On Dec. 11, 2013, Maplewood finalized the purchase of 70 acres of undeveloped land to be open to the public and preserved as open space. The Fish Creek parcel is one of the last wild places in the Mississippi wildlife migration corridor, an international flyway. Its scenic spots range from undisturbed prairie to oak savanna to quiet creekside trails and a small waterfall. It’s just 7 miles from the state Capitol so naturally it nearly became a housing development.
Second chance for wild spaces
“Until pretty recently, Maplewood was a rural suburb, even though it’s so close to downtown St. Paul. And then boom, everything changed,” said Virginia Gaynor, the city’s natural resources director. “In the early 1990s, residents became nervous about the pace of development and the loss of open space.”
In 1993, citizens approved a $5 million bonding bill designed to preserve open space. As a result of that referendum, Maplewood now has 14 neighborhood preserves. But at the time of that bonding bill, the Fish Creek land was not for sale.
Years later, when the property did come on the market, the referendum money was already spent. And besides, the Fish Creek land was now listed at more than $10 million. A developer nabbed it, and in 2006, at the height of the building boom, planned a 350-unit housing development. When the market crashed, the property went into foreclosure. The land came on the market again in 2011, this time valued at only $2 million — a bargain. But the city still didn’t have the money.
Instead, the Fish Creek Initiative, a citizen group founded by resident Ron Cockriel, rallied conservation and hunting groups, corporate sponsors, individual donors and foundation grants to buy the land. The Conservation Fund acted as a holding partner, buying the land and holding it until the city and its partners, Ramsey County and the Ramsey-Washington Watershed District, had raised the needed funds. When the city purchased the site last December, it had enough funds to cover 62 acres of the site. Gov. Mark Dayton signed two bonding bills earlier this month that finally provided the city with enough cash to permanently protect the park’s final eight acres.
“This is one good thing that happened because of the economy tanking. It put the price tag within reach and made it available at the same moment people were rethinking how we approached the last pieces of undeveloped land in the metro,” said Gaynor. “It’s a very special and unique place, and we are so thrilled we got a chance to save it. The stars just aligned over Fish Creek.”
Benefits of a ‘passive park’
As a condition of accepting grant dollars from conservation groups, Fish Creek can only be used as a “passive park.” That means no playgrounds, volleyball pits or motorized recreational vehicles. Instead, Fish Creek will be a place for hiking, photography, dog walking, bird-watching, foraging, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, school groups and research. Archaeologists are studying the area’s pre-settlement history. Bird-watchers are excited about the potential to bring back dwindling species through forest restoration. And the University of St. Thomas is studying the impact of climate change on the park’s oaks. But mostly, it will be a place for citizens to experience a wild place.
“I’m a boundary waters guy, and if you follow the creek down the bluff — where there’s quite a bit of rock on the side of the creek channel — it reminds me of the BWCA,” said Will Rossbach, Maplewood’s mayor at the time of the land purchase. “Some people could have had nice views from their living room if it had been developed. Instead, now everyone can experience it.”
A report by the Parks and Trail Council of Minnesota found that passive-use parks raise area property values by as much as 15 percent, and demand fewer city dollars for public services and maintenance.
“With as much development as we’ve seen over the decades, our taxes haven’t gone down,” said Cockriel. “The costs to develop and service it would offset any tax gain, and the value of this place goes far beyond money. Saving it will ultimately make this area a better place to live. The east metro doesn’t have it’s own Wirth Park, but we do have a network of natural areas and parks, and Fish Creek will help tie those all together.”
Someday a trail network, including ADA-accessible paved trails, will extend from Point Douglas Road in St. Paul to Fish Creek in Maplewood to Carver Lake Park in Woodbury.
To celebrate National Outdoors Day, June 14, the Maplewood Nature Center is offering a guided hike to show off highlights of the parklands. Or go explore it on your own; it belongs to all of us now.
Amy Goetzman is a Twin Cities freelance writer and editor. She enjoys exploring wild places with her family.