Belwin Conservancy in Afton will celebrate its 50th year with a free open house Saturday in an event that will mark its enduring partnership with St. Paul Public Schools.

The 1,500-acre nature preserve has played host each year to thousands of district third- and fifth-graders who travel by bus to learn about science in the outdoors.

Even with COVID-19 curtailing visits a year ago, district staffers were able to trek through the wetlands, prairies and oak savannas to record lessons to be shared with students virtually, Marty Davis, the district's science supervisor, told school board members recently.

"No other district has the level of access and collaboration with a nature center than we have with Belwin," he said.

Davis spoke about the partnership at a board presentation that included a history lesson and a nod to future plans from Katie Bloome, executive director at Belwin.

She said the nonprofit has begun raising money for a new building to be designed specifically for children enrolled in special education.

"We've had special education students out since day two of school this year," she said.

The presentation gave Board Members Zuki Ellis, Jessica Kopp, Jim Vue and Jeanelle Foster opportunities to reminisce about chaperoning students at Belwin.

"It's a magical place," Kopp said.

Ellis recalled visiting Belwin when she was a student at the former Webster Magnet Elementary and how, as an adult, she wouldn't pass up the chance to accompany kids on a field trip.

"There are a lot of memories," Foster said. "I am a camper, and my family are campers, and I think I can tie that to Belwin."

Superintendent Joe Gothard said Belwin's had a remarkable reach and "we look forward to continuing to strengthen the partnership."

The open house is 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will include a prairie parade and guided hikes among other activities. Go to for information.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109