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Minnesota tribe buys up land to restore prairie

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By Patrick Condon -- Associated Press

PRIOR LAKE, Minn. (AP) - A 30-acre field where corn and soybeans were once grown is now covered with Canada wild rye, big bluestem, Golden Alexander and compass plant - the same grasses and flowers the pioneers saw as they pushed westward across the American prairie in the 1800s.

This small patch of prairie next to a condominium complex in suburban Minneapolis did not suddenly appear on its own. Instead, it was painstakingly restored at great cost by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux tribe.

Flush with cash from its nearby casino, the tribe has bought up about 125 acres of farmland and wetlands just outside the big city over the past few years and has returned them to the way they looked before the white man herded the Natives onto reservations.

By the end of the year, the Shakopee Mdewakanton hope to begin restoring 450 more acres near the Twin Cities. Most of it is land that has been farmed since at least the 1880s.

''We hold the land in high regard, and we think it's important to return some of these areas to the way they were - the way it was years ago,'' Shakopee Mdewakanton Vice Chairman Glynn Crooks said.

The tribe will not disclose how much it is paying for these chunks of valuable land in this fast-growing part of the state, and it refuses to discuss its finances. But while many tribes live in crushing poverty, the Mdewakanton are prospering.

Its Mystic Lake casino, which opened in 1992 about 30 miles from downtown Minneapolis and is the biggest gaming hall in Minnesota, has generated millions for the tribe and made its estimated 300 members rich.

Other tribes also want to use the land the way their ancestors did. South Dakota's Rosebud Sioux are raising a bison herd. Members of Nebraska's Winnebago tribe are encouraged to harvest wild plums and chokecherries to improve their diets, and milkweed for a traditional soup.

For the Mdewakanton, who own about 2,400 acres in all, the prairie restoration process is laborious and expensive.

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The tribe's scientists study old maps and other records to figure out the mix of plants that will bring a piece of land closest to its historical character. Then they destroy the crops with herbicide, turn over the dirt and plant grass and flower seeds.

The seeds alone are perhaps the most expensive part. Many are rare and hard to find, and the companies that sell them often must harvest them by hand.

''Some of these seeds are worth more than their weight in precious metals,'' said Mike Whitt, an environmental specialist for the Mdewakanton tribe. He said the tribe has spent about $600 an acre just to buy the seed mix needed to create prairie.

For the first few years after the restoration, crews have to tend the prairies closely, spraying for weeds, mowing the grass and conducting controlled burns every year or two to rejuvenate the land, kill the unwanted plants and encourage native varieties.

The tribe has gone to similar lengths to bring back several wetlands that had been drained for farming.

In both cases, Whitt said, the work is starting to pay off in the return of native animal species to the restored areas.

''The meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows are returning,'' Whitt said. ''They won't if it's a farm field. Wild turkeys, pheasants, deer - we're seeing more of all of them.''

Not all of the land the Mdewakanton is buying up will be restored to prairie and wetland. And some that has been restored may at some point be turned back over for development so that members of the tribe can construct new homes, said Stan Ellison, land and natural resources manager for the tribe.

Ron Bowen, owner of Minnesota-based Prairie Restoration Inc., which has been in the land restoration business for 30 years and has sold seeds to the Mdewakanton, said more tribes seem to be interested in the process.

''I think there's a lot of people who sense intuitively that we've done a lot to disturb the planet - we all have - and we have to do something to give a little bit back,'' Bowen said. ''For a group like the Mdewakanton, there's something even more. You might say they're trying to recapture history altogether.''

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