The Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center has been a quiet, tucked-away gem on the remote edge of the Twin Cities metro area for more than 60 years. It is a pristine, 900-acre world of its own, filled with prairies, bogs, wetlands, forest, two lakes and a bone-deep mission of awakening children to the wonders of nature.
Over the decades, nearly half a million Minnesota schoolchildren have wandered its lands, helped band its birds, tap its maple trees and canoe waters that abound with lily pads, not algae.
News that the center would halt operations on Dec. 31 hit hard. The St. Paul-based Manitou Fund, which owns and funds the property, severed its longtime relationship with the Science Museum of Minnesota, which has operated the center almost since its inception. The fund gave no reason, and it gave few details about the fate of the center beyond a statement that said it was committed to preserving the land for future generations. The result was near panic among the close-knit web of staff, longtime volunteers and supporters of the center who were left to speculate that the world they had created in the woods west of Marine on St. Croix was about to end.
Greg McNeely, whose family controls the Manitou Fund, said the reaction blindsided him. McNeely told an editorial writer that he’d been advised to say little about the decision to “turn the page,” but now wants to assure the public that the center will continue under a new, still unfolding vision.
“We’re going to invest in it and improve it in every way,” he said. “If everybody could be a little patient, we know this is a big interruption, but it’s definitely going to be an interruption, but not a closing. The people who think we are out to develop this land are way off base. We just want to make it better, and that wasn’t going to happen with our current partner.”
Privately owned and funded nature centers are rare. Over time, Warner developed a unique model centered largely around immersive classroom visits and some research projects, driven in large measure by a dedicated crew of volunteers, some of whom have been there for more than 50 years.
Though Warner holds events through the year that the public is invited to attend, it’s generally not open for public use. The staff is small enough that volunteers take on an extraordinary level of duties. They’ve crafted towering wind chimes made of dried, hollow reeds, helped build a log-cabin sugar shack for maple syrup runs in the spring. They’ve banded 45,000 birds over the years, keeping meticulous records, but also working to involve the children. “Kids who just use their thumbs on a phone all day, get to hold a bird and release it and you see their eyes pop. That’s why we’re here,” said Mary Messerli, a volunteer whose father was the center’s first director.
Volunteers hand-stitch and bleach every bag used in banding birds. They pull buckthorn themselves rather than use chemicals, and spread wood chips rather than pave trails. One volunteer makes a point of walking the center’s blind screech owl on a rope daily, for exercise.
Joanne Jones-Rizzi, a Science Museum vice president and supervisor for Warner, called it a “unique, magical place. “We’re really sad to see the relationship end.” She said she did not know why the decision was made.
But McNeely said his family has a different vision for Warner. They foresee a more dynamic, publicly available center that engages a more diverse array of visitors, including teens, adults, urban children, along with nationally known lecturers, rigorous research projects, green buildings and cutting edge practices. The temporary closure was needed, he said, because it may take two years or more to develop and reopen.
Could they have communicated better with those who did much to make Warner what it is? Undoubtedly. But it should be noted that the McNeelys have a long track record of philanthropy and good works in Minnesota. The late Don McNeely bought what had been a far smaller property from the Wilder Foundation in 1970, dedicating it to his beloved uncle and aunt, Lee and Rose Warner.
The McNeely family has given generously over decades to causes and facilities across the state, including the Warner Palestra Center at St. John’s University in Collegeville, the Rose Warner Writing Center at the College of St. Scholastica, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park, the Marjorie McNeely Gallery at the MIA. Greg McNeely serves on the Minnesota advisory board of the Trust for Public Land, dedicated to creating parks and preserving land, and volunteered at Warner for several years. The family’s connection to the center, he said, is deep and personal.
Change can be wrenching. Good, honest communication — even when painful — can help. We celebrate and honor the good works of Warner’s staff and volunteers. The value of their work and the lives they touched is beyond measure. As Warner transforms for a new generation, we hope their wisdom can be incorporated.
But it is good to know the mission will go on. “My father always said he wanted the nature center to be the best in the country,” McNeely said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”