The Arboretum

11 November 2016
Carleton Arboretum

The Cowling Arboretum is a defining feature of the Carleton campus: 800 acres of prairie, bottomland forest, and wooded hills, flanked by the Cannon River and laced with 14 miles of trail. The Arb showcases the landscape much as it appeared hundreds of years ago—minus Dakota encampments near Olin Farm House.

When botany professor Harvey Stork proposed in 1926 that Carleton devote several hundred acres of recently purchased land to the creation of an arboretum, he envisioned a scientific and research grounds where thousands of species of trees and shrubs from around the world might be planted and tested in Minnesota’s frigid climate. He sought to model Carleton’s facility after the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, the likes of which didn’t exist in the Midwest.

“Stork saw it as bringing something to Carleton that was not being done anywhere else [in the region],” says Arb director Nancy Braker ’81. “There was a lot of support—from nursery growers and scientists from the University of Minnesota—for that idea when it was proposed because they did not have such a resource.”

Research at the Arb came to a standstill when Stork retired in 1955. Its fields were eroding and its trails were rutted by cars. In the 1970s, geology professor Ed Buchwald and biology professor Gary Wagenbach resurrected interest in the Arb, envisioning it instead as a showcase of conservation and preservation of native plant communities. They found eager support among students who had taken up the banners of ecology and environmentalism in the wake of the first Earth Day.

In 1991 Carleton hired biology professor Mark McKone to serve as the Arb’s first director and he hired Myles Bakke as full-time manager. Bakke began clearing brush, planting prairie and native trees, and conducting prescribed burns to create the prairies and open woodlands that stood on the uplands hundreds of years ago. In addition to an about-face in its mission, the Arb has evolved in other ways over the years. “Deer populations are much higher in the Arb than they were in the past,” says Braker. “They like to be on the edge between forest and open land—they’re too vulnerable in the prairie—and we’ve created a lot of edge habitat. They also don’t have many predators.”

In the old days, deer were culled by wolves, black bears, the occasional mountain lion, and Dakota hunters. Now, archers harvest about 10 white-tailed deer each year to reduce damage to young trees, spring wildflowers, and other native plants.

While white-tailed deer have become more common, several other animals once found in the Arb are now absent completely. Though their presence was brief and predates the formation of the Arb, mountain lions and even grizzly bears existed here in low numbers, while bison, elk, and passenger pigeons were once plentiful.

Indeed, humans have been altering the “natural” landscape in the area for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. “It was a created landscape because of frequent burning by Native Americans,” says Braker. The Dakota set fires to overgrown woodlands to create more favorable conditions for deer and other game.

“I was hired specifically to increase academic use of the Arb,” continues Braker. “From my perspective, that’s been the most important change in the past 10 years. After a long period of restoration, we now have a place that is a huge benefit not just to animal species, but also as an academic resource to students and faculty members in art, biology, geology, archeology, and anthropology.”

Posted In