By Ellen Rogers, Friends of the Mississippi River

This summer, a native prairie in the heart of Hastings will blossom black-eyed Susans and wild bergamot, attracting pollinators and enhancing Vermillion River Linear Park. For five years, Hastings High School field biology classes led by teacher Joe Beattie have teamed up with Friends of the Mississippi River to help restore and monitor habitat.

The city park - a 60-acre strip between the 10-Mile Scenic Circuit and the Vermillion River as it runs through Hastings west of Highway 61 and south of Vermillion Road - is partway through its multi-year ecological restoration. Its native prairie and woodlands along the river provide habitat for wildlife and keep the river cleaner.

"The challenge is that people bike by and walk by on the paved trail, but they don't know this is a park, they don't know it's being restored, and they don't know there's been so much student involvement in that restoration," Beattie said.

So this year, in addition to invasive species removals and native planting outings, Beattie assigned another project to his field biology class: the creation of a park sign.

In a culminating assignment, students reflected on all they'd learned about Vermillion River Linear Park - how it had changed over the centuries, what ecological threats the Vermillion River now faces, and how restoration work helps protect waters. Students designed signs using photographs taken on their fieldwork trips, and wrote about the complex issues they'd encountered such as the way invasive plants degrade habitat and contribute to water quality issues.

Three students from Erik Dietz's wood shop class constructed the sign kiosk. On May 20, students placed the final sign, a composite of their design projects finalized by Friends of the Mississippi River, in the ground. Isaac Samuelson, one of Beattie's students, hadn't seen the final product before that afternoon.

"We put in a lot of work on this sign. I'm glad it paid off," Samuelson said.

Friends of the Mississippi River ecologist Alex Roth, city of Hastings parks and recreation operations and maintenance supervisor Cory Likes, and at-large director of Hastings Environmental Protectors Phil Vieth helped students place the sign.

Vieth congratulated the students on their fieldwork, but also stressed the importance of communicating about it. "You can do all the good restoration work you want, but you also have to let people know about it to increase awareness and help them realize the value of native plantings."

You can see the sign midway along the paved trail that runs parallel to Bohlken Drive through Vermillion River Linear Park.

The work in the park and on the signs has been a community-wide investment. Additional project partners and funders include the United Way of Hastings, the city of Hastings, 3M Cottage Grove, Flint Hills Resources, the Outdoor Heritage Fund as part of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

Beattie and his students also help restore and protect other areas along the river by participating in Vermillion River Stewards events with FMR and the local watershed district, the Vermillion River Joint Powers Organization.