Behind the scenes, the Parks & Trails Council-a little-known group of citizens-has been working to create a legacy of parks and trails for Minnesotans.
By Gustave Axelson
Next time you visit the Split Rock lighthouse on Lake Superior, look north to the promontory of rock and balsam called Gold Rock Point. A century ago, the first lighthouse keeper would have seen much the same landscape.
When you enjoy this view, you can thank the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota that you aren't seeing an outcropping of town homes. After Gold Rock Point was put up for sale in 1997, the council bought this 100-acre parcel of prime real estate for $1 million. Today, the parcel has been added to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, and the view has been preserved forever.
For 50 years the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota has been cutting land deals and lobbying legislators to establish and enlarge Minnesota state parks and trails. Bill Morrissey, recently retired director of the Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Recreation, called the private, nonprofit group "the voice for our state parks."
With more than 2,300 members statewide, the council has a voice that is often a chorus that not only echoes Minnesota's land ethic, but also acts on it.
"We have members all over the state who are our eyes and ears. They tell us about their land preservation ideas, and we ask how we can help," says Dorian Grilley, Parks & Trails Council executive director. "We can bankroll acquisitions. We can help negotiate real-estate transactions. Or we can lobby at the state Capitol."
Typically, the council operates by purchasing lands and holding them in trust, while simultaneously negotiating with legislators to get the land added to the boundaries of state parks and trails system. Even though it may take years for the state to purchase and assume possession of the land, the council holds the land until the transfer can be made.
The council includes lawyers, business executives, and former state government officials; but mostly it is made up of Minnesotans who care about our state's natural heritage. It wasn't founded as a grassroots organization, though. Back in 1954, when Judge Clarence R. Magney convened the group's first meeting at Itasca State Park, he intended it to be an exclusive club of philanthropists. Membership was limited to 16 trustees who wielded clout in the form of wealth, legislative influence, or both. The group's mission was to resurrect an ailing park system, which had suffered neglect while the country was fighting World War II.
During the next 20 years, council members either directly donated or spearheaded fundraising drives that added nearly $11 million in funds and property to the state park system. Among those contributions were land parcels that became some of Minnesota's most beloved parks, including George Crosby Manitou, Fort Snelling, and Crow Wing state parks.
The council got things done because its membership included such influential people as former governor Elmer Andersen, millionaire publisher Reuel Harmon, former state parks director U.W. Hella, and legendary environmental writer and activist Sigurd Olson. But it was Magney, the former Minnesota Supreme Court justice and mayor of Duluth, who had the reputation for ruthless negotiating in obtaining land. He acquired the first nine tracts of land that became parts of state parks along Lake Superior-including some of the most spectacular waterfalls and stunning geography in all of Minnesota-for just $26,000.
When Magney badgered a Grand Marais realtor into selling 40 acres of North Shore forest that included the upper falls of the Brule River for $5,000, the realtor was quoted as telling him, "You'll never give me any peace until I sell it to you at your price."
In 1967 the council formed the Minnesota Parks Foundation as its nonprofit 501(c)(3) arm-a sister organization that could receive land and money and allow donors to claim the gifts as tax deductions. This provided an added incentive for the wealthy to give to the council. Samuel H. Morgan -another Minnesota environmental legend, who at the time was a young lawyer-chaired the foundation and promptly put it to work acquiring 827 acres in the St. Croix River Valley. The land became Afton State Park in 1969.
By the 1980s, the council was aging and changing. The founding members were getting on in years, so membership was opened up to all who believed in the council's cause. The council also broadened its scope to include a new concept called state trails-starting with an abandoned railroad line east of St. Paul. The Soo Line railroad company wanted to sell the land back to the state for use as a recreational trail, but adjacent landowners argued the 1898 deed gave right of way back to them after the railroad stopped operating. In 1983 the case went to the Minnesota Supreme Court, where council members filed friend-of-the-court briefs. The final judgment stated that the land easement was for public travel-not just by train, but also by foot or bike-clearing the way to create the Gateway State Trail.
"That case set the nationwide precedent for rails-to-trails," says Terry McGaughey, volunteer coordinator of the Paul Bunyan Trail Association. Today, the council is helping defend the Paul Bunyan State Trail against a landowner legal challenge similar to the one the Gateway trail faced 20 years ago. "The council has been our key partner with revolving loans for land acquisition, lobbying at the Capitol, and now in court," says McGaughey. "The Paul Bunyan trail wouldn't have been possible without them." By 1987 the council had united with its foundation. Although the group still had funding from old-money financiers, the membership needed new blood, as well as management to handle more members.
"My first day on the job, they gave me a recipe box with 50 cards in it. That was their membership file," says Judy Erickson, who oversaw mass membership drives as the council's first full-time executive director.
Grilley says that while today's council may not look much like Magney's original, it still has grand goals.
"Our dream is to establish interconnected trail corridors throughout the state, so Minnesotans can access any state park without having to drive to it," he says. "You will be able to travel from Fort Snelling in Minneapolis to Big Stone Lake in Ortonville or up to Itasca State Park and back, hundreds of miles of trails in all, and do the whole thing by bike."
New DNR Parks director Courtland Nelson says he looks forward to working with the council on that vision.
"I can readily see the importance of the council," says Nelson. "They are a dedicated and committed group who have earned the respect of the Governor's Office, the Legislature, and Friends groups throughout the state."
Nelson's predecessor, Morrissey, says that acquiring land for more parks and trails will be tough at a time when state budgets are being squeezed. But he also says the council has accomplished the seemingly impossible before.
"When I first started at the state parks department, the old director told me, 'Your chances of establishing a Grand Portage State Park are pretty slim,' " says Morrissey. "But the Parks & Trails Council worked with the county board and Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, they got a bill for the park tacked on as an amendment at the Capitol, and they got the deal done.
"The council always seems to find a way. For their 50th anniversary, I'd tell them to keep up the good work."
You can help the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota commemorate its golden anniversary by joining in its Fifty Parks and Trails in Fifty Days celebration-a series of 10 bike rides planned throughout the state. To learn more about the event, how to join the council, or how to donate land or money, visit Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota.
Gustave Axelson is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.