Helen Allison Savanna Scientific and Natural Area

The preserve is part of the Anoka Sandplain, which was formed about 16,000 years ago by glacial meltwater. Approximately 1,000 to 1,500 years after the glaciers retreated, a community of conifers (mostly spruce) covered much of the land. 

With a warmer climate, birch replaced spruce, and later oak supplanted birch. Helen Allison is an excellent example of oak savanna. Today, less than 65,000 acres of oak savanna remain in the Midwest-two-tenths of one percent of the pre-settlement savanna.

Anoka County, 20 miles north of Minneapolis/St. Paul

85 acres

Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
The major reason for acquiring the preserve was to protect the dwindling acreage of oak savanna. The Helen Allison Savanna Preserve is adjacent to the southern-most portion of the 5,460-acre Cedar Creek Natural History Area, which is managed by the University of Minnesota. Collaborative research has been conducted frequently by The Nature Conservancy, the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota.

What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
In 1960, The Nature Conservancy acquired the land, thanks to a substantial donation by Helen Allison Irvine. She was known as Minnesota's "Grass Lady", and she wrote The Key to Grasses of Minnesota, a reference work on 180 species of grasses found in the state. Starting in 1962, about a third of the savanna has been burned each year on a rotating basis. University of Minnesota Botanist Dr. Donald Lawrence initiated the recovery of the old field area by hand seeding prairie species in the 1960's and 1970's. In 1979, the preserve was designated a Scientific and Natural Area by the State of Minnesota, following a thorough inventory of species.

What to See: Plants
Oak savanna, which consists of oak trees scattered over prairie vegetation, occupies 54 acres of the preserve. Other areas include dune blowouts, wet meadows, willow and aspen thickets, and old fields. Helen Allison also harbors more than 200 species of vascular plants.

Dominant trees and shrubs in the preserve include northern pin oak, bur oak, American hazelnut, choke cherry, and quaking aspen. Dominant grasses include big and little bluestem, Indian grass and porcupine grass.

Other common species include lead plant, steeple bush, silky prairie clover, rough blazing star, asters and goldenrods. Another interesting prairie species is the rhombic-petaled evening primrose, a species of special concern in Minnesota.

What to See: Animals
A survey of avian life discovered 45 species of birds, including hawks, warblers, and waterfowl. The seldom-seen lark sparrow nests on the preserve. Amphibians and reptiles making their home at the Savanna include the eastern tiger salamander, spring peeper, gray treefrog, wood frog, and bullsnake (or gopher snake).

For more information on visiting this and other Minnesota preserves, check out our Preserve Visitation Guidelines.


From the Twin Cities:

  • Travel north on State Highway 65, 35 miles to County Highway 24.
  • Turn east and travel 1 mile to County Highway 26.  
  • Go east on 26, 3.5 miles to County Road 15.
  • Turn south and drive .25 mile. The preserve lies on the west side of the road. Nearest services are in Bethel.

Have you been to this preserve? Are you thinking of visiting? See what others are saying about their experiences and add your comments below.

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Time for you to join the discussion. Tell us about your experience at this preserve. What plants and animals did you see? When did you go? You can help others plan their visit when you share your thoughts. And thank you for visiting one of our nature preserves!

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