An ambitious land conservation project in Washington County is seeking to protect hundreds of acres of woods and meadows against possible development.
A coalition of local governments, foundations and nonprofit organizations is working to preserve a 600-acre area north of Stillwater known as the Wilder Forest. County planners consider the land that surrounds two lakes a significant priority under the Land and Water Legacy program, the county’s voter-approved fund to buy and protect open spaces.
“There is nothing legally protecting this land from development,” said Kevin Corbid, the county’s deputy administrator. He told the County Board recently that “all of this is coming together, in a nice way we think, in an area we can protect in the county.”
A negotiating price hasn’t been determined because of pending land appraisals, he said.
The complex project includes numerous tracts of land leased for other uses, such as the Minnesota Food Association’s immigrant farm. The intent is to protect Wilder Forest — and possibly 830 acres belonging to nearby Warner Nature Center — through conservation easements. Those easements would block any further development of the land.
The targeted land, owned by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in May Township, includes 206 acres of native oak forest and 56 acres of lakes with 3.2 miles of shoreline. The preservation has the support of the township board as well, said County Commissioner Fran Miron. “This is a critical piece of nature that they consider pristine and worth protecting,” he said.
The area supplies habitat for rare and threatened birds and species such as turtles, snakes, hawks and bald eagles. It includes 12 miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails and 3.2 miles of easement for a future Gateway State Trail extension.
Commissioner Gary Kriesel asked Corbid and the county’s senior planner for land acquisitions, June Mathiowetz, to what extent the public could access the land if the county invested in conservation easements.
“Let people enjoy what their tax dollars paid for without damaging the environment,” Kriesel said.
Corbid replied that “it’s unlikely we would arrange a wide access trail development on the property” but said eventual completion of the Gateway Trail would help. Related to that, hunting would not be required if additional money is obtained from the state Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund, he said. Hunting was raised as a concern recently because of the proximity of children attending outdoor classes at Warner Nature Center.
Should the county and its partners succeed in establishing conservation easements on both the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation and Warner land, that combined 1,430 acres would equal in size all other land parcels the county so far has protected under Land and Water Legacy, Corbid said.
Significant recent purchases include an 85-acre conservation easement surrounding the Carpenter Nature Center in Denmark Township in the southeast corner of Washington County. Carpenter will continue to own the land, but the easement ties closely with the county’s interest in protecting natural areas and securing it for trail development.
The Wilder discussion came in a recent County Board workshop, where no formal action was taken. Commissioners haven’t yet voted on whether to approve the acquisition, but they signaled their interest in moving ahead with land appraisals.