Plans to build a National Loon Center in north-central Minnesota have cleared a crucial hurdle after lawmakers in the 2019 legislative session set aside $4 million to construct the research and education facility in Crosslake.
The site will be modeled on the popular National Eagle Center near Wabasha, Minn., offering a boardwalk, docks, laboratory space and classrooms for both the public and scientists to watch and study one of North America’s most charismatic birds.
The center will be built near the shoreline of the busy Crosslake campground, which sits on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but will not displace any campsites.
With state financing now secured, the Corps expects to offer the National Loon Center Foundation a 25-year lease this week, said Patrick Loch, Corps spokesman.
“We’re just wrapping a bow around everything now,” Loch said.
The Crops has been studying the proposal for several months, making sure it wouldn’t harm the campground or change the way its 150,000 annual visitors use the site.
With so many visitors, Crosslake is an ideal spot to raise awareness about the perils facing the common loon, said Becca Nash, director of the state’s Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.
“There’s kind of a captive audience there,” Nash said. “And we’ll also be able to do some shoreline restoration and move some of the boats off the beach to protect loons.”
While loon populations are relatively healthy in Minnesota, the bird is threatened by habitat loss as well as lead and mercury poisoning, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Leah Heggerston, executive director of the Loon Center, declined to comment on the project until the group’s lease with the Corps is finalized.
The foundation hopes to open the center by 2022, according to its website.
The Loon Foundation will still have to raise another $6 million from private donors and federal programs to complete the $10 million project. A large portion of that would come from a federal grant the foundation is seeking from money received in the government’s BP settlement over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Loons migrate to the Gulf every winter and Minnesota is on a shortlist to receive a portion of the BP money. State and federal biologists are still trying to determine how big an effect the spill had on generations of Minnesota’s state bird.
If all the funding comes together, the 15,000-square-foot visitor center will operate year-round and include wildlife and water quality exhibits. The project has the support of the Crosslake City Council. The local Chamber of Commerce will help operate it. The Loon Foundation is in talks with the University of Minnesota to be a long-term partner and plans to include a loon and freshwater research center, laboratory and classroom space.
The project will include a boardwalk and a number of dock slips along the shoreline, nestled in a cove along the lake. Once those are built, boaters will no longer be allowed to beach their boats at the campground, which has been causing some damage to the shores that provide key nesting habitat for the birds.
The project will bring needed infrastructure upgrades to public access areas along the lake while boosting education on the condition and needs of the state bird, said state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, who supported funding the project with money raised from Minnesota lottery sales.
“There are still a few hurdles yet, but I think now the biggest ones have been met,” Heintzeman said. “I’m a grouchy conservative and these kinds of [projects] always make me nervous, but I think we’re on track for something special here.”