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Continued: Bloomington wildlife refuge manager moves on to federal agency

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 19, 2013 - 2:41 PM

For the first time in his professional life, Charlie Blair has a job that calls for wearing a tie.

Blair, who has managed the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington for five years, has been promoted to assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. One of this main duties is supervising 66 wildlife refuges in eight Midwestern states.

The new job means he has gone from wearing hiking boots and a uniform with a shoulder patch at refuge headquarters near the Mall of America to a shirt and tie at a desk in West Bloomington.

"It's the easiest move I've ever made -- no selling a house or buying a house," he said on his last day as refuge manager. "I'll just drive a little further."

Blair, 61, arrived at Minnesota Valley in 2008. He was a calming presence after relations between a previous refuge manager and the city of Bloomington had become so tense that the two did not speak.

While Blair didn't accomplish everything he wanted at the refuge -- the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge over the refuge's Long Meadow Lake is still a source of controversy and continues to rust away even as the trail network around it expands -- people on opposite sides of the issue are unified in their high opinion of Blair.

"He's been extremely good to work with. He listens and understands our point of view, but he doesn't roll over," said Karl Keel, public works director for Bloomington, which has resisted plans to renovate the bridge. "We appreciate his patience. .... We'll miss him, for sure."

Larry Granger, one of the founders of the Bloomington Historical Society and an advocate of preserving the bridge, called Blair "terrific."

"The great thing Charlie does is that he can sell and explain the importance of the refuge and conservation and the preservation of both natural and cultural resources. He listens to people with a variety of opinions.

"He has been just what this refuge has needed."

Minnesota Valley is one of just four urban national wildlife refuges. Blocks from the Mall of America and literally across the street from a hotel -- part of the refuge's parking lot at the Bloomington Visitor Center parking lot provides overflow space for the Hilton -- it is home to nesting bald eagles, flocks of turkeys that boldly strut around refuge headquarters and other wildlife. Long Meadow Lake and the refuge's wetlands are important stopover points for thousands of migrating birds and waterfowl.

Since Blair's arrival, the refuge along the Minnesota River has grown from 14,000 to 20,000 acres. Purchase of new land in the refuge, which runs 70 miles from near Fort Snelling to Henderson, Minn., has been financed by a $26 million fund set up by the Metropolitan Airports Commission to compensate for a runway that intruded into a natural area. Some of the refuge's new property has been converted back to wetlands and invasive species have been purged.

"We've managed to make it much better habitat," Blair said.

A new visitor center for the refuge's Rapids Lake unit is up and running in Carver. The main Visitor Center in Bloomington has been renovated. It has new, more interactive wildlife and environment displays, and the building is much greener than it once was, with solar systems and geothermal heating and cooling.

During Blair's tenure, the number of nesting bald eagles in the refuge has increased. And so have the visitors.

"One of the things that surprised me when I got here was the reception of the public and learning how important this refuge is to them," Blair said. "They feel that it is their refuge."

He said the refuge has held its own against forces of urbanization that include runoff from the Mall of America area and pollution from the river. One ongoing project is to reconstruct a tiny trout stream that flows from the river bluffs near the mall to try to foster a permanent fish population.

"I think we've managed to maintain the integrity of the urban refuge even as we added a lot of land," Blair said. "But there will always be concerns."

Funding has been the refuge's main challenge, Blair said, and he expects that to be a major part of his new job as well.

Fish and Wildlife is part of the Department of the Interior, which has taken its share of federal budget cuts. Blair said more cuts likely are coming.

He said he has enjoyed the unusual challenges of working in an urban refuge. It's common to see cats wandering in the woods. One year, coyotes built a den and had pups under the observation platform that extends from the Bloomington Visitor Center toward the river. Workers knew the secretive animals were there because they would howl and yip in chorus when tornado sirens were tested each Wednesday afternoon.

Lack of progress on fixing the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge remains a sore point. Blair said he has worked on the project "almost since the day I arrived."

He may not be done with the issue yet. If Fish and Wildlife and the city of Bloomington ever work out a deal for the feds to take ownership of a renovated bridge as well as city-owned river bottom lands -- which has been discussed but is on hold right now -- it would be part of Blair's job to approve or nix the deal.

In the meantime, he is diving into his new duties. At the refuge, Blair tried to make a point of getting out each day for a hike. He said that won't change just because he is a bit more tied to a desk.

"I'm a hiker, a hunter, a biker," he said. "I'll make time to get out each day."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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