For John Baker and Tim Griffis, the advent of gravel mining at UMore Park meant losing nearly a decade of research.
The University of Minnesota faculty members are among the many agricultural researchers working at the 5,000-acre Rosemount site, and some of the first to be affected by the mining operation. They had a year to leave behind one project and begin again elsewhere.
"It was enough time to move," Baker said. "But still, it was unfortunate that we lost the history of that previous field."
Although a new vision for UMore makes room for research, the U is still planning its eventual exit to make way for mining and development. For the researchers working there, a move means potentially losing years of work. For the U, it could put millions of dollars in research grants in limbo.
Moving an agricultural research operation isn't as simple as resettling on a new piece of land. It takes years to build a body of work, and uprooting it often means starting again from scratch.
In 2014, 43 researchers worked on more than 100 research trials at UMore Park. Data collected there are used by researchers throughout the U and around the world. The site's size, soil quality and proximity to campus make it stand out among the U's network of research and outreach centers across the state.
"The land base is really the place that we can take these things that we develop in theory in the laboratory and see how they work," said Greg Cuomo, associate dean for research and graduate programs in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
In October, U President Eric Kaler said he was concerned about UMore's future and directed a task force to put together recommendations for the site. The Board of Regents signed off Feb. 13 on a plan that moves away from a future residential community developed by the university. The idea is to maximize research, expand mining and then eventually sell the land.
Anxiety about losing the UMore research site has been percolating for about a decade. The U unveiled its plan for a 20,000-30,000-resident community there in 2006, and in 2011 entered into a 40-year mining contract with estimates that it would produce $3 million to $5 million for the U annually.
"It was sort of crystal clear that at that point, agricultural research wasn't going to be a priority in that. Or it was going to be a minor part of some grander vision," Griffis said.
The recent U task force recommended a moratorium on additional mining over the next 15 to 25 years, in order to give researchers sufficient notice if they have to move. But some projects — spanning decades — will need more time.
"You can't pick up a project like that and put it in a new location and expect it to mean very much, because it has to do with measuring change over time," said Lois Braun, a research associate who started working at UMore as a graduate student.
Cuomo said the projects with timelines longer than three years have been moved to Vermillion Highlands, a nearby site managed jointly by the U and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"The more difficult questions to answer are the places that we really need that kind of stability for," he said.
Researchers say there are a lot of factors to consider before moving a project. Griffis said one of his research sites could be moved and established within one or two weeks, but there would be longer-term challenges, including establishing infrastructure and securing new grant funding.
Mine's footprint to grow
Research on 518 acres at UMore last year brought in about $6.3 million in grant funding, according to the task force report outlining the new vision for the site. As the mine's footprint grows over the next 40 years, the U will lose an estimated $23.1 million in research funding. If the moratorium doesn't go through, that number could be more than $70 million.
Braun, who researches hybrid hazelnuts, has plants located to the north of the mine. It's too late to move those plants, she said, but her newest plants are at Vermillion Highlands. Baker and Griffis restarted their research on greenhouse gases and agriculture there as well.
"I actually have needs for continually expanding my research," Braun said. "And we are starting to run into competition for land."
The next-closest research station is more than 70 miles away in Waseca. The U is looking for land closer to campus, Cuomo said, but it's expensive.
Researchers who fought the initial mining plans say it wore them down. They're hopeful that the new plan will give them a little more time, but they're also aware that there's no turning back.
"They basically desecrated the land, in my opinion," Braun said. "The damage is already done."