Master Plan: Current Conditions
As a result of the strong citizen interest expressed in parks, trails and open spaces during the county comprehensive planning process in 1999, the Benton County Board of Commissioners approved the establishment of a separate Park Department. A full-time Park Director was appointed in 2001.
This new structure created the foundation necessary to support the development of the county park program and reinforced the need to plan, manage and maintain a park, trail and open space system designed to meet the growing needs of the county.
The following organizational chart portrays the line of authority governing the park program:
Natural Resources and Open Space
Benton County supports a wide variety of natural communities and landforms resulting from its rich geologic, ecological, and human history. Natural resources include the soils, water, plants, animals and people that are found in any given place. The particular features present in an area and their patterns in the landscape are the result of historical processes including climate, hydrology, plant and animal migrations and interactions, and more recently human decisions and activities. To get a clearer picture of why the area supports this array of natural communities, we need to take a look into the past. This section describes the role these interactions have played in determining the present day composition of natural communities found in Benton County.
The physical record in the local landscape begins more than 500 million years ago when much of Minnesota was covered by water and the sedimentary and metamorphic rock layers that lie under the area were formed. This bedrock lies buried under glacial sediments in the immediate area. Although much of the bedrock in Benton County is buried, there are some areas where it is exposed. Most notable among these are rock outcrops along the Mississippi River, including Peace Rock, and a large area in Granite Ledge Township where granite lies at or close to the surface.
Glacial Landscapes. The vast majority of topography in the area was shaped by the last period of glaciation, which ended in this region of Minnesota about 10,000 years ago. It is referred to as the "Wisconsin Stage." The glaciers sculpted the landscape and left behind a variety of deposits, including drift/till and outwash composed of sand and gravel, and also windblown deposits of very fine sediment, called loess. Drumlins formed by ice flowing around previous deposits, and serpentine-like hills called Eskers, are common in Benton County, and account for some of the most interesting landscape features.
After numerous advances into the region, the Superior Lobe of the Wisconsin glacier retreated permanently about 20,000 years ago. Most of Benton County is gently rolling as a result of being part of the Brainerd-Pierz Drumlin Field and Mississippi River Terrace landforms. The streams that deposited the sands on the Mississippi River terraces were less powerful in the Benton County area, but were stronger and flowed more swiftly as they flowed southeast.
The topography, soils, and pattern of streams, lakes and wetlands that resulted from glacial activity greatly influenced the pattern of vegetation and plant communities that developed later in Benton County. Existing plant communities such as Oak Woodland and Savannas and Prairies are well adapted to the droughty soils and rolling topography of this area, while wetlands occur in depressions and swales with denser, hydric soils. In the northeast portion of the County, conditions are favorable to support larger stands of forest, including White Pine-Hardwood forest stands.
Post-glacial Vegetation. Immediately after the glaciers melted, spruce trees and tundra colonized the periglacial environment. This was later followed by pine barrens and forests with a bracken fern dominated ground layer. As the climate of the region warmed about 9,000 years ago, pines began to decline and prairie plants increased along with elm and oak forests. The climate remained in this warm period until about 7,000 years ago when midgrass prairie reached its maximum extent in Minnesota, to a line northeast of Benton County.
Prairie, oak woodlands and brushlands, and oak savanna consisting of scattered trees with a prairie-like ground cover dominated the Region until about 4,000 years ago when the climate continued to become gradually cooler and more moist. Oak thickets spread, and oak woodlands gradually dominated upland areas, interspersed with tall grass and wet prairies. White pines also migrated into the area from the north as the climate cooled. About 300 years ago, the climate became especially moist and cool, and fires became less frequent. As a result, forests and white pine trees became more common in the area.
Government Land Office Surveyor Notes: One of the best sources of information regarding the area’s vegetation can be found in the notes of surveyors for the General Land Office (GLO). At about the time of settlement, private crews contracted by the U.S. GLO surveyed the area. These crews established section lines, corners and townships before the area was widely settled. The surveyors were directed to mark or "blaze" as many as four trees at section corners and half section lines. The diameter and species of each of these trees was then recorded in a surveyors log. When these crews worked in Benton County they found the northeast portion of the county included more continuous tracts of deciduous forest, with wet prairie and conifer bogs common in low-lying areas. They encountered a relatively open landscape in the west and southern parts of the county that was dominated by prairie, brush prairie, oak openings and barrens, and wet prairie.
In 1821, Henry Schoolcraft described the prairies along the Mississippi River about 20 river miles southeast of the current Benton County line and noted that American Indians commonly burned prairies along the river to corner bison. The fires Schoolcraft described, once started, spread rapidly on the nearly level terrain, helping to maintain the open and treeless landscape until Euroamerican settlers arrived. This scenario was also likely along the Mississippi in Benton County and would account for the dominance of prairie and savanna in the south and western parts of the county at the time of settlement.
Native Americans: Ideas about the history of American Indians and their influence on the local landscape are still evolving. American Indians have probably inhabited and hunted in the area for more than 10,000 years. While the level of impacts were not as great as those of European settlers, American Indians used a wide variety of plants and animals for food, and altered vegetation patterns by cultivating and frequently burning the landscape.
The Indians (and European fur traders) used fire to hunt game; create desired wildlife habitat; clear the landscape for travel, communication and defense; and to obtain firewood. While some fires in the region occurred naturally, the activities of American Indians increased the frequency of fires such that much of the prairie in the southwestern half of Minnesota may have been burned annually, or every few years. Prairies and savannas are fire-dependent plant communities, and may not have been present in Benton County at the time of European settlement without the influence of fire acting in concert with large grazers.
Current Natural Areas
At the time of settlement, around 1850-60, the landscape in the area included a rich variety of plant communities including various types of wetlands in low areas, prairie and oak savanna in the south and west, with deciduous forests, wet prairie and bogs common in the northeast. As the patchwork of agricultural uses of the land increased after settlement, more intense human activities began to change the landscape and natural communities. More recently, metropolitan expansion and rural development have impacted remaining natural areas. Overall, in Benton County today, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of the native landscape has been significantly altered from its original state, or lost when converted to uses such as rowcrop agriculture and development. Many of the remaining natural areas have persisted because they occur on soils that are shallow, droughty, saturated, or nutrient poor, or sites that occur on steep slopes.
Minnesota DNR County Biological Survey
During the 1990’s the MN DNR County Biological Survey documented a number of high-quality natural areas as they worked in Benton County (please see the Minnesota County Biological Survey map included at the end of this section). It should be noted that while the MCBS documents only the highest-quality remaining natural areas, there are numerous lesser-quality areas within Benton County that could be managed to improved quality. With a few exceptions, the remaining high-quality natural areas are concentrated in a few areas in the county.
- One of these concentrations is at the confluence of the Platte and Mississippi rivers in the northwest part of the county. In the Platte River valley, slopes are steep and soils tend to be droughty as a result of sandy river terrace deposits. Here, there is an occurrence of quality dry oak savanna and a few small dry prairies.
- Further down the river, southeast of Rice, there are high-quality areas including wet meadow, shrub swamp and floodplain forest. Moving again down the river, just downstream from the confluence of Little Rock Lake with the Mississippi is a relatively large dry oak savanna, and several scattered granite outcrops that were noted by MCBS as high quality. Significant in this area, too, are the natural areas that occur on the Graves Property. This property was strongly supported for parkland acquisition during the early stages of this planning process, and was actually purchased before completing this master park plan.
- The corridor along Little Rock Creek, both north and south of Little Rock Lake, hosts the greatest variety of high-quality natural community types found in the county. This broad corridor includes such varied natural communities as maple-basswood forest, oak forest, dry oak savanna, dry prairie, shrub swamp, and rich fen.
- Just northeast of Sauk Rapids and Highway 10, MCBS staff documented a rich fen, oak forest, and wet meadow. Together these total a sizeable 250-300 acres. This area is part of the orderly annexation agreement for Sauk Rapids, and is at high risk for development; however, the County owns 40 acres of this natural area. The county-owned property is "landlocked" lowland and is not likely to be suitable for development.
- Minden Township hosts the only occurrence of mesic prairie in Benton County. This area, known as Thielen Prairie, supports a population of the state-listed tubercled-rein orchid Platanthera flava, and occurs adjacent to other open, grassy areas that have been pastured and have the potential to serve as a larger prairie/savanna natural area.
- Granite Ledge Township supports the largest and most contiguous parcels of deciduous forest in the County, including oak, maple-basswood, and white pine-hardwood forests, and a few wetland areas of significant quality. This township also hosts the best example of White Pine-hardwood forest in Benton, Mille Lacs, and Morrison County. MCBS staff thought so highly of this stand that they recommended it be used as a reference stand for restoration of white-pine hardwood forests elsewhere. Since the MCBS staff visited the forests in the Granite Ledge area, rural development and logging have occurred on a number of parcels. These activities resulted in lowering the overall quality of those particular tracts—for decades in the case of logging, and more permanently for those with structures placed in them.
- Glendorado Township in the southeast part of the county has several maple-basswood forests that are considered to be high quality. One of these was apparently logged in about 1998, but was reported to have been selectively cut in a way that did not substantially harm the overall quality of the site.
- Conspicuously absent from the MCBS map are high-quality natural communities within Maywood, Gilmanton, Mayhew Lake, St. George Township, and most of Alberta and Graham Township.
Natural community types that were noted by MCBS staff are listed in the Appendix. These correspond to the MCBS map included on the next page. These are DRAFT descriptions obtained in July 2002 while DNR staff was in the process of internal review of the information.
Despite the apparently few high-quality natural communities mapped by the MCBS, there is a significant amount of land in the county that supports natural communities of lesser quality. These lesser-quality areas have, in some way, had their characteristic species composition, three-dimensional structure, or overall function, altered. Some of the activities that may impact quality include things such as logging, intensive long-term grazing, ditching, road building, development and others. Some influences such as logging and grazing have the potential to be corrected through natural processes or with active management. Activities such as plowing, road building and development cause a permanent loss. Because most natural areas have some potential to improve in quality with time and/or active management, these somewhat lower quality natural areas play an important role in the big picture of natural areas within Benton County. Similar to the overall character of the County, the most common lesser-quality natural areas in the south and west are savanna-like areas, woodlands, wet meadows and prairie, with forested areas being most common in the north and east.
There are number of geologic features within the county that 1) occur in association with high-quality plant communities, 2) are known to have historical significance, or 3) stand as unique features on their own. Below is a brief list of some of the most prominent geologic features in the county.
- Peace Rock – along the Mississippi River in Watab Township, Peace Rock has historical significance as a neutral meeting place for Native American tribes, and as supporting a significant (MCBS-mapped) plant community type. It is also significant because it occurs within the Mississippi River corridor.
- Granite Ledge Township – this area has shallow soils and substantial areas where bedrock is at the surface. These occur with significant stands of forest and in the vicinity of a small waterfall on the Rum River.
- Eskers – These glacial features are serpentine-like hills that form as meltwater stream sediments stack upward from the ground, under a glacial ice sheet. There appear to be several of these interesting glacial features in the south and east part of the county. These sharp, short hills are typically droughty and often support savanna-like areas with scattered, open-grown oak trees.
- Drumlins – although not prominent, these hills are scattered across the landscape in western Benton County. They are teardrop-shaped hills that are oriented from east to west and result from glacial ice flowing around previous deposits. Because the drumlins in Benton County are relatively low-lying, many of them are farmed across, or inconspicuous in wooded areas.
- Langdon Terrace – is the large terrace along the Mississippi River. It has typically sandy soils and supports a variety of quality natural communities. It forms the broad expanse seen from Highway 10, looking toward the Mississippi River. This landform supports some of the best remaining examples of savanna and prairie in the county.
There are several major streams, including the Mississippi River, in Benton County that serve as important corridors for wildlife. These surface water features serve to connect natural areas and enable the movement of plants and animals and the chance for isolated natural areas to maintain their quality and function. Below is a brief summary of the major stream corridors in Benton County:
- Mississippi River – Chief among the corridors in the county is the Mississippi River, a migratory corridor of national significance used by migratory birds, fish, far-ranging mammals, plants, and others. The river provides added significance to natural features that occur near it.
- Little Rock Creek/Lake – this corridor supports a wide variety of natural communities and provides a relatively continuous tract of natural areas from Little Rock Lake to north of the Benton County line.
- Mayhew Creek/Mayhew Lake – although much of this watershed is under cultivation and portions are ditched, the area immediately adjacent to the stream itself is mostly in permanent cover. This provides wildlife opportunity for travel. Also of interest is Mayhew Lake and the shared watershed/stream channel with Little Rock Creek to the north of the lake (known as a stream bifurcation). Although not mapped by the MN DNR MCBS, the confluence of Mayhew Creek and Elk River supports a large, contiguous tract of moderate-quality natural communities of local significance.
- Elk River – this watershed originates north of Benton County and ends well to the south, in the City of Elk River. It constitutes the major watershed in the central portion of the county. It supports a relatively unbroken network of moderate-quality natural areas and permanent agricultural cover such as pastures through the county. As noted in the Mayhew Creek description, the confluence of Mayhew Creek and Elk River supports a large, contiguous tract of natural communities of local significance.
- St. Francis River – the watershed for this small river represents a significant portion of eastern Benton County with the headwaters in Alberta Township. The immediate area around the river supports a wide variety of wetlands, forest, and grassland, as well as areas in permanent nonnative plant cover and rowcrops for agriculture. The stream corridor is significant in a regional sense because it serves as a connection between areas inside Benton County and Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge to the south.
- West Fork Rum River – this is a tributary for one of the major river systems in central Minnesota that extends from Lake Mille Lacs to the Mississippi River in Anoka. The portion of the Rum River watershed that occurs in Benton County is small but supports a significant portion of the county’s remaining quality natural communities—in particular oak forest. It also occurs in an area with significant granite bedrock near the surface that forms the falls area in Granite Ledge Township.
- Donovan Lake – this small lake significantly represents the only natural, deep marsh/shallow lake in Benton County. It occurs in a somewhat secluded area that is visually isolated from surrounding roads. The immediate area around the lake has a number of moderate-quality natural communities, including a deciduous woodland and a planted pine stand, that have the potential to be managed to an improved quality. These natural areas help to buffer the lake from surrounding land uses.
The Benton County Park System currently consists of four developed parks and three undeveloped parks. They are:
- Benton Beach Park (30 +/- acres): This is the largest and most popular park in the county system. Its primary recreational features include a swimming beach, campground with both tent and RV sites, restroom and shower house, boat launch area, picnic facilities, playgrounds and a conference center complete with a two-story deck overlooking Little Rock Lake. The two picnic shelters and the conference center are available to rent.
- Mayhew Lake Park (4.4+/- acres): This park provides public access onto Mayhew Lake. Amenities include an improved boat launch, picnic tables and grills. Portable restrooms are provided.
- St. Regis Park (0.6 acres): This relatively small neighborhood park provides picnic tables and grills and portable restrooms. During the summer, the gate is closed to prevent erosion in the Shoreland Zone; however, visitors can easily walk in from the parking area. During winter months, the gate is open and it is a popular access onto Little Rock Lake for ice fishing.
- RoseAnna Beach (0.6 acres): This relatively small neighborhood park includes a picnic table and grill, and provides winter access onto Little Rock Lake.
- St. George Township Park (17 +/- acres): This parkland is undeveloped at this time. County residents donated this land, and deed restrictions indicate that it can be only used for wildlife habitat and nature study.
- Wapicada Village / Mayhew Park (12.5+/- acres): This parkland is undeveloped at this time. The terrain and location in the Watab Creek floodplain make it difficult to access or develop. An abandoned railroad right-of-way (now privately owned) goes through this property.
- Graves Farm: This land was purchased Aug 12, 2002. It consists of 289 acres, including 3,300 feet of undeveloped shoreline on the Mississippi River, a rare feature. High banks provide scenic views of a river bend and islands.
This section provides an inventory of existing trails in Benton County. However, it is important to note that this section does not address trails within parks and open spaces, as those are covered in other sections of this plan.
The only existing trails within Benton County fall under municipal jurisdiction.
There are no existing trails in the county that are part of a countywide park and trail program.
Regional and State Trails
While there are not currently any state trails in Benton County, nor are there links to any state trails, there are connection opportunities to existing trails in adjacent counties. A map of the state’s existing trails is provided on the next page.
- Morrison County has acquired the abandoned Soo Line Rail Corridor between Genola and the Stearns County line, and intends to develop this corridor as the Soo Line Railroad Corridor Recreational Trail. This portion of trail will connect to the existing trail running northeast from Genola to Moose Lake (connecting with the Willard Munger State Trail to Duluth and the North Shore). This same trail will also travel southwest to connect with the Lake Wobegon Trail in Stearns County stretching to Albany, Melrose and Sauk Center to the west.
- The Glacial Lakes State Trail, which travels northeast from Willmar toward Cold Spring in Stearns County, does not enter Benton County but is on a trajectory consistent with connecting to and extending through the County along Highway 23 or the abandoned rail corridor to Milaca and beyond.
- Connections to the north along the Mississippi River could also provide links to the Paul Bunyan State Trail in Brainerd.
A network of snowmobile trails traverses Benton County, providing recreational opportunities and connections to Morrison, Mille Lacs, and Sherburne counties. These trails fall along roadways and across private lands. Because permanent easements have not been obtained for trails that cross private land, these trails are subject to change. Agreements for trail use, mapping, and distribution of snowmobile trail information is done by the private sector, without formal involvement by the County, although the County acts as the fiscal agent for state grants. Equestrian trails do not exist within the County, but interest exists.
Benton County has the following existing roadway system:
- Minnesota Trunk Highways – 82 miles
- County Roads – 227 miles
- County State Aid Highways – 226 miles
- Township Roads – 298 miles
The County could be instrumental in developing trails along selected County Roads and CSAHs, and work with the State and local communities to complete trail segments falling along roadways outside of the County’s jurisdiction.