The newest nature center in the St. Croix Valley opened its doors for the first time last week. Carpenter Nature Center, which has long operated facilities and managed natural habitats on the river in Minnesota’s Denmark Township, celebrated the grand opening of the Al and Laurie Hein Visitor Center at property it has been acquiring over the past 30 years in the Town of Troy, five miles south of Hudson.
The project has long been a dream of Carpenter’s, and was finally brought to reality in the last few years thanks to a concerted effort by neighbors and other nearby residents, the organization’s board of directors, and others.
“This wasn’t our vision, it was the community’s,” says Jen Vieth, Carpenter’s executive director.
The effort began in the 1980s with major land donations by neighbors Al and Laurie Hein, for whom the visitor center is named. The family also contributed more than $500,000 to the project.
On a recent Tuesday morning, there was a steady stream of visitors finding their way off nearby Highway 35 and into the peaceful clearing in the woods. They explored the trails through both forest and broad prairie, and enjoyed exhibits inside the center.
The modest building contains a lot of information and inspiration. There is a two-story photo of the St. Croix Dalles by Craig Blacklock, and nestled at its base are displays of live turtles, snakes, and other animals. Exhibits were designed with Split Rock Studios, a Twin Cities firm that specializes in creating such materials. The exhibit topics are nearly hyperlocal, as Vieth explains they wanted to differentiate this site from their original campus in Minnesota, just eight miles away.
“We wanted to really make it distinct from Minnesota,” she says.
There are interactive displays about prairie and conifer forests, oak savanna and the water in the St. Croix River. Visitors can smell odors like red fox musk and white pine needles. They can learn how to protect birds and improve energy efficiency.
One display shows the layers of soil in a three-foot core taken right from the site by a University of Wisconsin-River Falls professor. Another lets visitors touch and feel examples of the deep layers of bedrock below one’s feet. (Note: St. Croix 360 staff consulted with Carpenter in 2019 to develop written materials supporting fundraising for this project.)
There are also several spaces that can be used by the many school groups that Carpenter hopes will visit on field trips. There’s an indoor classroom with audio-visual infrastructure, and also numerous informal spaces outside where students and teachers can gather. Many large windows were placed to essentially frame various views of the surrounding nature.
The windows showing off the ever-changing natural landscape outdoors also represent Carpenter’s commitment to reducing environmental impacts. The glass on the windows uses new bird-safe technology, with lines screen printed on them. Surprisingly, it doesn’t interfere with the view from inside, and could save a lot of feathered lives; up to a billion birds may die each year in the United States from building collisions. The windows were also placed offset from those on the other side of the building, reducing views through it and lessening the chance a bird will try to pass through solid glass.
One request from the community was a comfortable indoor area to read, write, watch birds, or have coffee with a friend. In the sunny northwest corner of the building, a room full of windows and artwork serves just that purpose, with a table hand-crafted by a volunteer who wanted something that would work well for writing, and a couch under a stunning springtime painting created on site during Carpenter’s annual art fair. A small room offers private space for nursing, meditating, praying, or perhaps helping a child calm down.
It adds up to a welcoming space and an immersion in the ecosystem, and is a launching point to experience the surrounding natural landscape. Right outside the doors is 300 acres of protected land with miles of trails winding through diverse landscapes, the home of some rare and special species. All of it is perched on the river bluff, the Minnesota side of the valley visible to the west.
While the indoor amenities are nice, the visitor center was truly designed to welcome people to the site, provide comfort and context, and encourage them to get outside. The site features beautiful, natural landscapes, spanning the regional spectrum from forest to oak savanna to prairie, home to many kinds of wildlife.
An endangered Henslow’s sparrow was seen this year on the prairie, eastern meadowlarks soar over native vegetation like wild indigo, lupine, and lead plant. Eastern towhees singing from the forests. Another notable bird sightings include bobolinks, a black-billed cuckoo, red-shoulder hawks, and golden-winged warblers.
This spring, a pair of kingfishers dug a nest in a pile of topsoil sitting near the visitor center this spring, unperturbed by construction and grand opening — perhaps a sign of how the structure fits into the landscape.
Preserving all these species and carefully managing the habitat to keep it natural will take ongoing work. Carpenter is working on thinning the unnatural red pine plantation around the visitor center, an opportunity to watch the restoration of native species in action. Building the new visitor center also represented a commitment to long-term stewardship of the site.
The project was made possible by a long list of donors, from foundations and individuals who provided cash to construction companies and others who contributed large amounts of free services. The site was developed with input from community surveys and meetings, and a lot of one-on-one conversations.
Carpenter’s new Al and Laurie Hein Visitor Center is now open to the public 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. everyday. The trails are open sunrise to sunset. It is located at 279 South Cove Road Hudson, WI 54016.
More information is available by calling 651-437-4359 or visiting Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center’s website.