Long before Tom Landwehr became commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, he discovered Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. He remembers being astonished.
"I thought I must be doing something illegal," recalls Landwehr of his first hunt at the 25,000-acre metro-area WMA. "It just opened my eyes to the reality that there is an abundance of public land. When I started working for the DNR in the late '80s, I became much more aware of the opportunities that are out there."
More than 20 percent of Minnesota's lands belong to all of us—12 million acres to hunt, fish, camp, hike, watch wildlife, explore, and enjoy. Of these lands, 2.8 million acres are tax-forfeited lands owned by the state but managed by counties, and an additional 5.6 million acres are administered by the DNR. These DNR lands include state forests, wildlife management areas, state parks, scientific and natural areas, and aquatic management areas.
The DNR provides opportunities to enjoy the state's public lands and waters by maintaining 1,700 public water accesses, 75 state parks and recreation areas, and thousands of miles of bicycle, snowmobile, off-highway vehicle, and ski trails. "And we do it with 4,000 people," says Landwehr. "It's a great testament to their work."
While these properties are a primary focus of Landwehr's job, public lands remain central to his life outside of work. In a typical year, Landwehr's hunting, angling, camping, wild-rice gathering, and bicycle riding take him to every corner of the state. "I'd rather be outdoors almost any day, but I don't own any land," he says. "So when I recreate, it's typically on public lands and public waters."
Minnesota has more public land than any other state in the Upper Midwest, approximately 1½ acres for every resident.
"We can't all have a cabin up north. We can't all have a back 40. As we look to the future, the population is continuing to grow, and public lands will become even more important," says Landwehr. "This is really something that belongs to all of us. It adds tremendously to our quality of life."
An annual fishing trip to Forestville State Park during trout opener has made the southeastern Minnesota park a favorite destination of Landwehr's. "The South Branch of the Root River goes through there. It's beautiful country with good trout fishing. There are some phenomenal geologic features. Occasionally we find some morel mushrooms, and there are wild turkeys up on the hills gobbling. It's a magical spot."
Minnesota's wild public places are part of our collective identity. What would up-north be without a place to launch a boat or a forest to wander? Oftentimes, these wild places, where memories are made and friendships are forged, become part of our personal identity too.
Western Minnesota's wildlife management areas are popular with pheasant hunters such as Ken Larson. In October, he might be found wandering any of them with his German shorthaired pointers. But for one weekend every April, Larson's attention is focused on the 770-acre Salt Lake WMA and the 150 species of birds that can be seen there.
Larson leads an annual trip to the WMA for the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union. The event draws birders to the state's largest alkaline lake, which straddles the South Dakota border. This 300-acre body of water is about one-third as salty as the ocean. It supports dense mats of sago pondweed, a favorite food for waterfowl, and abundant aquatic invertebrate populations, which attract a diverse assembly of shorebirds.
"During migration we get all these different birds coming through that you don't usually get to see further east and some birds that you don't get to see further west," says Larson, noting this as one reason Audubon has designated the WMA as an Important Bird Area.
Birders have been visiting the lake and surrounding areas during spring migration since the early 1900s, thanks to pioneer bird bander Mae Peterson. She was friends with luminary naturalists and conservationists Thomas Sadler Roberts and Walter Breckenridge. She also happened to live next door to Larson's father, Goodman, who grew up in nearby Madison.
"She was my dad's mentor and gave my dad his first bird book," says Larson, who adds that exposure to these influential people inspired his father to become a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
By the 1950s Salt Lake had become a destination for birders, but the land surrounding it was private. In 1962 the MOU formed a committee to ask the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to consider ways to protect Salt Lake. In 1973, the DNR purchased 300 acres surrounding the lake. Later, an additional 480 acres were added to the WMA. Much of the credit for these eventual acquisitions goes to Walter Breckenridge and Larson's father, who assured the local sportsman's club that hunting would still be allowed on Salt Lake.
In 1974 the MOU hosted its first weekend bird count at Salt Lake and the surrounding area. The event regularly draws more than 100 people and serves to reinforce the value of preserving some wild places in a region of the state dominated by agriculture.
"There is no Disneyland prairie," says Larson. "This is it."
Kawishiwi Pines Scientific and Natural Area includes a 29-acre knob of land crowned by white pines that sprouted after a forest fire in 1854. This SNA near Ely is surrounded by black spruce bog, sedge meadows, and wetlands, which means that winter, when these soggy areas turn solid, is the best time to visit.
Those cold months are the only time SNA site steward Norma Malinowski expects any company among the towering pines. The SNA is a highlight for guests of nearby Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, says owner Paul Schurke. He estimates that he and his wife, Susan, bring several hundred people to the pines on skis or by dogsled each winter.
"I've never seen anyone outside of the winter season back in the SNA," says Malinowski, who has visited more than 75 times since 2006, when she volunteered to keep an eye on the place.
She monitors the site for any illegal activity, such as ATV traffic. She also searches for any invasive species and walks the 80-acre border of the SNA once a year to make sure the signs are in good shape. A more enjoyable part of her role is documenting the SNA's plants and animals. While the old-growth pines might be the main attraction, Malinowski has helped confirm more than 50 species of native plants on her visits to the SNA, including green adder's mouth and stemless lady's-slipper. Her observations have also contributed to the list of 44 bird species recorded at the SNA. Warblers, such as the black-throated green, magnolia, Nashville, and Blackburnian, are highlights of spring and summer. Black-backed woodpeckers are year-round residents, and evidence of wolves and moose often turns up.
Malinowski, who retired as a recreation planner for the U.S. Forest Service in 2007, appreciates the way the SNA program works to protect areas around the state with sensitive plant and animal communities. "Someone had to do it," she says of her decision to be Kawishiwi Pines' site steward, adding that the difficult-to-reach SNA also happened to be the one closest to her home. She checks in on the pines most months of the year.
"When I volunteered, I agreed to visit the SNA once a month," says Malinowski, who has an ambitious goal to visit all 166 of the state's SNAs. When conditions prevent her from getting to the pines, "I'll go to another SNA and report there. It's easy to come up with 12."
State-Park Trout Tradition
April 15, 2017, marked 50 consecutive years of trout openers in southeastern Minnesota for Erik Wrede. Many of those cherished weekends have been enjoyed in Whitewater State Park near Elba, says Wrede, who traces his love of southeastern Minnesota's trout to his grandfather, who often took Wrede and his father fishing.
Wrede remembers arriving at his grandfather's house near Zumbrota as a young child. "The first thing he would say is, 'When are we going fishing?' And we'd head over to the leaf pile to dig worms."
For many years, the annual gathering was a small family affair, and Whitewater State Park's main campground was often home base for Minnesota's trout opener. Eight years ago, Wrede and his wife, Maria, began encouraging their son, Lukas, and daughter, Talia, to invite their friends and their friends' families. They began reserving the Whitewater State Park group camp. In 2016 more than 80 people joined the Wrede family tradition at the camp, which is nestled along the Middle Branch of the Whitewater River. Steep, pine-covered 200-foot-high dolomite bluffs rise up from the river, allowing visitors a close-up look at southeastern Minnesota's dramatic landscape.
"The whole idea was to invite kids and families that were new to outdoor recreation," says Wrede. "A lot of them have fished before but had not tried fly-fishing."
While fishing is optional, Wrede organizes fly-casting and fly-fishing instruction for anyone who is interested. And new traditions arrive at the Wrede family opener with new friends. Four years ago, a friend started cooking paella, a communal Spanish dish. Rice, chicken, seafood, and a few trout go into the Wrede's opening-weekend version.
Wrede's desire to share these experiences speaks to his deep connection to this place. In 2016 he lost both of his parents. The 2017 opener had a different feel, says Wrede. "I was driving into the park with Lukas. It was still light out," he says. "We crossed the bridge on the way to the visitors' center, and I could see the place where my dad caught his last trout. The emotion just nailed me."
Backcountry Close To Home
Erik Jensen didn't grow up in a hunting family, but he began tagging along on hunting trips with high school friends and hunted casually after graduation. It wasn't until he was 30 that, with some help from a mentor, he harvested his first deer.
"That's really when I started," says Jensen. "My hunting activity escalated for deer and other big game." Then, in 2008, Jensen and his hunting partner Rita Juran drew a hard-to-get moose tag for a zone in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They didn't bag a moose, but the experience changed his perspective. "The whole experience of pursuing a big animal in vast terrain really pulled me into public land hunting," says Jensen.
He looked to western states and began applying for elk, antelope, and deer tags. He got involved with the public-land advocacy organization Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and helped found a Minnesota chapter in 2011. As his experience with planning for multi-day backcountry hunts grew, he began looking closer to home for ways to replicate the experience during Minnesota's deer season.
Jensen set his sights on the Snake River State Forest, just north of Mora. This 9,600-acre forest is bisected by the Snake River and is largely off limits to ATVs. It's also just over an hour from the Twin Cities.
Five years ago during bowhunting season, he and Juran hiked 3 miles into the forest and set up a tent and woodstove, just like they would on a Montana elk-hunting trip. "One area where we camped in late October, there were scrapes everywhere. We were laying down one night falling asleep, and this deer walked up and smelled the tent and just started snorting at us," Jensen recalls. "We heard coyotes right after the deer snorting, so it was interesting to be reminded that we weren't the only predators out there."
For the last two years, Jensen and his wife, Paula, have set up camp deep in the Snake River State Forest during the firearms deer season. It's not your typical deer camp, but eating fresh venison tenderloins cooked over a campfire while looking up at the stars is the payoff for hiking farther than most other hunters.
"For people who are willing to do the work, there are some great deer hunting opportunities on public land," says Jensen. "Once in a while, you have some competition, but the nice thing is that once you do get to know a big swath of public land, you can just walk up to the next spot."
Preserving Sky-Blue Waters
The vista looking south from the north end of Becker County's Bad Medicine Lake was a backdrop for the 1950s advertising campaign that touted Hamm's as the beer "from the land of sky-blue waters." Bad Medicine's waters remain stunningly clear, but this narrow, steep-banked lake looks much different than it did 70 years ago because the lake level has been rising since the end of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
Bad Medicine Lake is a closed-basin lake, explains Ray Vlasak, who first visited this 800-acre water body near Park Rapids in 1940. "It has no inlets or outlets, so the water changes pretty dramatically at times," says Vlasak. After many trips to Bad Medicine, he purchased a resort on the lake with his parents in 1973.
He and other people who had bought properties on the lake did not know it had a closed basin. Some cabins were completely flooded during an exceptionally wet period that began in the late 1990s. Lake levels peaked in 2002 at 6? feet above the high-water mark.
The rising water presented both a problem and an opportunity. Bad Medicine Lake's average depth is 45 feet, and until the lake returned to its normal water level, shallow-water habitat that's important for fish species such as smallmouth bass, panfish, northern pike, and walleye was in short supply.
Vlasak, Tim Holzkamm, and three other lakeshore owners founded the Bad Medicine Lake Area Foundation in 2004 to help purchase affected land parcels. Dave Wiest, who purchased property on the lake in 1995, joined the foundation shortly after its inception. The three of them speak in superlatives about Bad Medicine Lake: "clearest, most beautiful, most scenic."
Between 2004 and 2012 the foundation, in collaboration with the West Central Initiative and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, worked to preserve Bad Medicine's sky-blue waters by acquiring eight parcels now better suited for fish habitat than homes. These lands were purchased with $160,000 in donations from lakeshore owners, matching grants from the Reinvest in Minnesota Program, nearly $300,000 from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, and a generous donation from a private family foundation. Today these properties, which include 30 acres of land and 9,000 feet of shoreline on Bad Medicine Lake, are managed by the DNR as aquatic management areas.
Statewide, 45,000 acres of land are designated as AMAs, which protect critical near-shore and shoreline habitat on the state's lakes and rivers. These public lands also provide access to walk-in anglers or anyone looking for a place to simply enjoy a view of the water.