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A diamond in the swamp

Residents of Woodbury and the surrounding areas will get a chance to see a hidden Twin Cities gem next week on a tour hosted by the city and the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District.

Tamarack Nature Preserve, a rare ecosystem located north of Valley Creek Road off Tower Drive, is home to more than 150 acres of high plant and animal diversity.

The swamp is one-of-a-kind. Boardwalks and trails throughout the area allow people to see the different plant species and enjoy its wildlife.

Environmental Planner Steve Kernik said tamarack swamps are not necessarily rare in Minnesota -- many are located to the north and out in the country.

"But it's rare to have one this far south," he added.

A walk through Tamarack Nature Preserve can take visitors back to pre-settlement days because of the variety of plant communities that were once widespread in areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District.

It also provides an important natural wetland function that cleanses storm water, adds to local groundwater reservoirs and sustains native vegetation and habitat wildlife.

Tamarack trees all around the swamp are a reflection of a time when the species thrived up until 1930. Tamarack trees grow in wet conditions much more than other trees, so in the drought of 1930, many died.

The watershed district planted young Tamarack trees, which can survive in dryer conditions and live for 100 years, to continue preserving the site, said Louise Watson, public information and education coordinator for the watershed district.

Naturalists have been giving tours of the swamp since 2003 and each year it has grown. Watson said 100 people signed up in 2010.

"It gives an understanding of the diversity of the wetland and a sense that this is what wetlands look like in northern Minnesota," she added.

Because more people have taken an interest in ecology and native plants, the tour is divided up into groups based on interest level. Some will get to learn up-close plant identification, others will just stroll through the swamp and read signage that will be up there just for the day.

"We show them a cross section of what it looks like underneath and how the water flows through that area. We talk about the importance of having enough water there so that we don't cut off the flow," Watson said.

Naturalists will explain the delicate balance of the wetland: the need to keep all impervious surface near Tamarack Nature Preserve clean so that polluted surplus doesn't get into the wetland.

"We point out the surrounding area is kind of a forested area, and if you get into the middle of the swamp you get different kinds of vegetation," Watson said.

With modern developments near the swamp -- urban streets, malls and driveways -- water is no longer soaking into the ground and flowing naturally into the swamp, she explained. The ground used to cool the water and clean the water. Now it's rushing on heated surfaces or sometimes even salt.

Which is why there has been much emphasis on keeping the ground clean of dirt, grass clippings and salt that runs off when the snow melts.

"We can't eliminate any of these pollution problems, but we control what we can, and reduce it as much as we can," Watson said.

The tour is free and open to the public. The boardwalk and trails make it convenient for the walk through. Attendees may be able to find broad-leaf cattails native to Minnesota, or one of the other distinct plant communities that include Beggarstick, Joe-pye-weed, white turtlehead, fern and wild calla and poison sumac.

"This Tamarack swamp, you just don't find them around here," Kernik said.

The tour will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14, but pre-registration is requested by July 11. Sign up by calling Shelly at (651) 792-7965 or sending an email to Interested individuals should meet at the preserve parking lot at 1825 Tower Drive at 6:30 p.m.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.