A swath of private land along the St. Croix River south of Marine on St. Croix will soon be permanently protected, thanks to a conservation easement that will prevent any future development. The Washington County board of supervisors voted this week to contribute half the cost, $1.1 million, from the county’s voter-approved Land and Water Legacy Fund, to purchasing an easement on lands owned by the Science Museum of Minnesota.
The other half of the easement is being paid for by the Minnesota Land Trust. The county and the land trust will then jointly hold a permanent conservation easement on the 129 acres, which is also home to the Science Museum’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station.
“A large, steadfast, and committed crew has been working on this project,” county planner June Mathiowetz, who was a leader in the effort to protect the land, told the board. Now, it’s nearly done.
The lands include hardwood forest, restored prairie, wetlands, a pond, and a spring-fed creek. A small part of it contains research facilities where scientists study a variety of water-related subjects. There are about 9,100 feet of shoreline, including 1,500 feet of frontage on the St. Croix River, and 3,000 feet on Spring Creek. There are also numerous springs, and habitat for many threatened species.
The property is located about a mile south of downtown Marine on St. Croix, near William O’Brien State Park, Square Lake Regional Park, other public lands across the river in Wisconsin, and the federally-owned St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
“It’s beautiful property with a lot of ecological value that we have an opportunity to preserve,” commissioner Fran Miron, whose district includes the site, said.
The conservation easement means the Science Museum will still own and manage the property, but forever prohibits development and other uses that would interfere with its natural state. The restrictions will remain even if the land changes hands in the future.
“We’re only protecting the land, it’s being managed by another source,” said commissioner Stan Karwoski. “It’s far less cost than just buying the land, so we’re really leveraging those dollars.”
Flora and fauna at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station
The Science Museum and its staff at the Research Station manages the lands, with recent efforts including removal of buckthorn and other non-native species from large tracts of forest, and burning prairies to promote healthy grasslands.
“It has a long history as a research site and beneficiary of ongoing quality stewardship and care by the St. Croix Watershed Research Station staff,” the county said.
County staff pointed out that the protected site is in an area seeing more development and fragmenting of natural lands.
“Preservation of the property provides a unique opportunity to protect one of the largest
and most ecologically significant properties remaining in the Twin Cities Metropolitan area,” staff wrote.
Water, wetlands, and prairie at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station
Commissioner Lisa Weik repeated those words during her remarks, pointing to it as a major accomplishment, and commending county planner Mathiowetz.
“This is an incredible legacy for the five county board members here today, for local officials, for yourself and other staff,” Weik said.
The county’s Land and Water Legacy Program, which is funding its portion of the easement, was approved by voters in 2006. It is providing $20 million in bonds over 20 years to protect sensitive lands and waters in the county.
Before voting, board chair Wayne Johnson said his leadership position gives him the chance to speak last, but the other commissioners had covered his thoughts. The resolution to release the funding passed unanimously.
The preservation project includes some of the same partners as the proposed acquisition of nearby Wilder Forest. That effort has been stymied by a moratorium put in place last summer by the May Township board, but the new easement was allowed to go forward. The transaction is expected to close in mid-March.
Note: I have a longstanding professional and personal relationship with the St. Croix Watershed Research Station and Science Museum of Minnesota.