It’s a modest metal plaque, affixed to a boulder at the Afton State Park Visitors Center, inscribed with just a few words: “Dedicated in honor of Chester S. Wilson/St. Croix Valley resident/Commissioner of conservation 1943-55.”
Unpretentious as the marker is, its setting is fitting: Wilson was instrumental in helping secure the prime real estate along the St. Croix River that gave Washington County its second state park.
Beyond that, the longtime Stillwater resident’s far-reaching imprint on protecting the state’s air, water and environment can still be seen from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to state park entry stickers and even to the creation of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) itself.
A few years after coming home from military service in World War I, Wilson was elected county attorney. His skill and personality, though, put him on a track to public service. He worked as an assistant attorney general, with a brief break, from the mid-1920s through 1943.
It was during this tenure, in 1931, that he drafted the legislation that for the first time merged all the state’s environmental agencies into one, the Department of Conservation, which eventually was renamed the DNR in 1971.
The unification of four units of state government responsible for Minnesota’s dwindling natural resources — forestry, game and fish, drainage and waters, and lands and timber — culminated years of struggle, according to the DNR. The new agency traced its roots to commissions and departments set up in the late 1800s to manage state resources.
The work of those early agencies was, at best, uneven, and at worst, ineffective and fraudulent. “Previous to 1931,” said an early department report, “conservation progress in Minnesota was both painfully slow and haphazard.”
Wilson had no inkling what would happen a dozen years later. With World War II raging, Gov. Harold Stassen asked him to take over the agency Wilson had helped to create.
“Chet,” Stassen said, according to a DNR history, “I want to appoint you commissioner of conservation.”
“I’ll have to think that over,” Wilson replied, knowing full well the agency — then as now — is pulled by a variety of disparate interests and thrust into the middle of controversial issues. “I’ve got a good job now. Commissioner of conservation is the hottest job in the state government.”
Wilson relented. And while he may have been a reluctant public servant, by all historic accounts he was a very effective one, serving for 12 years.
He was instrumental in drafting federal legislation that created the Superior National Forest, a delicate and complex diplomatic task that involved negotiating between the state, federal agencies, three counties, the province of Ontario and the government of Canada.
He added a provision to water permits granted to Reserve Mining Co. in 1947, holding the firm liable for any pollution it caused in Lake Superior — language that held up in a monumental federal lawsuit 30 years later, a case giving government then-unprecedented power to control corporate pollution.
In those post-Dust Bowl years, Wilson also put new emphasis on public education in soil and water conservation, crafted several important pieces of environmental legislation and served as legal counsel and consultant for a number of state and national environmental commissions and boards.
And he was a driving force behind those state park stickers. Before the first stickers were issued in 1953, money to maintain and develop state parks was left to the whims of lawmakers. The stickers were created as a steady source of income. The first annual entry permit stickers cost $1 (they’re $25 now), and the revenue they generated has allowed Minnesota’s state park system to be among the best in the nation. Wilson bought the first one.
Even after returning to private law practice, Wilson remained involved in conservation-related service. In 1967, when he was a member of a presidential committee focusing on the need for urban park areas, he helped get the ball rolling to buy the prime land on bluffs along the St. Croix River that would become Afton State Park.
Wilson died in 1983 at the age of 96, having lived nearly his entire life in Stillwater, staying active in his law office well past the age most people retired.
In an interview with the Stillwater Gazette before he died, he said his first love was always the law. “I’d rather try a lawsuit than eat,” he said.