The Hastings School District acquired 56 acres of restored grasslands on the Vermillion River in an usual land deal — one with a cast of characters including this key: a retired theater professor Tecla Karpen.

"There was this really great convergence," said Dakota County land conservation manager Al Singer.

It began around 2014 when Dakota County farmers Greg Stoffel and his late brother Dan put 56 acres of cropland that kept flooding into the Conservation Reserve Program. Avid deer hunters who love wildlife, they began restoring it with the state Department of Natural Resources, using a native seed mix.

The Stoffels knew Singer, who arranged for Dakota County to acquire a permanent natural area easement, ensuring the land would never be cultivated or developed. The county paid the Stoffels $87,750 for the easement, with money from the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Enter Karpen. The retired Mankato State University theater professor, who lived on a bluff in Hastings overlooking the Mississippi River, was passionate about the natural world and well-known locally for founding Hastings Environmental Protectors.

Karpen died in 2017 at age 90, and left instructions for her assets to be spent for ecological protection and restoration in the Mississippi River Corridor and Vermillion River Watershed areas. Vermillion Bank vice president Jim Poepl, in charge of her trust, said he was searching for the right way to use it when his father suggested the Stoffel land might fit Karpen's objectives. Knowing Karpen's deep connection to education, Poepl contacted the school district.

"It really checks all the boxes for her," Poepl said.

Karpen's trust paid $179,900 for the grassland; the school district happily accepted the gift.

Now the former fields are thick with native grasses and plants and teeming with life. Hastings High School biology teacher Joe Beattie leads classes there with boots and clipboards to count pollinators and test water quality, for example.

Last year they found a carnivorous Bladderwort in the pond there, he said. The submerged plant, with tiny yellow flowers atop a periscope-like stalk, traps small crustaceans in the water with its snapping pods.

"It's a fairly immediate indicator that your wetland is healthy," Beattie said.

Now the one-stop shop of habitats just needs a name.

"I'd love to call it the Tecla R. Karpen Nature Area," Beattie said. "Without her, this would not have happened."