The Washington County board of commissioners recently approved a new class of public land besides county parks that can be acquired and opened to the public. “Conservation Areas” will be intended to protect valuable lands that may not be appropriate for traditional park management.
Washington County includes more than 40 miles of shoreline along the lower St. Croix. It operates several popular parks, but its options were limited for protecting other parcels. Besides the parks, conservation options were limited to conservation easements, in which the county purchases development rights to protect property, but the lands usually remain in private ownership without access for the public.
Conservation Areas will be open, but very different than county parks. This new category will be first and foremost intended to protect natural resources and open space, rather than focusing on intensive recreation like camping. There will not be buildings, shelters, or fire rings, but simply small parking areas and some trails.
The five commissioners unanimously voted on Sept. 15 in favor of a new parks ordinance that includes the Conservation Areas. Several spoke up to say it’s an opportunity for something new and exciting, with plenty of chances to modify the program as they learn more.
“As we learn how to manage this and hear from people on how it’s used, we can adjust to make things fit better. So this is a good start,” said Commissioner Stan Karwoski.
Commissioner Lisa Weik of Woodbury spoke at length in support of the proposed change. She pointed out how, during the coronavirus pandemic, existing parks have been packed with people looking for recreation and respite. There is clearly a demand for more public natural places
“More than ever with anxiety and the need to have restorative healing for families, I think [it’s important] just to have these areas that aren’t developed at all,” Weik said. “Time being out in nature, it just magically clears your head.”
A short while after passing the new ordinance, the board created the first Conservation Area.
Partnering with a nonprofit organization, the county will acquire 38 acres of woods, water, and wetlands in the northern part of the county. Half the $480,000 purchase was paid for with the county’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, approved by voters in 2006, and the other half was provided by the Trust for Public Land.
The parcel has no structures on it, but boasts high quality examples of several habitat types, and the topography is “dramatically undulating,” according to the county, with nine acres of wetland. It’s home to eight rare species, as well as turkey, deer, otter, mink, coyote, waterfowl, loons and sandhill cranes.
“I’m very excited about this, it’s such an historic moment,” said Commissioner Weik. “To have this be the initial project that launches this program that will provide many environmental protections for years to come.”
The land is located along busy County Highway 4 in May Township, near the county’s Big Marine Park Reserve and other protected lands. It is located in the Carnelian Creek Corridor, a swath of 2,700 acres identified by the county as a high priority for conservation. Purchasing the land will protect 3,500 feet of shoreline on two lakes and a pond. The water bodies will be available for boats with carry-in access.
The county will next prepare a management plan for the site to determine the details of stewardship and use. More Conservation Areas are hoped to come in the years ahead.
They will differ significantly from traditional county and regional parks, like Lake Elmo, Pine Point, or St. Croix Bluffs, that are designed for intensive use. Conservation Areas will put nature first.
“The real key focus of the conservation areas is natural environment, open space,” said Wayne Sandberg, deputy director of Public Works. “They’re not intended to be nor will they propose to be a real active area. We wanted to set a baseline expectation in the ordinance that we’re not going to allow the same as what we allow in our other parks.”
Unlike county parks, Conservation Areas will be open to all without a vehicle permit, which cost $30 per year. And, while county parks are generally open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the Conservation Areas will be open sunrise to sunset. Pets will not be allowed because they can negatively affect wildlife.
“One of key goals of conservation areas is to preserve wildlife habitat, and what we’ve learned over time is that doesn’t always coexist with pets,” Sandberg told the board.
Officials stressed that the ordinance gives the county considerable flexibility in modifying the rules on a case-by-case basis, if needed. This was already evident in the guidelines for the Guarnera property. Shotgun hunting of waterfowl will continue to be allowed on the lakes, as will archery hunting.
The board members said they had heard from many constituents in support of the ordinance.
The commissioners also took time to thank the many people who had worked on the acquisition, and the ordinance that made it possible. Much of the initiative was led by June Mathiowetz, senior planner with the county. DJ Forbes of the Trust for Public Land led the acquisition process. DNR employees also helped, as did many others.