Surrounded by farmland, Hampton Woods in Castle Rock and Hampton townships is the only forest for miles.

“It’s one of the highest-quality natural areas remaining in the county,” said Al Singer, Dakota County’s land conservation manager. “It’s been on the radar for protection for many, many years.”

The woods, privately owned by various people, provide critical habitat for wildlife. But they have fallen through the cracks of state and local protection programs. One owner has done some logging and invasive species are creeping in.

So when the Kuntz family decided to sell 166.5 acres of the woods, the county jumped on it, Singer said. The County Board voted last week to spend up to $811,000 to buy more than 190 acres from the Kuntz family and sisters Joan Uselmann and Mary Bakalars, who own property next to the Kuntz’s.

The county plans to pay for the land through its capital improvement program and Legacy Amendment funds.

Then officials will turn it over to the state to run it as a wildlife management area. The Department of Natural Resources manages 1,440 wildlife management areas across Minnesota and encourages people to use them for hunting, trapping and fishing. Hampton Woods would become the eighth such area in Dakota County.

The DNR would remove invasive species and add a small parking lot for public access, said Bob Fashingbauer, the DNR’s wildlife supervisor for Dakota County.

Greg Kuntz, whose family owns the property, said they are happy that the wild area his parents enjoyed will be preserved. He said his father, Ed Kuntz, spent a lot of time hiking through the trees and bird-watching.

The forest is home to several bird species that are declining, rare or vulnerable, including the red-shouldered hawk, according to the county.

Bigger plans

The county’s plan to buy the two properties is just a piece of its long-term vision for Hampton Woods. A map of the proposed wildlife management area designates nearly 957 acres for protection, including many areas that are currently farmland.

Commissioner Mike Slavik said he supports conservation, but is concerned about taking productive farmland off the tax roles.

It’s a concern other community members, like Joyce Nicolai of Hampton Township, share. Nicolai said she supports wildlife management but doesn’t think it’s necessary to use the full 957 acres, especially when the county is spending money to cut down trees for trails in other parts of the county.

However, Fashingbauer said the 957 acres is a “wish list” that may never happen because the government is only buying property from willing sellers.

“It’s totally up to the landowners,” Fashingbauer said, but “the bigger the better as far as wildlife habitat and species diversity.”

The farmland included in the proposed management area would be returned to native prairie, he said.

Other people have been interested in selling land in Hampton Woods in the past and the county will reach out to them again, Singer said.

“It is a balancing act” between protecting wildlife and generating tax revenue, Singer said, and the county focuses on the highest-quality sites for conservation.