As Ron Erdmann kneels in vast St. Croix State Park, examining tall stalks of native big bluestem prairie grass, wind feathers over a landscape seemingly lost in time.

“You can definitely find a lot of solitude here,” said Erdmann, one of many citizen volunteers who lend their expertise to the crown jewel of Minnesota’s parks. “It’s like going back 150 years in time. This is probably similar to what it looked like before Minnesota was a state.”

At 34,000 acres, St. Croix State Park is Minnesota’s largest, but this summer it emerged as something even more — a laboratory for future park practices.

Erdmann and others like him are helping the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forge a plan to make all state parks more popular and useful to new generations of people who will visit them.

A serious blowdown of thousands of acres of forest in 2011 started discussions that the St. Croix, which never had a management plan of its own, needed one. Then came the citizen volunteers, forging the park’s future into a pilot project that could lead the way for modern improvements in all of Minnesota’s 75 state parks and recreation areas.

“St. Croix is a big, very busy, well-developed park. With the blowdown, it obviously was time to take another look at St. Croix,” said Jade Templin, the DNR planner leading the project. “It begged the question: What else should we do? This is the time, this is the perfect time, in fact.”

Known for its diversity of recreation, St. Croix State Park, 15 miles east of Hinckley in Pine County, attracts a couple thousand visitors on weekends. Their presence isn’t largely felt, however, because they’re scattered on trails, campsites and river landings that range for miles, often hidden in forests of birch, pine and oak.

The National Park Service designed the park and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built structures, creating what initially was known as a recreational demonstration area. The land became a state park in 1943, and today, several of the 164 buildings and structures from that era remain, giving the park its national historic landmark designation.

St. Croix State Park seems even larger than it is because it borders two state forests, the St. Croix and the Chengwatana. The park fronts the federally protected St. Croix River and a major tributary, the state-protected Kettle River.

“There’s so much wild space that you can lose yourself in it. All the beautiful things here, that keeps going for miles and miles,” said Willow Shields, a park employee who grew up nearby. “It’s a really special place to a lot of people.”

From outreach to apps

The idea isn’t to change the park, Templin and Erdmann said, but to enhance it. For example, the park could have a stronger theme, seizing on its remarkable history. An interpretive center, currently too small, could be enlarged and better focused.

One of the three main campgrounds — all were built mostly for tent campers years ago — could be redesigned to accommodate larger vehicles on pull-through sites with more screening. Adding rustic camper cabins would meet a growing interest without competing with private resorts.

And more outreach to schools and community groups would promote the park’s educational and cultural benefits.

Erdmann said the citizen group also has discussed how to attract more millennials to the park by creating apps and other interactive features for electronic devices.

“It’s a very thorough examination of what the park needs and doesn’t need and what the park does well or what could be improved,” Erdmann said of the citizens’ contributions to the management plan, which is scheduled to be completed in December.

Planners also intend to sharpen the park’s image as a “destination,” giving it more visibility in the Legislature when funds are appropriated for state parks, Templin said. Park funding in recent years has stayed flat, while expenses have grown, and a new DNR “system plan” promises to re-evaluate parkgoers’ priorities statewide.

All of Minnesota’s parks eventually will be assigned a status — “destination” being the highest priority. Next come “core” parks, followed by “rustic” ones. St. Croix State Park is the first to undergo this review.

As the DNR shapes the St. Croix management plan, drawing heavily on the wisdom of citizen volunteers and survey comments from park users, ideas for other state parks emerge.

“We want to be smart with the money we have and put it in places where we get maximum benefits for our visitors,” Templin said. “Instead of saying one size fits all, how [can we] best give the widest variety of experiences and people get what they want?”

A park for everyone

On a bright August day, park manager Rick Dunkley wandered through the blowdown area, pointing to the revival of native plants such as purple thistle, goldenrod and wild rose after 110,000 cords of fallen and damaged trees were cleared away in recent years.

Next, he stood on the bank of the St. Croix River, watching Outward Bound kids from Chicago push into the current in five canoes as hawks soared above them. “This is what this park is all about — something for everyone,” Dunkley said.

Those diverse interests can make park planning difficult, but he said the citizen volunteers — and other visitors who are stewards of nature — bring an essential focus.

“It’s awesome to have folks who have a passion for whatever they enjoy,” he said.

Erdmann, a conservationist, is one of them. He spends weekends camping and taking long hikes, drawn to the calming presence of nature and historical features such as the chimney remaining from a CCC camp.

“This place makes me feel like a kid. It brings out the curious side,” he said. “There’s a bit for everybody: the wildness of it, untrampled, very pure, a natural paradise.”