After Flooding, the Revival of an Ecosystem

In 1997 the Red River Valley, which spans across the North Dakota and Minnesota border, experienced the most severe flooding it had seen since 1826. While Grand Forks took the brunt of the damage, residential areas along the valley in Fargo were evacuated, and many homes were destroyed.

In the aftermath, the city of Fargo purchased the land (and homes) in the floodplain. The homes were razed and the area was banned from development.

Jane Pettinger, a Lion who lives in Fargo, not far from the River, says the area was in limbo. The homes had been torn down, but the landscaping and some driveways remained. One day a fellow Lion was walking through the area with his wife when she mentioned it could make a lovely park.

Fargo Lions help maintain a park in an old floodplain.

He brought the idea to the club and they agreed. They partnered with River Keepers, a local nonprofit advocating for safe and sustainable use of the Red River, and little by little they built a park.

They mowed paths through the grasses—former lawns, mostly Kentucky bluegrass, that had grown tall—created a small amphitheater for small classes, and built a viewing stand in the trees to watch the native wildlife that had eagerly returned the area. A boy scout created the original sign as an eagle project, and when it began to look a bit faded, Pettinger’s own son created a new one for his eagle scout project.

“It’s very well-used,” says Pettinger. She says on any given day there are typically at least a dozen people at the park, fishing, bird watching, or just relaxing and enjoying nature.

In 2014 Audubon Dakota established the Urban Woods and Prairies Initiative, which aims to re-establish native riparian habitat diversity to combat the rapid decline of even the most common bird species. The initiative works with cities and park districts to target floodplain buyout properties to create quality habitat for birds.

“The Red River corridor is important for native birds,” says Sarah Hewitt, Conservation Programs Manager at Audubon Dakota. It’s particularly an important migratory route for the golden-winged warbler and is the only intact migration corridor for more than 20 species of birds.

Audubon Dakota brought the Fargo Lions park into the program in 2016 and began removing the buckthorn and replacing the turf grass with native grasses and wildflowers. “Incorporating a wildly diverse mix of plants creates a diversity of wildlife that can use the area,” says Hewitt.

“Keeping migration corridors intact is particularly important because when these are fragmented, populations are impacted,” says Hewitt. “It means [birds] can’t breed properly or find the resources they need to survive.”

The conservation plan includes several years of coaxing the reestablishment of native seedlings, helping to keep weeds and invasive species at bay until the native plants can establish themselves.

When Audubon’s seven-year plan is completed, Fargo Lions hope to continue as stewards of the land, continuing the conservation of the important landscape well into the future. “We just want it to be educational,” says Pettinger.