Belwin Conservancy, a wild place that's not a park

  • Article by: AMY GOETZMAN SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: August 22, 2013 - 11:31 PM

Belwin Conservancy greets visitors with strict preservation rules, rugged hiking trails — and the only buffalo herd in the metro.

hide

The author's daughter enjoyed Belwin's plant diversity.

Next time you visit a park, you can use tracking skills to discover what animals have recently passed through. If you see a uniform pattern of holes along a forest trail, you’re hot on the heels of an aging hiker using a telescoping walking stick. If you see a profusion of flat plastic drink box straw wrappers blowing in the wind, you can’t be far from a howling pack of preschoolers. If you find a collection of beer cans nesting at the bottom of a cliff, look up: The common habitat of the partying teen is just overhead.

Parks are for people. Everything about them is designed for our use and enjoyment. They accommodate our vehicles, our games, our waste and, let’s face it, our abuse. But they are ours and, well, some of us are just hard on our things.

Now imagine a place where you can see wildlife, hike trails and experience Minnesota in all seasons — but it’s not a park, it’s not yours. It exists first to protect the land, water, plants and animals from our use, although we are welcome to visit.

Belwin Conservancy is a place like that. Encompassing a patchwork of nearly 1,364 acres in Afton and West Lakeland Township, this nonprofit nature preserve and outdoor education resource started in the 1958, when Charlie and Lucy Bell began buying parcels of land in the east metro to protect from development. In 1970, they donated the land to create the Belwin Foundation, which developed a learning facility in conjunction with the St. Paul Public Schools. As a result of their efforts, 10,000 schoolchildren visit the preserve every year; Valley Creek is one of the cleanest, best trout streams in Minnesota; and Belwin is one of the only places in the metro to see tallgrass prairie, ground nesting birds, and native butterflies — and the only metro place to see a herd of bison in their native habitat.

“The bison are the biggest reason people come here, and it’s pretty easy to see them. They are visible from [Stagecoach Trail] most afternoons,” says Ned Phillips, membership coordinator at Belwin. When I visited with my family, lazy teenage bison were piled up against the fence along Hudson Road, so close we could have gone up and petted them (if we were truly stupid). The herd was split into two groups, and we viewed the more lively contingent from a cool observation tower that lets visitors watch the bison slowly restore the prairie with their hoofs and poop.

Belwin’s mission is twofold: Conservation and education. The conservation effort, led by the Bells’ grandson, David Hartwell, board chair, is focused on restoring the original prairie landscape and kicking out the invasive species. The bison are a tool in that process, and the areas they have worked already display greater plant diversity. (The bison are at Belwin only during the summer months; in fall, they return to a partner farm in Rice Lake, Wis., and ultimately, they find their way to Kowalski’s meat counter). A Legacy grant helped Belwin undertake the state’s largest oak savanna restoration.

A looping network of public trails through the Stagecoach Prairie Natural Area winds through pine and oak forests, wetlands and prairie at a rolling grade that is manageable in small segments for families with young children, and satisfying for those with longer legs. Skiers are welcome in the winter.

“This area gives visitors a real sense of place — they can see what this region is really like, with gentle hills and a great wide-open view of the sky,” says Phillips. The parking area fits about five cars, so it never gets crowded. “It’s a nice little gem. You can get out there and get the feeling of being by yourself.”

More public trails run through a section of prairie adjacent to the Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields, which provide area leagues recreation space. But the greatest public use comes from school groups. Every elementary student in the St. Paul schools visits Belwin twice — a memorable rite of passage. “I have had parents say they couldn’t sleep the night before their children were coming to Belwin, because they had such strong memories of being at Belwin themselves as kids,” says Phillips. The hope is that outdoor science education will help kids understand and appreciate the landscape that is their heritage, and encourage them to protect and preserve Minnesota’s beautiful natural areas for their own grandchildren — or at least to pick up their pop bottles when they visit the park.

Amy Goetzman is a Twin Cities writer.



  • related content

  • Belwin's resident buffalo herd is the preserve's most popular attraction.

  • The author's daughter enjoyed another of Belwin's virtues: hiking trails that roll through forests, wetlands and prairie.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Cincinnati 0 Delayed
Baltimore 0
Boston 7 Top 5th Inning
NY Yankees 1
Detroit 1 Bottom 4th Inning
Cleveland 2
NY Mets 7 Bottom 4th Inning
Miami 3
Philadelphia 1 Top 6th Inning
Atlanta 0
Toronto 5 Bottom 4th Inning
Tampa Bay 2
Milwaukee 0 Bottom 1st Inning
Chicago Cubs 3
LA Angels 0 Bottom 1st Inning
Houston 3
Chicago WSox 0 Top 2nd Inning
Minnesota 2
Texas 0 Bottom 2nd Inning
Kansas City 0
Pittsburgh 0 Top 2nd Inning
St. Louis 0
San Francisco - Y. Petit 7:40 PM
Colorado - J. Lyles
Seattle - J. Paxton 9:05 PM
Oakland - S. Gray
Washington - D. Fister 9:10 PM
Los Angeles - C. Kershaw
Arizona - W. Miley 9:10 PM
San Diego - O. Despaigne
Green Bay 9/4/14 7:30 PM
Seattle
Buffalo 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
New Orleans 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Atlanta
Minnesota 9/7/14 12:00 PM
St. Louis
Cleveland 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
Jacksonville 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Oakland 9/7/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
Cincinnati 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore
Washington 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Tennessee 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
New England 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Carolina 9/7/14 3:25 PM
Tampa Bay
San Francisco 9/7/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Indianapolis 9/7/14 7:30 PM
Denver
NY Giants 9/8/14 6:10 PM
Detroit
San Diego 9/8/14 9:20 PM
Arizona
Miami-Florida 13 FINAL
(25) Louisville 31
Arizona 9/4/14 7:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Pittsburgh 9/5/14 6:00 PM
Boston College
Washington St 9/5/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
SMU 9/6/14 11:00 AM
North Texas
Fla Atlantic 9/6/14 11:00 AM
(2) Alabama
Buffalo 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Army
(24) Missouri 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Toledo
Arkansas State 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
(7) McNeese State 9/6/14 11:00 AM
(19) Nebraska
Central Mich 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Purdue
Akron 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Penn State
Western Ill 9/6/14 11:00 AM
(18) Wisconsin
(20) Kansas State 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State
(4) Oklahoma 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Tulsa
Western Ky 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
SC State 9/6/14 11:30 AM
(23) Clemson
Navy 9/6/14 12:00 PM
Temple
UAB 9/6/14 1:00 PM
Miss State
South Alabama 9/6/14 1:00 PM
Kent State
New Mexico St 9/6/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Colorado 9/6/14 2:00 PM
Massachusetts
Fresno State 9/6/14 2:00 PM
Utah
(2) Eastern Wash 9/6/14 2:00 PM
Washington
(14) USC 9/6/14 2:30 PM
(13) Stanford
Ohio U 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Kentucky
Middle Tennessee 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Minnesota
Northern Ill 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Missouri State 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Ball State 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Iowa
Maryland 9/6/14 2:30 PM
So Florida
Eastern Mich 9/6/14 3:00 PM
Florida
Georgia Tech 9/6/14 3:00 PM
Tulane
(15) Ole Miss 9/6/14 3:30 PM
Vanderbilt
Old Dominion 9/6/14 5:00 PM
NC State
(7) Michigan State 9/6/14 5:30 PM
(3) Oregon
(17) Arizona State 9/6/14 6:00 PM
New Mexico
Louisiana Tech 9/6/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
San Jose St 9/6/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
East Carolina 9/6/14 6:00 PM
(21) So Carolina
Duke 9/6/14 6:00 PM
Troy
Idaho 9/6/14 6:00 PM
ULM
(15) Sam Houston St 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(12) LSU
Michigan 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(16) Notre Dame
Lamar 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(9) Texas A&M
Northwestern St 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(10) Baylor
BYU 9/6/14 6:30 PM
Texas
Citadel 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(1) Florida State
San Diego St 9/6/14 7:00 PM
(21) North Carolina
Virginia Tech 9/6/14 7:00 PM
(8) Ohio State
Memphis 9/6/14 9:00 PM
(11) UCLA
Colorado State 9/6/14 9:15 PM
Boise State
Air Force 9/6/14 9:15 PM
Wyoming
Oregon State 9/6/14 9:30 PM
Hawaii
Texas Tech 9/6/14 10:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Brt Columbia 9/5/14 6:30 PM
Ottawa
Calgary 9/6/14 6:00 PM
Edmonton
Hamilton 9/7/14 12:00 PM
Montreal
Saskatchewan 9/7/14 3:00 PM
Winnipeg
Minnesota 9:00 PM
Phoenix
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close