Wildflower Garden, in a recent interview. “It’s changed the character of South Wirth considerably.”

Representatives from the Nordic Ski Foundation, however, didn’t see a need to change the way the current paths were laid out. “The only reason we agreed to anything having to do with the Trail Overlay Committee was we wanted to have a compromise come out that was going to prevent problems like this coming in the future,” said John Munger, who organizes the Loppet.

Weiner also feels that, without the ski trails, the Park Board could more effectively combat buckthorn and preserve fragile areas like the wetland behind the garden that houses rare native plants. But not everyone agrees on the appropriate nature of the woods.

“They say that it’s this natural area that’s pristine and never been touched; well, buckthorn is an unnatural plant that doesn’t belong in there that’s an invasive species and that’s the whole reason that it even feels like there’s ski trails in there,” said Munger. “[The reason] you can even tell where the ski trails are is because there’s so much buckthorn everywhere that anyplace that you put a ski trail, it is just framed by this dense vegetation which is all buckthorn.”

Some residents suspect that the Park Board’s two-year, $100,000 buckthorn removal plan is being used as a way to clear out skiing paths.

“I can tell you right now it’s not buckthorn removal. I mean, they took down trees,” said Pat Waddick, who lives on Washburn Avenue, of an area of the park behind his house. “I think it’s great to see the skiers and that, but I sure wish environmentally that [the MPRB] would replace some of the things that they tear out.”

Judd Reitkerk, planning director for the MPRB, is adamant that ski trails have nothing to do with the buckthorn removal project. “People aren’t used to seeing what it was without buckthorn,” he said. “It does create a different look.”

Phil Guillery, a professional forester who helped develop regional standards for the lake states for the Forest Stewardship Council, said that South Wirth was most likely an oak savannah a hundred years ago, similar to the restored savannah in the wildflower garden. Now, due to invasive species such as buckthorn and oak wilt, he said, “That woods is on life support.”

If the Park Board doesn’t continue removing buckthorn, eventually the oak trees will die and nothing will take their places, he continued.

MPRB General Manager in charge of Environmental Operations Michael Schmidt said it could take three to five years to get the buckthorn under control, and until then, they’re not able to put in new plantings because the plantings wouldn’t survive.

As the buckthorn removal progresses — hopefully turning into a five-year plan, Rietkerk said — visitors can expect that the woods will continue to thin.

Some residents have are concerned that the buckthorn removal and ski paths could have a negative impact on the animals in the woods.

“I’ve hardly seen any deer at all this fall, and it’s [breeding] season,” said Bryn Mawr resident Laura Wade who mounted a campaign against the Loppet trails in South Wirth. “Usually, you see them every single night, anytime after dark.”

Schmidt said the Park Board hasn’t observed any wildlife change. “If we believed we were being detrimental,” he said, “we would do something about it.”

Contact Mary O’Regan at moregan@mnpubs.com or 436-5088.