Jan. 23—The land-conservation groups, nonprofit organizations and government entities working to preserve the former Wilder Forest in northern Washington County seemed to have everything lined up and ready to go last spring.
After working for more than a decade to protect the land from development, officials from the Minnesota Land Trust, Washington County, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation announced in April that they had signed a letter of intent to complete the project by the end of the year.
There was just one problem, according to officials in May Township, where the nearly 600-acre site is located. No one, they say, consulted them.
Town Board Chairman John Adams said he and the other two members of the board didn't find out about the Wilder Forest plans from Washington County officials until last spring.
"First, we found out that they wanted to expand Square Lake Park," he said. "Then we found out that they wanted to put in a 50-plus-acre park in Wilder Forest with a 30-stall parking lot and a bus turnaround. This was all news to us. Quite frankly, we were feeling left out."
In July, the town board passed a yearlong moratorium on any change in usage in conservancy districts — including the Wilder Forest land.
THE LAND, THE PLAN
The land, considered one of the largest and most ecologically significant unprotected natural areas in the metro area, includes hardwood forest, numerous bogs, wetlands, grasslands and lakes.
Plans called for the property to be protected through a complicated combination of land purchases and conservation easements.
Washington County planned to contribute funds from its Land and Water Legacy program — a bond referendum passed by voters in 2006 authorizing up to $20 million in taxes to be raised and spent on parks, land preservation and water protection. In 2020, the county surpassed 1,000 acres protected by the program.
The Minnesota Land Trust's funding for conservation easements was to be through a $2.5 million grant from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, one of a number of funds established by the state's Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which was approved by voters in 2008. The amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent and distributed the extra revenue into four funds: outdoor heritage; clean water; parks and trails; and arts and cultural heritage.
But the grant, which sunsets on June 30, will have to be returned "without any deliverables," said Wayne Ostlie, director of land protection for the Minnesota Land Trust.
"It's already been extended once for two years," he said. "It won't be extended again. From my standpoint, we are kind of dead in the water at this point. There is no pathway forward for us."
Land Trust officials asked officials from the Wilder Foundation for an extension on the letter of intent, which sunset on Dec. 31, "given the uncertainties of the May Township moratorium and when that would end," Ostlie said.
Wilder officials declined to do so.
"This is the third time that the project has blown up in our face," Ostlie said. "Are we frustrated? Yes, it's very frustrating."
Wilder officials said Thursday that "other groups" have expressed interest in purchasing the property. They would not give specifics.
"We recognize any potential sale of the property will be complex," said Andy Brown, a spokesman for Wilder Foundation. "We are on hold with the proposed sale until we understand if, and how, we can proceed with all of the parties currently involved. We are exploring options that would meet the community's needs, preserve the land's historic and natural value, and help fuel Wilder's mission to improve lives today and for generations to come."
The Wilder Foundation has owned the Wilder Forest since 1957. Until 2003, it provided wilderness education there for thousands of children each year.
The nonprofit social-services agency, based in St. Paul, now focuses on direct services to support mental health, early-childhood development, stable housing and healthy aging. Proceeds from the sale of the land would be used to advance the foundation's mission to serve people in need who live in the east metro.
In 2014, the foundation sold 329 acres in the northernmost part of the Wilder Forest to the Manitou Fund, the foundation that was the primary funder of the nearby Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center. The Manitou Fund closed the nature center in 2019.
River Grove, a K-6 charter school that opened in the fall of 2017, rents several buildings from Wilder that have been used as schools and for professional retreats. Wilder will retain ownership of the land where the school is located for the time being. Under state law, charter schools must be in operation for at least five consecutive years before school officials can form an affiliated building company to purchase a facility.
The Science Museum, which owns and operates the St. Croix Watershed Research Station just south of Marine on St. Croix, had planned to buy about 300 acres. The museum's purchase would have included Big River Farms, a land-based education program for immigrant and refugee organic farmers and farmers of color, run by the Food Group.
The museum already owns about 185 acres in the area, primarily housing the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, and another 160 acres in an area known as the Tanglewood Nature Preserve. The Big River Farm's mission would have fit in well with the museum's mission of science and education centered on equity, museum officials said.
"The museum is disappointed that this innovative and collaborative initiative will not proceed," Barry Gisser, the museum's chief financial officer, said in a statement to the Pioneer Press. "The museum will continue to explore options to expand programming in Washington County independent of this project."
The Wilder Foundation would have had to subdivide the land in order to sell it to Washington County, but the township's moratorium put a freeze on applications to changes in property and uses in the conservancy district. Any applications to subdivide the property would "need to wait until the moratorium is lifted," said Town Clerk Linda Tibbetts.
Washington County Board member Fran Miron, who represents the township, said he supports and understands the reasons behind the moratorium. It will give officials time to review ordinances and "make sure that they represent what they as a town board believe their citizenry has an interest in," he said.
A change in township leadership led to some of the confusion, Miron said. Former township board chairman Bill Voedisch, who had served in the position for 24 years, did not run for re-election in March.
"There isn't anything that we were doing in the way of Wilder or other land protection within May Township that Bill was not aware of," he said. "I always felt very comfortable that we were really living up to what May Township and May Township residents expected of us because we had the support of Bill throughout that process."
Voedisch said "the county's plans for Wilder kept changing."
"We all knew that the county had a plan for the Wilder property that fronts the lake, south of Ostlund Trail North, but I did not know about their plans to acquire property north of the road next to (River Grove) school," he said. "I found out about the county's plans for property north of the road next to the school from the school. As soon as I found that out, I shared that information with the rest of the board."
Adams said he and the other town board members had no choice but to pass the moratorium. "I think if we had been part of it from the beginning, these deals would probably have been done," he said.
He faults county officials for dealing only with Voedisch in their negotiations — not the entire town board.
The county, Adams said, should have started with proposing a comprehensive-plan amendment for the property.
"Washington County did not follow their own rules," Adams said. "Because they didn't follow that process, we had no input or power over decision-making. The county's vision did not match the vision in our comp plan. In fact, quite the opposite. Our comp plan calls for metered and monitored usage. This is something that we as a township have never allowed and never done: It allows unfettered public access."
WANTING AN INPUT
Washington County officials in 2020 upgraded the county's parks ordinance to create a new mechanism — called a County Conservation Area — for protecting land outside of parks. Under the county's plan, 55 acres of the Wilder Forest land, located on the northwest side of Square Lake, would have been open for low-impact recreation uses, such as kayaking, hiking and picnicking.
But township officials balked at plans for a 30-stall parking lot on the site. Also at issue: The county's park would have been accessed by only two township roads — neither of which is equipped to handle a large number of vehicles, Adams said. "This would be the first and only county park that did not have access to it from a county road," he said.
"If you look at the park plans as they finally laid them out, there are no benefits to the township; there are only burdens," Adams said. "That's why our input is important."
Jim Seidl, who lives just south of the Wilder Forest property, wants township officials and the other involved parties to sit down together and work out a solution. He has proposed that a neutral, non-binding mediator be hired to "help facilitate a collaborative negotiation."
"We're running out of time," said Seidl, vice president of the Square Lake Association and a former member of the town board. "If something doesn't happen, Wilder is going to be forced to go with another solution, and Washington County is going to apply those resources elsewhere. May Township and Washington County are going to lose a tremendous opportunity to protect that land, and if that happens, everybody loses. We need everyone to win."
SUPERVISOR: SLOW DOWN
But town board supervisor Steve Magner, the newest member of the town board, doesn't feel the same sense of urgency.
Magner, a code enforcement manager for St. Paul, said he's worked in government for more than 30 years and "people make up emergencies all the time that don't exist, and I don't buy into that."
When township staff informed the board last year that the township's rules concerning land-use controls within the conservancy district needed to be reviewed and updated, the town board agreed, he said.
"My vote was to stop the train," he said. "The idea is to stop doing what we're doing, sit back, re-evaluate that, which we are currently doing, try and get input, and then, hopefully, we can move forward with a new product that works for everyone."
Because the township is zoned rural residential, which allows for one house per 20 acres in the conservancy district, even if the land were sold for development, "we'd say, 'OK, that's fine,' " Magner said. "What are they going to get? Fourteen homesteads? Fourteen homesteads is not a big impact to our community."
The Manitou Fund, established in 1964 by Donald McNeely to finance many of his family's charitable interests, has expressed interest in the rest of the Wilder Forest property, Adams said. Greg McNeely, Don McNeely's son, was not available for comment.
Greg Seitz, the founder of the St. Croix 360 website that seeks to build support for river stewardship, said he hopes that the land becomes a public park.
"I was very excited last year about the project when I heard about it — that this land was finally going to be preserved and that, significantly, a lot of it was going to be open to the public," said Seitz, a township resident. "This could have made May Township an even more appealing place to live and visit, and so I'm disappointed that the project is not going forward anymore. I just wish the township could find a way to support it because this is a huge priority for the county and really for the region."
Ostlie, of the Minnesota Land Trust, said the township's moratorium "threw a huge curveball" in the whole process.
"We can deliberate as to whether that is warranted or not," he said. "I'm not going to weigh in on that. It threw a curveball into it and it may be, ultimately, what prevents the protection from going forward just because I don't know what Plan B is at this point. Ultimately, we want to see the land protected. It's an incredible resource that needs to be protected. If not us, then by somebody else."
Miron is confident that whatever the community wishes, it will win out.
"I'm a firm believer that if there is commitment from all of these parties, this will come back together at some point in time — if that is the direction and the wishes of the community," Miron said.