Just a few miles from downtown St. Paul, visitors stroll by prairies, wooded trails and sheep — a mini oasis tucked in an urban area.

The Dodge Nature Center, like many parks and outdoor attractions, has drawn increasing crowds to its east metro trails during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now the nonprofit's leaders are looking to the future, aiming to boost accessibility for people of all ages and backgrounds at its main West St. Paul site, along with three other properties in the city, Mendota Heights and Cottage Grove. The organization unveiled plans Thursday to update trails and buildings and expand outreach as part of a $40 million fundraising campaign — the largest in its 53-year history.

"It's kind of nice having this in the middle of a city," said executive director Jason Sanders as he walked past towering cattails along a boardwalk. "At the end of the day, we want to make sure Dodge is here in 50 years."

Of the $40 million goal, $3 million will fund upgrades — adding solar panels to buildings, improving a kitchen for programming and revamping a building at Shepard Farm, a 140-acre site in Cottage Grove that Dodge got in 2015 and is opening its trails to the public for the first time this fall.

Another $2 million will go toward supporting the operations of the nonprofit. Most of the campaign — $35 million — will boost the nonprofit's endowment, which totals about $18 million now.

While other parks and nature centers are operated by taxpayer-supported park districts, cities or counties, Dodge doesn't usually receive any public support.

It did receive a $338,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan as part of federal coronavirus aid, which helped plug a similarly sized hole in revenue after farm tours, programs and school field trips were canceled last spring by the pandemic. None of its 42 employees were laid off or furloughed as a result.

COVID-19 didn't halt everything; the community garden plots Dodge rents out drew increased interest, nearly doubling in size over the summer.

Now, Dodge has restarted smaller group programs, such as a guided hike for women and camps for kids. Naturalists are also doing virtual programs for schools. A preschool Dodge operates — one of the first nature preschools when it started 20 years ago — has reopened.

The fundraising campaign is intended to make the preschool more affordable for low-income families.

Sanders said that $28 million of the $40 million has been raised so far and he hopes to wrap up the campaign in three years.

As chickens clucked next to a pen of goats, visitors walked trails along Dodge's 110-acre site in West St. Paul.

The center is not just for recreation, but also for learning about ecology and the history of farming — with the convenience of being close to home for metro residents, said Don Oberdorfer, the farm director.

"It's different from a city park," Oberdorfer said. "To get people to remember that heritage ... makes a difference."

The site includes an apiary, farm, maple syrup shack and raptor mews housing an owl, a hawk and a one-eyed eagle named Bud.

Dodge — one of the first nature centers in Minnesota when it opened in 1967 — was founded by Olivia Irvine Dodge, a philanthropist and environmentalist who died in 2009. Her family home on Summit Avenue was donated to the state in 1965 and is the governor's residence.

With a $2.5 million annual budget, Dodge draws more than 60,000 people a year, mostly to its West St. Paul site. But its leaders hope to attract visitors to trails on Dodge's less popular properties in Mendota Heights and Cottage Grove, and plans to expand adult programs and outreach to draw more diverse visitors.

"The park has to change," Oberdorfer said. "You have to grow and evolve as the community grows and evolves."