A self-described “park rat” who grew up playing and working at parks in Golden Valley, Boe Carlson has what he calls the perfect job. He oversees the Three Rivers Park District, the vast network of parks, trails, campgrounds and other outdoor attractions that is mostly in suburban Hennepin County.
Carlson, 41, became Three Rivers’ superintendent in July, succeeding Cris Gears, who retired. Before joining the park district in 1998, Carlson worked for Idaho’s state park system.
The following are excerpts from a recent interview.
Q: What led you to join the Three Rivers Park District?
A: When I came back to the Twin Cities from Idaho, I got a job with Three Rivers — at the time it was Hennepin Parks — as a seasonal staffer up at Fish Lake Regional Park. One of the first people I spoke with when I came back was someone I knew through my family who was with what was then Hennepin County Parks. I was not familiar with the park district … and the more I learned about it, the more it seemed like the perfect fit. I was coming from more of a municipal park and recreation background with athletics, like T-ball. It was great to see this natural resource-based system in the metro area.
Q: You were appointed trail coordinator for Three Rivers in 2001. Wasn’t that during a time of rapid expansion of the trail system?
A: Yes, it was a new position for the park district. What appealed to me was this idea of being out on the trails — I was and still am an avid biker and runner — so I thought it was an opportunity to be out there. I very quickly realized that the position, because of the tremendous popularity of the trail system, became more of a governmental affairs position. You’re going around to different communities and pitching this idea of expanding the regional trail network. I was going to city councils, planning commissions and talking about developing this regional trail concept.
Q: What would you consider to be a major accomplishment at Three Rivers during your time in that role?
A: The development of the Dakota Rail Regional Trail was one of the most rewarding things I have been involved in. It’s a 13-mile corridor that goes from Wayzata out to St. Bonifacius — from there, Carver County picks it up and takes it out to New Germany. Ultimately that trail will go all the way out to Hutchinson. We started it when Dakota Rail went bankrupt. I worked on the project for about three years — everything from walking the trail when it was this abandoned rail line to actually seeing it paved and completed. It involved a lot of community meetings and discussions. We look at regional trails in two different ways — as connectors and as destination trails. Dakota Rail is probably one of the most popular destination trails in the metro area.
Q: How would you say the organization has changed during your time here?
A: The whole function of public service has changed. For many years we were a little unique. We acquired all these properties. In some cases it was for preservation, to ensure that they would be available for future generations. Then it became a matter of developing these properties, creating the attractions that would be there. We were pretty independent, for the most part being able to go through the process of developing a park without a lot of input or process. The reality these days is that you just can’t do that — it’s a collaborative world. Trails are a good example. If we went into a community now and said, “We’re building this trail,” they’d throw us out on our ear, and rightfully so. We have to develop partnerships with communities, the public, user groups. That’s the only way we can expand our reach as an organization.
Q: Some of your work involves crisis management, like controlling the spread of the emerald ash borer and invasive species like milfoil or zebra mussels. Can you talk about those initiatives?
A: We’ve had a program over the last three or four years of managing our ash trees in a different way. We’re looking very closely at our active recreation areas or campgrounds where there’s the potential for ash trees that might be damaged, and we’re removing those. On some, we’re going through some treatment. We’re always hearing the update about the next big looming issue to come. We do a lot of milfoil management. We do a lot of harvesting on Lake Minnetonka as well as other lakes. We have a good partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and local lake associations to do active boat inspections for milfoil and zebra mussels. These are not local problems, they’re regional problems.