Rivers of Southeast Minnesota

Protecting the Root River

See what we’re doing to protect this important trout fishery.

Protecting the Root River

Southeast Minnesota, with its striking bluffs, deeply carved river valleys and excellent trout fishing, may be one of the upper Midwest’s best kept secrets.

Largely untouched by the glaciers that scoured other parts of the state, it is a unique part of Minnesota characterized by caves, sinkholes, springs and the cold water streams favored by trout.

“I’m a fly fisherman, and I love catching trout,” said Rich Biske, the Conservancy’s Southeast Minnesota conservation coordinator. “But when I’m on the Root River, or any of the other rivers in southeast Minnesota, I spend as much time gawking at the scenery—thick forests in one direction and rocky cliffs and prairies in the other—as fishing.”

The very features that make this part of Minnesota unique, however, also make it vulnerable.

“In a region like southeast Minnesota with steep topography and thin soils, the landscape is susceptible to heavy water runoff, soil erosion and nutrient leaching,” said Biske. “All of these things damage our rivers and aquatic plants and animals.”

Keeping the rivers in southeast Minnesota healthy is a conservation priority for The Nature Conservancy. Doing so will help sustain and enhance recreation opportunities and tourism, prevent some of the worst impacts of flooding and eventually lead to a self-sustaining trout fishery.

Diversity Remains Despite Land Use Changes

Prior to European settlement in the 19th century, this part of Minnesota, known as the Driftless Area, was covered with tallgrass prairie and oak savanna on the ridge tops, sugar maple-basswood forest in the moister areas, oak forested hills and wet prairie in the floodplains along the rivers.  

Today, much of the region has been converted to cropland and pasture. Rapid growth of nearby cities, including Rochester, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, has increased rural development on bluff tops and other once remote areas. More roads and buildings fragment the landscape, disturbing forest habitat, increasing already high soil erosion rates and creating more opportunities for invasive species like buckthorn, honeysuckle, multiflora rose and garlic mustard to take hold.

Yet despite the changes, Biske said, “the area’s bluffs and valleys are still home to high quality cliffs, forests, oak savannas and prairies, and many rare plants and animals.” 

Thanks to this diversity, southeast Minnesota is highly regarded for trout fishing, hunting, hiking and biking. Outdoor recreation is a significant part of the local economy and heritage, drawing visitors from across the upper Midwest. Unlike northern Minnesota or other parts of the state, however, less than three percent of the land is open to the public and very little has been protected as parks or other natural areas.

Expanding Conservation of Southeast Rivers

The Nature Conservancy has been working with farmers and county, state and academic partners to restore and protect water quality in the Root River watershed for many years. More recently, we have expanded the scope of our work to include the Cannon, Zumbro, Whitewater and other rivers in southeast Minnesota.

“Some of the unique natural features, plants and animals in the Root River watershed also exist in other river basins in the region,” said Biske. “So we’re taking what we’ve learned in the Root and applying it to these river systems, which will not only provide local benefits, but contribute to cleaner water downstream in the Mississippi River.

One of the first steps the Conservancy is taking is to work with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to develop conservation plans for the four river basins that identify the most important lands to conserve to protect water quality and the overall health of the river systems. The Root River watershed plan was the first to be completed.

We started in the Root because the watershed contains some of the most diverse natural and geologic resources in the Midwest,” said Hannah Texler, regional plant ecologist with the MDNR, who helped develop the Root River plan. “We’ve lost a lot of the oak savanna and floodplain forest in the basin, and very little of what remains is protected in any way.”

“Planning is an important first step,” added Biske, “so we can ensure that Clean Water Fund and other public and private dollars are used where they have the biggest impact on water quality and the overall health of these river systems.”

The Conservancy and its partners, including the MDNR and the Minnesota Land Trust, have begun negotiating with landowners in the Root River watershed to protect and restore high priority forest and grassland habitat along the river, in the floodplains, on the bluffs and adjacent to protected areas.

We’re also exploring other conservation strategies including providing technical assistance to private forest and grassland landowners for natural resource management; pursuing funding for management and restoration of native habitat on public lands; and building awareness among citizens, natural resources managers and others of the significance of the rivers, bluffs and other natural features and the importance of keeping them healthy.

“Much of the focus in Minnesota up until now has been on cleaning up rivers that are already degraded,” said Biske.  “Our goal in southeast Minnesota is to act now to ensure that the Root and other rivers in the southeast, which are still in fairly good shape, stay that way for trout, anglers, canoers, local communities and all of us who love this unique corner of Minnesota.”


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