After living in many corners of the world, Tim Bodeen has returned to his native Midwest as the new manager of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Bodeen took the helm of the refuge, which is headquartered in Bloomington, in August. He is in charge of one of the most unusual refuges in the nation.
Minnesota Valley is one of only a handful of urban refuges, with 14,000 acres stretching along the Minnesota River from the shadows of the Mall of America 70 miles upriver to Henderson.
“It’s sort of a combination of all refuges,” Bodeen said last week. “There’s so much going on here.”
Yet the refuge remains invisible to many people, even those who live nearby. Bodeen recently attended an arts event in Bloomington where some paintings featured places in the refuge. Some of the people who attended asked him where the refuge was.
Minnesota Valley wasn’t established until 1976, which makes it a relative newcomer in the national system. One of Bodeen’s recent jobs was at a refuge that was created more than a century ago by Teddy Roosevelt.
“So we are still figuring out our role in the urban and suburban setting,” Bodeen said.
Most refuge visitors enter through the Bloomington Education and Visitors Center. In recent years, a second visitor center was added at Rapids Lake in Carver. The refuge also manages a 14-county wetland management district. Since he joined the refuge, Bodeen has been splitting his time between locations, meeting with employees and driving around to get acquainted with the refuge.
“We have oak savanna, prairies, bottom land forests, springs and rivers,” he said. “I’ve been astounded by the beauty of the Minnesota River Valley.”
Bodeen grew up in Wisconsin near Lake Superior, where he said he was fascinated by the outdoors. A fan of Jacques Cousteau, he joined the U.S. Navy out of high school and became a deep-sea diver.
The Navy took him around the world: Long Beach, Calif.; Hawaii; Puget Sound, and Kenya, where he helped raise barges that the British had sunk in a harbor after World War II. When his enlistment ended, he earned a biology degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
In college he met his future wife, children’s author Stephanie Stuve. They joined the Peace Corps, something that led indirectly to his career with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The Bodeens were sent to Tanzania, where Bodeen taught farmers to raise tilapia in man-made ponds. While they were there, a problem with their work permits led them to the American Embassy. Someone from U.S. Fish and Wildlife was working there and Bodeen had a beer with him.
“He said, ‘When you get back to the States, give me a call,’ ” Bodeen recalled. “I did. … Life has been serendipitous sometimes.”
Bodeen began his Fish and Wildlife career 22 years ago, banding ducks, cleaning water-control structures and digging out invasive plants. As he rose to management, he, his wife and two daughters moved from refuge to refuge. Finally they wanted to return to the Midwest to be nearer to family. “This is our first move where we knew somebody when we got here,” he said.
Bodeen said he has been impressed with the support for conservation he senses among Minnesotans and with partnerships the refuge enjoys both with corporations and groups that provide volunteers and fundraising support. But like all national refuges, Minnesota Valley is operating with restricted staffing because of the sequester, which has cut U.S. Fish and Wildlife funding by about 8 percent.
He has bigger long-term concerns, though. Refuges depend on public support to thrive, he said, and with American kids spending more time with their mobile phones than outside, he worries about the future.
“If we don’t get kids outside, we run the risk of not being relevant,” he said. “That’s why our school programs are so important.”