A visitor from, say, Mars or Florida could walk into the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources building at the State Fair knowing nothing about Minnesota’s natural environment, and walk out with a basic education on what’s happening in the state’s forests, prairie and waters.

“You’d at least have a good idea of the pressing issues,” said Renee Vail, DNR manager in charge of the State Fair project. “If nothing else, if you go away with one or two pieces of information, we’ll have succeeded.”

Touring the cavernous, log-cabin-style building, fairgoers can watch fish swim in aquariums representing five different natural habitats, including one that lets trout jump upstream. They can examine taxidermied animals posed in settings representing the state’s various biomes (coniferous forest, deciduous forest, prairie) while listening to wildlife sounds and learning which creatures make their homes where — and why it’s important to preserve space for them. They can get the latest on threats posed by aquatic and terrestrial invasive species like zebra mussels, silver carp, buckthorn and garlic mustard.

Outside, strolling around the one-block grounds surrounding the building, visitors can check out a fish pond stocked with 45 species of native fish, a duck-filled wetlands exhibit and gardens planted with native Minnesota flowers, including one area designed to attract butterflies. They can climb an old fire tower, tour a small cabin like the ones offered in some state parks, and hear experts give presentations on fish and birds. They can listen to live bands playing on the outdoor stage or browse the moose memorabilia being sold at a stand to raise money for research on dwindling moose populations. They can watch boat builders constructing a canoe or admire a sculpture comprised entirely of trash pulled from Minnesota rivers.

They can do those things, that is, if they know the place is there.

Cloaked in shade and obscured by crowds and ponds and plantings, the brown DNR building doesn’t exactly leap out amid the fair’s bright and shiny landscape. The exhibits attract half a million visitors a year, but Vail as points out, that’s barely over a quarter of fair attendees.“Some people I talk to,” she said, “don’t even know it exists.”

The building celebrates its 80th birthday this year. Much has changed since its construction, for $73,000, in 1934. Early photos show the building set back in a spacious and nearly empty yard, sparsely adorned with a spring-fed fountain and formal garden. Those features are long gone, replaced by the fish pond, also spring-fed, and by the gardens and trees and other features that now fill the space.

The building itself retains the quaint Up North look that characterized structures built, as this one was, by the Civilian Conservation Corps. But it’s showing its age, Vail said.

“It’s been on the list to get painted for ages,” she said (State Fair staff maintain the building’s exterior). “The wood on the outside is so dry that if you put something in it, chunks come out.”

Vail would like to raise money to upgrade the 40-year-old fish pond to make it look more natural, with river rocks lining the bottom, an island, a tree to provide shade for the fish. She’d like to put in a see-through fence to replace the vertical logs that surround it now, which block sightlines for small fairgoers. But there are no funds designated for the project.

As it is, the exhibit scrapes by on a shoestring budget, Vail said. Among the sources of revenue are coins thrown into wishing wells inside the building, which bring in a few thousand dollars that go toward maintaining the building and grounds. She hires crews from the county’s Sentence to Serve program — and puts in some elbow grease of her own — to clean up the place in preparation for the fair. Bands playing on the outdoor stage must be willing to work for free in exchange for the public exposure. Even Vail’s time is stretched; she coordinates the DNR’s volunteer programs in addition to managing the fair project, a year-round job.

Nature for the everyday Joe

Vail would like to spiff up the place and draw in more visitors, because the fair exhibit lets the DNR reach a lot of people at once.

“It’s a good way to get our message across,” she said.

Though the department’s work may already be familiar to folks who buy hunting or fishing licenses or frequent state parks, the exhibits are designed to pique the interest of those with a more casual relationship to the outdoors: people who like to bike or canoe or ski, people who like walking down to the lake to listen to the frogs or watching birds flickering around the feeder, people who like knowing that when traveling in certain parts of the state they have at least a chance of glimpsing a moose or hearing the howl of a wolf.

“We try to appeal to families, to the everyday Joe,” Vail said. “We’re trying to get people to connect again to nature and the outdoors — not stuck inside and stuck on a screen.”

 Katy Read • 612-673-4583