MOORHEAD - From devastation, to tillage, to sprouting native grasses and flowers - flood-ravaged land along the Red River is coming full circle thanks to conservation efforts to restore the land back to its natural state.
What started as a small project by a nonprofit group to create more urban bird habitat has turned into a full-fledged community effort to rebuild the grassland and woodland areas in Fargo-Moorhead near the Red.
The prairie restoration is a result of the Urban Woods and Prairies Initiative, paid for by Audubon Dakota, the nonprofit group also overseeing the work.
Five miles north of Moorhead near Oakport Township, land once devastated by floods has been transformed through tilling and planting last year into a 113-acre field of flowers and knee-high native grasses.
Since 2015, when the initiative was launched, 381 of the 850 acres enrolled in the program have been restored, according to Sarah Hewitt, conservation programs manager for Audubon Dakota. The remaining acres will be restored or enhanced by removing invasive species by the end of next summer, she said.
"Restoring the habitats helps get people outdoors and immersed in nature in their own city," Hewitt said. "Fargo and Moorhead haven't had that to be a local resource yet. It's been really exciting to see this grow, and there's endless potential."
In addition to restoring the once devastated land, a goal of the initiative is flood mitigation.
"The planting of the native grasses helps stabilize the fragile river banks," said Kristie Leshovsky, a Moorhead planner. "These grasses have stronger roots than the existing turf grass which make the river corridor sturdier."
In the future, Leshovsky said she hopes the restored habitat will provide educational opportunities for students.
"I'm excited to see these sites come to fruition and transform into beautiful prairies," she said. "But one of the best parts is that the initiative will only spread throughout the community."
Moorhead parks maintenance manager Michael Schroeder said another benefit of the prairie restoration is that it saves money on mowing.
"With the growing of native grasses, we will mow maybe once or twice a year. If it wasn't for the restoration, we mow the turf grass about once every two weeks," he said.
It takes about five years to successfully restore the native habitat, Hewitt said, and about 30 years of maintenance, which will be done by a company called Prairie Restorations Inc.
Along with Prairie Restorations, Audubon Dakota has partnered with the cities of Fargo and Moorhead, the Fargo Park District, Cass and Clay counties, the Buffalo Red River Watershed District and North Dakota State University for the initiative.
The estimated project cost is about $500,000, which came from grants and individual donors, Hewitt said.
Hewitt said Audubon Dakota has reached out to a number of North Dakota cities, including Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot, with the hopes of expanding the initiative.