Walking along the Creek at Minneopa State Park outside of Mankato, you’ll see a beautiful two-tiered waterfalls roaring over the limestone cliffs You’ll see fish swimming under the crashing water and sweethearts next to the pool, where a mother duck leads her young.
Courtland Nelson, Director of the Minnesota State Parks and Trails Division for the Department of Natural Resources, sees all these things, but he also sees a crumbling and unsafe Depression-era concrete bridge.
“We’ll need to come up with a guard rail and replace these blocks before someone gets hurt,” noted the tall, thin Nelson as he walked across the bridge overlooking the falls.
“Park infrastructure isn’t very sexy, but it is essential to giving visitors the kind of quality experience that brings them back,” added Nelson as he gave this reporter a tour of the park in June.
Where you and I see fields of scruffy weeds and brush along the Minnesota River, Nelson sees years of hard work ahead to restore native prairie and oak savanna. State parks are under a legislative mandate to bring back the parks to pre-settlement habitat.
Nelson oversees 28,000 acres of grassland, about half of it in pre-settlement prairie grass and flowers.
“Preserving the natural resources of our parks is a vital part of our work. If we don’t do this, who will,” said Nelson.
Where we see a historic, wind-driven gristmill made of native stone and lumber called the Seppman Mill, Nelson sees a potential camper cabin.
“Wouldn’t it be great to spend a weekend in a Dutch-looking windmill along the Minnesota River?” asks Nelson.
Since becoming director he has overseen the building of camper cabins throughout the system. Some people call Nelson the Camper Cabin King.
“There are two reasons to build these little wooden camper cabins. Minnesota has lost many of its small, inexpensive, mom-pop resorts. And there are many people that don’t want to pitch a tent, and they can’t afford an RV.
“The camper cabins are popular because they offer a viable alternative,” said Nelson.
At the contact station we meet a young summer worker hoping for a career with state. The system has 1100 full and part time employees with many retirements coming up. Nelson knows to keep the system viable into the future, he needs to recruit and train the next generation of parks and trails staff.
Crews are working just outside the park on a paved bike trail that will link Minneopa to two other trails, the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail and the Red Jacket Trail. This is all part of a commitment to expand the statewide system by connecting existing trails and parks.
The contact station has a new display of souvenirs, Minneopa clothing, nature books and novelties. The park needs to sell $5,000 worth of merchandise a year to keep the display going.
Protecting natural resources, maintaining and expanding infrastructure, developing programs and marketing are all part of the job of the parks and trails director.
Nelson, a 1968 graduate of Forest Lake High School, became Director of Minnesota State Parks and Trails Division in 2004 after serving as the director first of Arizona’s 26 state parks and later of Utah State Parks, where he oversaw the Nordic venue of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Games.
Nelson says his biggest challenge since taking on Minnesota’s state park system came when the parks were nearly closed for the Fourth of July because of budget cuts.
But the budget landscape has changed for the better. The 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment pumped $35 million a year into parks and trails for the next 25 years. The legislature also passed a $20 million bonding bill to acquire land and begin the new Lake Vermilion State Park.
“While many of my colleagues are reeling because of budget cuts, we have these Legacy bonding funds to help us build the system,” said Nelson.
Nelson has also consolidated the parks section of the department with the trails and waterways.
“Many times we’d have trucks from each department pass each other on the way to a job. This will cut down on duplication of efforts.”
“Now we can bring together our strengths and share in our efforts,” said Nelson.
New programs are bringing new people into the parks and giving them tools to enjoy the outdoors.
People can now fish in a state park without a license. You can borrow binoculars, GPS units and campsite game kits to learn what parks have to offer.
In the “I Can Camp” program sponsored by REI, for a small fee, people can get all the equipment they need to camp for a night in a state park.
The parks are working with the Minnesota Twins, which has offered to plant 100 trees in the state parks for every broken bat this season.
“All these programs are designed to get more people into the parks and improve their experience once they come here,” said Nelson.
So far it has worked as park attendance is up, and Nelson hopes to increase the attraction by adding more naturalists.
Nelson is now planning the biggest expansion of the park system in 35 years with the addition of the 3,000-acre Lake Vermilion State Park.
“Through all the work we’ve been doing in the park system, we’ve got some good ideas of how to build a state-of-the-art park. The use of technology, the layout of campsites, how we design programs, all mean we look at parks differently than we did 50 years ago.
“This is an exciting time to be working in parks and trails. Yes, we have our budget restraints, but then again, that has made us all the more creative,” said Nelson.
“The one thing we do know is, the public loves parks and trails, and we need to be alert to just how coming generations are going to use their parks and trails,” concluded Nelson.
“We also need to be alert to the many, different user groups that want to use parks and trails. We have immigrants and single mothers; we have motorized trail users and the folks that want a quiet hike or biking experience.
“We have a place for all of them in our parks, trails and waterways. We will just need to be creative on how we include them without disrupting the natural resources,” concluded Nelson.