Hardwood Hills

The information and resources on this webpage are designed to help woodland landowners in west-central Minnesota. The Hardwood Hills area spans all or parts of Becker, Clearwater, Douglas, Kandiyohi, Mahnomen, Meeker, Morrison, Otter Tail, Polk, Stearns, Todd, and Wright counties.

Woodlands in this area

This area is where the forests meet the prairies and is home to a diversity of forest, prairie, and savanna habitats, numerous lakes and wetlands, and abundant wildlife.

Area covered by handbook

Area covered by handbook

Click to enlarge



West-central Minnesota is home to a thousands of wildlife species. Learning about the animals that live in your woods is a great way to connect to the habitat. Get to know your critters and keep on the lookout when you walk your property. Minnesota has about 350 species in greatest conservation need that are either rare, declining, or threatened. Examples in your area include the common mudpuppy (salamander), red-shouldered hawk, veery (songbird), least weasel, fluted-shell mollusk, least darter (freshwater fish), and the smooth green snake.

Minnesota Biological Survey » collects data on rare plants and animals, native plant communities, and landscapes. Use it to find out about species in your county.

Pollinators - learn about what you can do to help these important insects and birds.


The list of plants for this area is exhausting. From small flowers, to ferns, to towering pines, it would be impossible to name them all! Getting familiar with the common native shrubs and trees in your area is a great way to start. Find the right tree for your property.

Wood lot Tree Planting and Care - learn about native landscaping, what trees to plant, where to find native tree stock, and what to know before you plant.

Native Plant Communities

To more easily keep track of all the plants, ecologists use native plant communities, which are groups of native plants that interact with each other and with their environment. These groups of native plant species form recognizable units, such as oak savannas, pine forests, or marshes, that tend to repeat over space and time. The native plant communities tie into the ecological classification system that describes a given landscape area of the state. West-central Minnesota include Southern Dry-Mesic Oak Woodland (mesic means between wet and dry), Central Mesic Hardwood Forest, or Southern Rich Conifer Swamp. It is especially important to protect these communities from conversion to other land uses. Several local types of forested native plant communities are highlighted below.


West-Central Minnesota Native Plant Community Spotlights:

Southern Dry-Mesic Oak Woodland

Southern Dry Savanna

Central Mesic Hardwood Forest



Habitat Spotlight:

Mature Hardwood Forests

Invasive Species

Invasive species are plants, animals, and insects that are not native to Minnesota and cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. There are many things you can do to reduce invasive species on your land.

Intruder Alert!
Spotted Knapweed
Emerald Ash Borer - (not yet found in west-central Minnesota)

Geology and Landscape

There are 3.5 million acres of land in the Hardwood Hills, which consists of steep slopes and high rolling hills that were formed during the last ice age when massive glaciers compressed the landscape. These glacial relics include glacial moraines and outwash plains on glacial till deposits that are 100 to 500 feet deep. Scattered between these rolling hills are abundant kettle lakes and wetlands. Many of these lakes and wetlands are small, but the region also contains more than 400 lakes larger than 160 acres. Soils in this region are typically loamy and range from well-drained on the outwash plains to denser, slower draining soils on the moraines.

Before European settlement, the region consisted of a mosaic of maple-basswood forests interspersed with oak woodlands, oak savannas, and tallgrass prairies. The irregular topography and presence of numerous lakes and wetlands provided a partial barrier to fires approaching from the prairies along the western boundary. The varying levels of fire protection led to a patchwork of vegetation ranging from tallgrass prairie and savanna communities with few trees other than fire-resistant bur oaks to areas of mixed hardwood forests of sugar maple, basswood, and oak where local landforms provided natural protection from fire.

Total annual precipitation in the region ranges from 24 inches in the west to 27 inches in the east. Of this, 10.5 to 11.5 inches falls during the growing season, which lasts for approximately 122 to 140 days.

Ecological Classification System

While there are other systems in use today that define Minnesota's landscapes, we use the Ecological Classification System (ECS) to focus landscape information on a more local level. The ECS divides the landscape into progressively smaller areas based on similarities and differences in climate, geology, natural features, and plants. This webpage focuses on the Hardwood Hills subsection (located within the Minnesota and Northeast Iowa Morainal Section), which contains a mix of deciduous and coniferous forests as well as prairie and savanna habitats.

Landscape Management Plans

A detailed plan created by the DNR for the Hardwood Hills subsection helps land managers put their land in context with state land management goals for the area. In addition, the Minnesota Forest Resources Council has created a West Central Landscape Management Plan to guide any landowners toward common management goals for sustainable forests, clean water, productive forests, and healthy wildlife habitat.


A watershed is the total area of land surrounding a body of water (such as a lake, river, or stream) that drains water into that body. Small watersheds surrounding creeks and streams join to create larger watersheds surrounding major rivers. West-central Minnesota is located along a great divide in North American water flow. Depending on your land's exact location, your actions can affect the quality of water that will flow either into Hudson Bay by way of the Red River, or into the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Mississippi River.

What watersheds are and why they are important

Learn more about your watershed


CP-PMOP book cover

Woodlands of Minnesota Handbook—Hardwood Hills - is both a reference and workbook. It contains information on the past and present condition of land in the regions, insight into some of the biggest challenges woodland owners face here, and tips for making and accomplishing goals for your woods.



Workbook only

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