A family that planted more than a million trees on its farm in the center of Dakota County has agreed to sell that land for more than $10 million as the heart of a major new regional park.

"They asked us a couple of times about naming the park," Steve Olson, who grew up on the farm, said Tuesday after the county board approved the purchase. "I ended up saying, 'It doesn't matter what you call it.' The only thing I asked them was, if I can come up with the picture -- I think my brother has it -- of my father and his foreman, these two guys who pushed the dirt that built the dam that made the lake, I would love to have that picture right at the end of the dam. That these were the guys who built this."

The $14.8 million price covers an oddly shaped parcel of more than 800 acres that forms a vital link between two other enormous pieces that together add up to roughly 5,000 acres of publicly owned land.

The portion of that land that is to become a regional park will be called Vermillion Highlands, for the vistas it offers. Other than land in and around the Minnesota Zoo, it may turn out to be the only major county parkland in the residential heart of the fast-growing county.

The land is right in the pathway of suburban development. It has been considered a choice parcel for a park that one county commissioner remembers speaking to Steve's mother, Janine, about it 25 years ago.

Given all that history, "there is a lot of excitement here today," said county parks planner Mary Jackson.

The opportunity was exceptional: Much of southern Dakota is farmed, which doesn't lend itself to parkland. And the natural areas that do exist are often held in smaller parcels by multiple owners, making it difficult to assemble the kind of acreage needed to create a major park.

"It can be a huge challenge," Jackson said. "We always work with willing sellers," as opposed to seizing land using the power of eminent domain, "so it can be a waiting game. The fact that it was a single parcel, a single property owner, made things a lot easier."

One thing that will make it attractive to visitors, said Steve Sullivan, director of the county's parks department, is the vistas it offers. "What makes it unique is that there are lots of great panoramic views off across rolling countryside."

The timing of opening the park depends, he said, on the county's ability to assemble the funds to cover the full purchase price. The county has most of the needed money. But Dakota County lawmakers are asking for help from the Minnesota Legislature in the current session to supply about $4 million for land acquisition and improvements.

The purchase is a cooperative one in which the state will get the southern portion for a wildlife management area while the county retains 460 acres for parkland. Although that's not huge by regional park standards, it borders on University of Minnesota land, some of which was turned over to the state as part of the deal to build a new football stadium on campus.

The parcel to be acquired this year is sandwiched between Hwys. 3 and 52 and County Roads 46 and 66 in Empire Township.

Steve Olson, 56, one of two surviving children of the family that once farmed it, now lives in Maine, where he works in the marine industry. He said his family's connection to the land dates to the 1930s.

The tree planting over many years, he said, occurred because so much of it was "a lot of sand and gravel that would burn out terribly and there was no point trying to farm it. So we'd be out with all these two-year-old pine seedlings, one guy on a tractor and two on the planter, sticking these things in the ground as we went along. My brother and I alone planted half a million trees, and the total must be easily a million and a half."

Although developers were interested, he said, "It'll be so much nicer to drive there now and say, 'This is where I grew up,' instead of saying, 'Under that row of houses I think is where the silo used to be.' So much farmland gets made unidentifiable. I think it'll be great."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023