More than 600 acres of undeveloped land in Washington County could be preserved this year if a long-sought real estate deal involving several public and private partners is completed. The project would protect almost all of the Wilder Foundation’s land holdings near Square Lake, as well as lands near the St. Croix River owned by the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Wilder has owned a large swath of forest in May Township for more than 60 years, although it closed a camp at the location 20 years ago. The nonprofit wants to sell the land — with conservation guarantees. The county and other partners have long been interested because the site contains two nearly pristine lakes, mature hardwood forests, and wetlands, and it’s located in a top 10 priority conservation area.
Attempts have been made in the past to preserve the property, and nothing is certain about the current effort, but the plan has progressed in recent months.
“These particular parcels are valuable for conservation and the public due to the size and high quality natural and open space present,” said Washington County senior planner June Mathiowetz. “We are all increasingly aware that to have a healthy ecosystem, large contiguous natural areas are necessary for optimal functioning of natural systems and many species’ survival.”
The latest plan involves the county, the Minnesota Land Trust, the Science Museum, and Wilder. Nearly $10 million could change hands to make it happen, with funding from Washington County’s Land and Water Legacy Program, approved by voters in 2006, and the state’s Legacy Amendment, a sales tax approved by Minnesota voters in 2008.
Through a combination of purchases and conservation easements, the public and private partners hope to protect what officials call “one of the largest and most ecologically significant remaining unprotected natural areas in the metro.”
If successful, Square Lake Regional Park would expand to include a 55-acre site on the west end of the lake. A new County Conservation Area would be created across Ostlund Trail, protecting and providing public access to lands around beautiful Mays and Clear Lakes. These two lakes are some of the cleanest and healthiest in the region, largely because of their undeveloped surroundings.
The Science Museum would purchase large swaths of lands largely containing agriculture fields, with development rights held by others in perpetuity. The museum would also put conservation easements on 127 acres near the St. Croix River.
By selling the development rights to the county and the Minnesota Land Trust, the St. Croix Watershed Research Station’s prairies, a spring-fed wetland, and designated trout stream, as well as 1,500 feet of river shoreline on a slough, would be permanently protected.
Public land possibilities
The county board was updated on the effort at a meeting in December, and remains supportive. In February, the board approved a new long-term plan for Square Lake Park, which included expanding to the opposite end of the lake from the popular beach and boat landing. The possibility was also part of a draft put out for public comment last year.
May Township supervisors have also heard presentations about the proposal, and passed a resolution in February supporting the master plan, including possible expansion.
“It’s been discussed for many years, decades perhaps, but this is really a third consistent attempt in the last five or six years to galvanize partnerships and funding,” Mathiowetz said. “Land deals are typically complex by nature, but the size, number of parcels and number of partners necessary to make this one work are especially challenging.”
The new part of Square Lake Regional Park would likely offer passive uses, possibly including shore fishing, trails, a picnic area, and a non-motorized watercraft launch. At its February 9 meeting, the board heard from park planner Connor Schaeffer, who pointed out the new parcel would make an ideal destination for paddlers crossing from the main part of the park to enjoy a picnic before paddling back.
The new Conservation Area could provide walking trails around the two lakes, while protecting precious natural resources.
St. Croix 360 is 100% supported by readers like you.
The property is important ecologically because it’s in Washington County’s “Carnelian Creek Corridor,” a top priority for protection identified in a 2012 plan. It is an area of rolling forests and undeveloped, biologically rich lakes between Big Marine Lake in the north and Big Carnelian in the south, providing clean water and a home for many creatures.
DNR scientists with the Minnesota Biological Survey who have surveyed the area deemed most of it to have “high biological significance.” The area is an important refuge for rare and imperiled turtles, birds, plants, and more.
In 2014, Wilder sold about 328 acres to the Manitou Fund, a private foundation that owned neighboring Warner Nature Center until it closed in 2019, and still owns the land.
Wilder’s remaining lands also neighbor another chain of protected lands stretching east to the St. Croix River. The St. Croix Greenway was largely protected with conservation easements in 2000. Together, the areas form an almost unbroken six-mile corridor of natural lands connecting the St. Croix River in the east to Big Marine Lake in the west.
There are no guarantees everything will go through. There are still inter-connected contingencies, with some purchases to be paid for with the proceeds of other easement sales. But, Mathiowetz says all the partners are working to complete the complicated deal by the end of this year.
By next winter, one of Washington County’s biggest land protection projects in decades could finally be a done deal.
(Disclosures: I have a working relationship with the Science Museum and the St. Croix Watershed Research Station. Also, River Grove Elementary School may acquire the developed part of Wilder Forest, which it has been leasing since 2017, in a separate transaction; my child attends the school.)