Hunters, hikers and kayakers soon will have more room to explore Anoka County's backcountry.

Anoka County purchased two parcels totaling 343 acres, including an old trout farm near the headwaters of Rice Creek in Columbus. One parcel will be open for hunting and the other designated parkland.

The county finalized the $1.5 million land deals this month. All but $220,000 came from the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund, a Metropolitan Council grant and a nonprofit. The acquisition completes a 20-mile conservation corridor along Rice Creek all the way to the Mississippi River.

"It's one of the largest protected wildlife corridors in the area," said John VonDeLinde, the county's director or parks and recreation. "The diversity of wildlife is really amazing. It's just a rich mosaic of native landscapes that really lend themselves to some bird watching and wildlife observation."

The larger parcel, 258 acres bordering the state's Lamprey Pass Wildlife Management Area, will be open to public hunting starting next fall. It will be called the Columbus Lake Conservation Area. Hikers will have access during the offseason. The county is working on signage to ensure the safety of hikers and hunters.

The second parcel, 85 acres, becomes part of the 5,500-acre Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Park Reserve.

The land will remain largely untouched, VonDeLinde said. The county plans to add parking lots and dirt trails to both parcels. The landscape is now a combination of wetlands, woodlands and native prairie. Five acres once used for farming will be restored to prairie land, VonDeLinde said.

The private landowners approached the county about selling. Pat Preiner and her brother and sister owned the land. Preiner's brother farmed the larger parcel, and her parents operated a trout farm on the lower 85 acres for many years. Her parents purchased their land around 1941.

"We've been here all our lives. We were born and raised here," Preiner said. "We had 38 ponds where we raised rainbow trout."

The family also owned and operated the Trout-House restaurant in Columbus until it closed in 1999. The family still owns land in the area. Preiner said there's emotion wrapped up in selling part of the family farm, but said she's happy it will complete the park reserve.

"It's always hard after 60-something years," Preiner said. "We are glad that we can be part of that."

Part of long-range plan

Acquiring the land has been part of the county's long-range master plan, VonDeLinde said. State money made it happen.

Anoka County paid $1.14 million for the upper 258 acres. The county received $940,000 from the Outdoor Heritage Fund to help cover the cost. The nonprofit Trust for Public Land chipped in an additional $67,000.

The county paid $348,000 for the 85-acre parcel. The Met Council covered $260,000 of that purchase price.

"Without the assistance from the state, the acquisition would not have taken place," said Anoka County park planner Karen Blaska.

This will be the second time Anoka County has acquired land and opened it to the public for hunting. The county purchased the 550-acre Cedar Creek Conservation Area and opened it to hunters in 2012.

"It is a new concept for the county, but it has run really smoothly and has paralleled with what the state is doing with the wild management areas," said Jeff Perry, Anoka County parks operation manager. "I think there is going to be very good deer hunting as well as pheasant and wild-turkey hunting opportunities, based on the habitat."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804