“Dear Loyal Supporters, I’m writing to inform you that the Warner Nature Center will be closing and winding down operations by the end of the year.” With those words, Alison Rempel Brown, President and CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota, broke the news to staff and volunteers that a 52-year tradition will be coming to an end. Warner is the oldest nature center in Minnesota, and has inspired thousands of children and adults to study and protect the woods and waters in our area. The property is also home to pristine lakes, wildlife corridors, and countless natural treasures.
In 1957, the Amherst Wilder Foundation purchased two square miles of land in northern Washington County from the May family, with an agreement that the land would never be divided or sold for development. After purchasing the land, Wilder Foundation worked with the Science Museum of Minnesota to begin creating outdoor science and nature programming. Eventually, the museum was given exclusive rights to operate 385 acres of the land as a nature center. Summer programming began in 1965 and the first school groups began visiting in 1967.
In 1970, the Lee and Rose Warner foundation purchased the land and buildings from Wilder and the location became known as the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center. The Warner Foundation eventually merged with the Manitou Fund (established by former Viking’s owner Don McNeely, a nephew of the Warners), which has continued to operate the Warner Nature Center since 2010. Today, the center has grown to encompass 1400 acres of forest, woods and wetlands.
More than 17,000 students visit Warner Nature Center for field trips and summer camps each year. They come to wander in the woods, tap maple trees for syrup, study and band migratory birds, watch bees wiggle, snowshoe across a frozen winter landscape, and develop a love for nature. The center has more than 100 volunteers, supports research at local universities, and also hosts annual events such as the St. Croix Research Rendezvous and the Fall Color Blast.
Though Warner may be best known for its programming, the property itself is a treasure-trove of natural wonders. It is considered a “Site of High Biological Significance” by the Minnesota Biological Survey, and “Regional Site of Outstanding Significance” by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. During a 2007 Bioblitz, citizen scientists identified and catalogued over 1,300 species of plants, animals, and fungus on site, including seven plants that had never been documented before in Washington County. Nature center staff and volunteers have also banded and collected data on 45,000 migratory birds over the past 52 years.
Along with Wilder Forest and the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Warner Nature Center is part of the St. Croix Greenway Corridor – a 2,400 acre oasis for wildlife to travel between the St. Croix River and upland lakes and woods. It is home to 70 species of concern, including Blanding’s turtles, American woodcocks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern fox snakes, trumpeter swans, red-shouldered hawks, and bald eagles. The area is also listed as one of the highest priority locations for permanent land protection in Washington County.
Hidden within the Warner and Wilder woods are three of the most pristine shallow lakes in this part of the state – Terrapin, Clear and Mays Lakes. The protected landscape also helps to ensure that a steady supply of clean, clear groundwater flows to nearby Square Lake. In addition, Warner Nature Center contains a bog that is home to carnivorous sundews and pitcher plants, which are usually only found in far northern Minnesota. Staff and volunteers have worked with University of Minnesota to collect and study core samples from this bog, using carbon 14 dating and soil analysis to learn about glacial history in the area and how the bog was formed.
So far, little is known about future plans for the Warner Nature Center land. According to an official statement, “The Manitou Fund is exploring options for how best to preserve and use the land and facilities going forward, including for future generations, though no specific plans are in place at this time.” The public is invited to visit Warner Nature Center and bid farewell on Sunday, October 6, 1-5 p.m. at the Fall Color Blast. The free, all-ages event will give visitors a final opportunity to hike the trails, paddle on the lakes, visit the bee yard, attend a live bird banding demonstration, and totter across the bog on top of a floating boardwalk.
For more information, visit www.warnernaturecenter.org.