COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – Tom Kroll spent his forestry career helping private landowners coax the most out of their property — sometimes in a timber harvest, sometimes in a habitat restoration, often in 40-acre increments.
As St. John’s Abbey Arboretum’s forester, for the past 15 years he’s focused on the abbey’s 2,600 acres in the Avon Hills just west of St. Cloud.
To the Benedictine monks, the land is home. To surrounding property owners, it’s a stewardship model. To nearby city dwellers, an escape.
“As a landowner we have an obligation, all of us do. We’re just temporary holders of that right to use the land. That’s part of that whole idea that we should be good stewards,” Kroll said.
It’s an idea he practiced on the family farm near Long Prairie, saw in action while employed in Germany, and expanded through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Forest Stewardship Program.
At the arboretum, he continued efforts to regenerate 700 acres of oak forest. Deer populations as high as 20 per square mile necessitated protective plastic tubing and 9-foot-tall fencing.
Protecting the surrounding Avon Hills from development is what private-land conservation easements aim to do. The Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund made $1.3 million available. So far, 631 acres have been put into easements.
Meanwhile, the arboretum draws tens of thousands of visitors a year — 18,000 of those for educational programs, which Kroll oversaw. Thousands more use its 20 miles of trails.
“Since they’ve been here, over 150 years, they’ve always allowed the public to visit it and use it because spiritual renewal is one of our goals. It’s in our management plan,” Kroll said.
Before he retired May 1, Kroll, the first abbey forester who was not also a monk, reflected on his role and revealed a few of his favorite places. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation:
On the significance of private forest land
What does my 40 acres really matter? It turns out that in Minnesota, 40 percent of all the forest lands are privately owned. Each of those 40s is just a part of that whole puzzle. In the end the whole puzzle is extraordinarily meaningful, from migrating birds to bears to deer — everything. So what a person does on their land you could say is inconsequential as a unit but it’s extraordinarily consequential as part of a sum.
On working with landowners
My experience is that almost everybody that owns land owns it because they love it, even if they inherited it. People who own land have a “real” job to pay for this passion they have, and so it’s not hard to convince people to do the right thing with their land. I think the first step is you want to understand why they own it. In Minnesota, it’s often deer hunting.
On the arboretum’s place within the larger landscape
The Benedictines are really attached to the land. They’re very interested in seeing this landscape preserved. They don’t want to be an island of green surrounded by golf courses and condos in 50 years. That’s why they’re looking at the whole landscape. They want the habitat, water quality — all those ecosystem benefits — to be broader than this place. But certainly this place is a model and an anchor.
On the arboretum’s forestry goals
It is that they continue this long Benedictine stewardship. I think the thing they’re working on now — the thing we’ve all been working on — is regenerating the oaks and becoming experts at regenerating oak in the face of high deer numbers.
On the monks’ early reforestation efforts
You have the oldest documented planted trees in Minnesota right on the Chapel Trail. The seeds in part came over by sailing ship from Germany. They planted these trees out here in 1896, which is four years before Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot started the U.S. Forest Service. They planted white pine, but the ones they imported were Norway spruce and Scots pine.
On the arboretum’s hidden gems
By West Gemini Lake, there’s a little stretch there — it’s not even 200 feet long. It just looks like a mountain stream. It’s just really pretty. It’s big boulders, and it kind of splashes over it and it runs most of the year. But in the spring when it’s melting, it’s really just kind of a happy, active river. There’s a little hidden lake, Schoensee. It’s just kind of a little hidden gem back there, and it’s often full of ducks. On the south end of Lake Sagatagan there are no trails. If a person wanted to go someplace really exploring, you have that ability.
On dedicated green space
All of us like to live in green spaces, but there aren’t enough 40s to go around. I’m sure Lewis and Clark would have scoffed at the idea of having less than 1,000 acres for their elbow room. People used to own at least a quarter section, 160 acres minimum, to hunt. Now we’re down to 40s and 20s, and everybody’s trying to get their 5 acres in the country. Five acres in the country is just a big suburb once everybody’s got it. Cities have to start dedicating way more green space. I don’t mean a couple little lots with a softball field on it. If you’re going to take a 100-acre woods in Plymouth or Maple Grove and you’re going to put it in houses, I think 30 percent should just stay green space. A manicured lawn with a couple apple trees and some plastic furniture — it’s nice, but kids need a place where they can build a fort or play in the woods.