October 6, 2023 Jim Seidl
This is the story of an all-volunteer team of committed conservationists who mobilized our community to rise-up and take action to protect & preserve a beloved lake and surrounding forest from commercialization, development, and environmental degradation.
It’s an important, much-needed, example of successful conservation and community action – for other lake associations and conservancy groups in Minnesota to benchmark and replicate, as we collectively protect & preserve at-risk natural resources under our stewardship.
In late 2022, the Square Lake Association (SLA) learned of the proposed sale of Wilder Forest, a 600-acre parcel of undeveloped land in the Square Lake watershed that contains pristine lakes, wetlands and forest, as well as high quality farm land. The prospective buyers shared their intention to develop the property into a high-use overnight camp with new buildings, numerous high-intensity recreational activities, and shoreline alterations likely along Square Lake and the small lakes within Wilder Forest. A community school, in operation for six years, would also be displaced by the camp.
Over the course of a year, SLA formed strategic alliances with May Township residents, local conservation organizations, and River Grove school supporters to successfully block the proposed sale.
Accomplishments as of 2023 include:
- Formation of the Square Lake Conservancy to advocate for continued protection of Wilder Forest and other pristine, undeveloped natural resources within the St. Croix Greenway (Carnelian Creek) corridor.
- 400+ petition signatures, 200 strategic yard signs placed, and $83,000 fundraised. Community residents also filled the town hall to overflowing during numerous key meetings in 2022 and 2023.
- Creation of numerous presentations, reports, and legal documents to communicate goals of the Square Lake Conservancy, and to help recruit a new, conservation-minded buyer for the land.
As of September 26, 2023, the camp has officially withdrawn their purchase offer and a local organization has submitted an offer to purchase the land instead. Square Lake Conservancy awaits news of whether this offer will be accepted and intends to continue advocating for the establishment of conservation easements to protect Square Lake and other sensitive resources in the area.
In late 2022, Wilder Foundation and Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership (MCYP) entered into a purchase agreement for MCYP to acquire Wilder Forest’s 600-acres of pristine, undeveloped lakes, woodlands, and agriculture lands, for $11M. MCYP hoped to commercialize and develop the property, located in a protected May Township Conservation District.
A viewing of the high impact, high intensity activities promoted by Damascus/MCYP in their Damascus-produced video linked here, ominously entitled Montage of Doom, will reveal how and why they are inappropriate uses, especially within a fragile ecosystem in a protected Conservation District. Well worth a 6-minute view, if you haven’t already.
Our Conservancy’s responsive advocacy was presented as follows:
- There are far better, less environmentally sensitive, locations in the region for a High Adventure youth camp – that are not within May Township’s Conservation District.
- There is only one Wilder Forest – with its pristine, undeveloped lakes and woodlands that have been preserved, for hundreds of years, in pre-settlement condition.
- MCYP’s emerging plan to commercially develop the year-round camp, managed by Ohio-based Damascus Catholic Mission, will result in a projected 4x increase in usage intensity per person compared to a recently displaced tenant, River Grove School, with over twice as many people, and a 9x usage intensity increase overall.
- Damascus/MCYP’s planned sports-recreation-entertainment youth camp activities – including paintball, archery tag, ultimate capture the flag, high ropes, giant swings, vertical play pens, 48- foot climbing walls, inflatable pillow “blobs”, dual zip lines, and beach boating, “ga-ga” ball, fishing, “and more” – are clearly, and inherently incompatible with the spirit and explicit scope of the May Township Conservation District.
- There is no science-based question that these activities will detrimentally impact the pristine waterways of Square Lake, and Wilder Forest – including East Boot Lake, Mays Lake, Clear Lake, and Terrapin Lake – and surrounding woodlands, wildlife, habitat, and watershed.
In response, Square Lake Conservancy successfully mobilized its local and regional conservation community to rise-up to protect & preserve Wilder Forest, recognized as “one of the largest and most ecologically significant remaining unprotected natural areas in the Twin Cities metropolitan area” – and one of the highest priority locations for permanent land protection in Washington County, including Loon and Blanding turtle nesting sites, both protected species.
As a direct, verified result of Square Lake Conservancy (SLC) all-volunteer advocacy and mobilization, Wilder Foundation informed SLC on September 11, 2023, that MCYP had walked-away from their purchase agreement, as reported here: Catholic youth camp drops plan to purchase Wilder Forest land – Pioneer Press 9-11-2023.
SLC’s stated mission is to help achieve a conservation-centric, community-aligned, May Township Conservation District compliant, River Grove School supportive, outcome for Wilder Forest – including optimal natural resource protection for Square Lake, East Boot Lake, Mays Lake, Clear Lake, Terrapin Lake, Wilder Forest, its surrounding watershed, and agricultural land. Preservation of the pristine beauty and ecology wonders of the 600-acre Wilder Forest, and the unique 203-acre Square Lake, in perpetuity, is recognized as a once-in-a-lifetime legacy choice.
Here are nine conservation goals that guided community mobilization, by Conservancy leaders:
- Assist Wilder Foundation in selling its land at fair market value to a conservation-centric, community supported buyer that meets Conservancy District ordinance requirements.
- Provide a secure, long-term home for River Grove: Marine Area Community School to continue its nature-based K-5 education.
- Provide a secure, long-term home for Big River Farms to continue organic food production and farm education programming for immigrant and BIPOC farmers.
- Establish a Permanent Conservation Easement over the 55-acres of Wilder Forest adjacent to Square Lake.
- Establish 300-ft buffer protections over the remaining undeveloped land surrounding Mays Lake, Clear Lake, Terrapin Lake and the land adjacent to East Boot Lake that is currently owned by Wilder Foundation.
- Protect the 2400-acre St. Croix Greenway Corridor from subdivision and development.
- Upgrade and replace failing septic systems within this corridor.
- Provide opportunities for low-impact nature study and enjoyment.
- Unite the community and provide a long-term community-asset.
Here is our Conservancy’s 36-page strategic plan that guided our advocacy actions and outcomes: SLC Community Action Plan – 7/21/23.
As part of its community bridge-building, SLC reached-out to the following conservation-centric organizations requesting strategic guidance, and conservation stewardship collaboration:
- Big Marine Lake Association* – https://www.bigmarinelakeassociation.org/.
- Center for Mission* – https://centerformission.org/.
- Marine St Croix Watershed District* – https://www.cmscwd.org/.
- Minnesota Lakes & Rivers* – https://mnlakesandrivers.org/.
- Minnesota Land Trust* – https://mnland.org/
- River Grove School* – https://marineareaschool.org/.
- St. Croix 360* – https://www.stcroix360.com/.
- The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota* – https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/minnesota/.
- Trust for Public Land * – https://www.tpl.org/state/minnesota.
- Washington Conservation District* – http://www.mnwcd.org/.
Community Actions & Outcomes.
SLC’s legal advocacy and community mobilization activities, have resulted in the following key strategic actions and outcomes – all of which can be benchmarked and replicated by your Association when needed:
- Square Lake Conservancy Fund stewardship, raising over $83,000 of our $85,000 goal to date for Stinson legal expenses.
- Persuasive legal arguments – including legal counsel Tim Kelley’s most recent presentation: Letter to May Township Board of Supervisors 9-1-2023.
- 400 + signed Petitions from Conservancy supporters across the Township, State, and country, in just two weeks. View Petition here.
- 200 strategic sign-placements: Preserve Wilder Forest – Protect May Township Conservation District. View sign here.
- Successful May Township Board of Supervisors Special Meeting presentation on September 7, 2013: Square Lake Conservancy propose future vision for Wilder-Manitou Property – Country Messenger – 9-20-2023.
- 22-slide Wilder Forest Investment Overview: Wilder Forest Investment Opportunity Overview – 9/15/23.
- 16-page assessed-value compilation of Wilder Forest land and buildings – including individual parcel summaries and property map: Wilder Forest Assessed Value Presentation 2018, 2022 & 2023 – 9/15/23.
Wilder Forest Sale Status – October 6, 2023.
Manitou Fund presented a new bid for the Wilder Forest property to Wilder Foundation on September 27, 2023.
According to Kelly Urista, Wilder Foundation Director, Facilities & Property Management, “Wilder has finalized a purchase agreement with Manitou Fund and we expect to close mid-November…”
For additional information about Manitou Fund’s pending acquisition of the pristine, undeveloped, 600-acre property, including Square Lake Conservancy’s support of the reported transaction, please see the following Star Trubune coverage: Manitou Fund buys Wilder Foundation forest land near Stillwater – Star Tribune – 10-03-2023.