Mother Nature has dealt a catastrophic blow to one of Minnesota most prized and popular state parks.

Hundreds of acres of towering pines and hardwood trees in the heart of St. Croix State Park were toppled and historic buildings damaged during a devastating storm that swept through the state last weekend.

"It will look more like a prairie than a forest," said Jim Konrad, who heads the Department of Natural Resources's enforcement division.

Straight-line winds that topped 100 miles per hour barreled through the park during the early evening of July 1, felling portions of the forest and leaving a tangled mess in the campground and on roads and hiking trails. The winds were similar to the storm that blew through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) on July 4, 1999. It caused more than $100 million in damage, killed four people, injured 70 and blew down millions of trees that instantly changed the BWCA's landscape. In some areas, nearly every mature tree was blown down.

Last weekend's storm did its most extensive damage in Burnett County, Wis. Trees were flattened, blocking roads and taking out power. Dozens of people were injured and an 11-year-old girl was killed by lightning. Just minutes before, across the border in Minnesota, the storm drove through St. Croix State Park, which is less than a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities. With 200 campsites, the park probably would have been filled with campers and day hikers during the storm. But it was deserted because the Minnesota government shutdown has closed state parks.

"It's sort of a silver lining," Konrad said. If the park had been filled, people likely would have been hurt or killed by falling trees, he said.

The government shutdown, however, also has slowed efforts to assess the damage and clean it up. Courtland Nelson, the DNR's director of parks and trails, isn't officially on the job but went on his own time to scope out the damage in the 34,000-acre park, Minnesota's largest.

'It's going to be different'

"All those trees are just laid one over another and another and another," Nelson said. "It will change the aesthetics and ecology [of the park]. It's going to be a different place now, regardless of what we do."

The land was clear-cut for timber in the 1880s, said Steve Thorne, president of Park and Trails Council of Minnesota. In the 1930s, the National Park Service helped design the park and workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps built bridges over the numerous creeks and rivers, constructed buildings, carved trails and planted trees.

"Time heals things," Thorne said. "It was a recovering, beautiful forest that was coming back strong. ... There were nice big trees that gave you the impression you were in an old forest ... the real woods. ... It will take years and years to recover." Some of the trees that fell during the July 1 storm were 80 to 90 years old.

Nelson said he hopes to get approval during the government shutdown to get some crews into the park with chainsaws and small equipment to begin clearing roads in case of an emergency in the park. Major cleanup won't be done until lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton resolve their budget stalemate. Nelson hopes the park, a popular destination year-round, can be reopened by Labor Day weekend.

"Right now, it's impossible to get in there on foot," he said. "Once we start looking on the ground we'll start seeing more damage. It's going to be a big job."

From the air, Nelson said, he could see that many of the park's buildings, including cabins, restrooms and a visitor center, were damaged. "But no one is really sure yet how extensive. ... We're going to have to take into account the historic nature of these buildings to preserve and protect them."

Many of the buildings in the park are listed on National Register of Historic Places, and the park itself is a National Historic Landmark. The park is only "one of seven or eight state parks" in the country with the designation, Nelson said.

Nothing to do but look ahead

He and others said they were heartbroken by the devastation. But now they see it as an opportunity to get rid of some invasive species and make other improvements.

"We have to think long-term," said Chris Stein, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. "Even though we're all sad-faced today because these are lovely, old pine trees that were knocked down, it's really just part of nature."

And in time, the damage from the July storm will be a memory, Thorne said.

"It's still going to be wild. It's still open space,'' he said. "It's not going to be the tall pines that those who went there a lot were used to, but for those who haven't been there, it's beautiful open space."

Staff writer Dennis Anderson contributed to this report Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788