Scott County finally gets serious with parkland it has held since the 1960s.
The tent. The empty, rusting Mountain Dew cans. The soggy abandoned sneakers -- all evidence that someone's been squatting deep in the woods on land that is marked, on maps at least, as Spring Lake Regional Park.
But that sort of outlaw use is about to end on the 373-acre parcel in Prior Lake, just south of Mystic Lake Casino.
More than 40 years after the county acquired the land as the future site for a major park, it's about to be re-engineered from raw woods and fields into a park laced with asphalt trails up and down its multiple wrinkles and folds, across its muddy creeks and along the edges of its ponds and marshes.
"People do use it already, but it's mostly just the locals," parks planner Patty Freeman said one recent afternoon as she toured the future trail alignment, scouting for signs of any evanescent spring wildflowers whose location should be avoided when the heavy equipment starts roaring through the landscape.
"It's interesting enough for botanists and birders that they find it now," she said. But it isn't the kind of draw it ought to become once people have parking lots and wide, smooth trails for their bikes, rollerblades and baby carriages.
That should happen by late summer or early fall. Suddenly, into a world of woodpeckers attacking tree trunks and garter snakes lazing in the sun, will come a miniature highway.
Freeman's boss, Mark Themig, admits it makes him wince a little to think what has to happen to make such a place easily accessible. Although the county's partner, Three Rivers Park District, has created parks within its boundaries before, he said, "This is our first foray as a county into an untouched natural area, and that is something we have to work through.
"The construction of the trail will have an impact, but it's acceptable impact, and that's a hard point for me to come to -- to say it will have an impact but it's still a good thing."
He assured, "We will avoid as many trees as we can. We will avoid all the really high-quality natural areas. We do want to keep the heart of the woodland intact," by routing the trails in such a way as to allow users to be in the woods but on their edge.
"The payoff is that you're going to see something here that is uncommon in a metro area," he said. "You're going to walk through majestic maples in a woodland that's not all choked with buckthorn and other invasive species, that's open at ground level. It's a cool experience."
The arrival of the park will stop some human damage. One of the first things you see when you follow the future trail alignment is deep ruts in the mud where trucks have roared through. People have dumped stuff here, built fires into which they've tossed batteries, and they've left all kinds of litter.
Most of the tract, though, is beautiful and surprisingly remote from human settlement.
There is a distant hum of traffic. At times rooftops can be seen along a far-off ridge. But you don't feel at all surrounded, as you really are, by a suburban agglomeration of close to 90,000 people and a major tribal installation with thousands of employees. Wild rice grows in an open wetland.
"It's really beautiful back in there," said County Board Chairman Tom Wolf, who has volunteered there, clearing buckthorn. "There are paths created by deer or cows or whatever's been there. It's a nice chunk of land that's been idle for around 40 years. We have others like that, and my view has been, either use 'em or sell 'em!"
Luckily the Legacy Amendment came along and is now distributing money for parks at a time when Scott has grown enough to create pressure for more park use. Of the $1.5 million construction cost for this first phase, about $1.33 million comes from Legacy grants, with outside funding expected to cover the remainder as well.
Phase Two of the project will bring the park right down to the shore of Spring Lake, where the county owns a slice of lakeshore with six acres of extra land. There, plans call for an overlook, a fishing pier and a four-season pavilion.
Phase One is to include an off-leash dog park, with arrangements now being made for the technicalities of payment for that sort of use.
Conversely, the rest of the land will no longer be a dog lover's paradise, where pets can race freely for miles at top speed. "There will be growing pains for some neighbors as that change occurs," Freeman said. "They've run their dogs here off-leash for years."
Tom Finn, who takes walks now along the dusty gravel county road that runs through the park, can't wait for three miles of eight-foot-wide trails to materialize.
He could leave the roadway now and use informal trails back in the woods where horseback riding has taken place for generations. "But the weather hasn't been nice enough yet for me to want to get lost back there."
The arrival of a real park with real trails will "literally keep me off the streets," the 62-year-old joked. "I can't wait for this park to be created."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285