by Jim Boyle
After all the speeches, a ribbon cutting and photos being snapped of dignitaries on May 8 at Woodland Trails Regional Park in Elk River, small children and local Boy Scouts took to the new Glacial Ridge Nature Play Area like bees on sunflowers.
The nature play area and the Woodlands Archery Range, the two newest features of the 427-acre crown jewel of the Elk River parks system, were among the reasons for the celebration, dedication and ribbon cutting, but the community was heralded as the real reason why such an event could even be held.
Elk River Park Commissioner Dave Anderson, one of countless stewards of the land over the last 33 years, spoke last and the longest.
“This park is one of the greatest community accomplishments of all time,” Anderson said in his opening remarks before launching into a historical summary. He says it has been “miraculous” how the park has evolved, taken on regional status and is poised to get even better for the community and beyond in the years and decades to come.
Anderson said the park started with one man’s vision, a former mayor who was a farmer before becoming a mayor and a Realtor.
“This land would probably be a housing development if not for Dick Hinkle,” he said. “To me, it’s almost miraculous how everything has fit into place to get us to this point.”
Anderson went on to point out others who played key roles in the development of the park, a list far too long to mention everyone but couldn’t help but name a few like fellow commissioner Mike Niziolek, who pushed for additional acquisitions of acreage and even took it upon himself once to secure a matching grant, and Steve Rohlf, a former city of Elk River employee who convinced the city to acquire the portion of the Great Northern Trail, a railroad bed that runs through Elk River, Zimmerman and Princeton that was able to be paved.
Anderson credited city officials, the councils and the park commissions over the years for having the courage to buy the additional acreages that made regional park status a possibility.
“Each acquisition has its own story and struggle,” Anderson said, and noted Elk River Mayor John Dietz provided the critical third vote to one of the acquisitions that brought what is known as Top of the World Park into the fold.
Dietz spoke at the May 8 ceremony and called Woodland Trails Regional Park one of the city’s best investments.
And perhaps even more amazing has been the countless people and hours that have been logged to improve the park, preserve the park and make use of the park. There is a small group of people that had a hand in designing the trails, carving them out and adding to them over the years. There have been preservation efforts with prairie plantings and efforts to eradicate buckthorn. And there have been armies for volunteers that have taken ownership in the park and become good stewards of the land. There have been Boy Scouts who have completed 15 Eagle Scout projects in the park over years, including two more that were honored that day for their role in the nature play area construction. Ski teams and coaches have volunteered in the park and won championships. And city staff who have logged countless hours over the years continue to bring their own passion to bear in making this destination what it is today.
For people like Anderson, Niziolek and Rohlf, who grew up in Elk River, that volunteer component and support from the city and community means perhaps the most. Niziolek explained this in an interview with the Star News. He recalled how in his youth he explored the woods, savanna and wetlands that are now Woodland Trails Regional Park.
“It was a wonderful place which I enjoyed and I was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to help preserve this natural space for others to enjoy,” he said. “Life is made special because of people and places.
“As a community we need to be special people and preserve, restore and create special places. Woodland Trails can be that special place and we humans can occupy it with a positive outlook and sustainable way.”
Niziolek said recent activities in the park have embraced, preserved and enhanced its diversity, from the creation of the nature-based playground to the removal of invasive buckthorn. Community ownership is growing.
“Much is yet to be done and I hope that in the near future the diversity of animal and plant life will improve, the space we know as Woodland Trails Regional Park will expand and the diversity of experiences will continue to grow,” Niziolek said. “The two things that would really enhance/maintain the diversity of experiences at Woodland Trails Regional Park would be the:
•the restoration and incorporation of aquatic elements in the park
•the preservation of the open space along the Great Northern Trail to the north so that the experience that future generations have is as wonderful if not more wonderful that what we have today.”
It was that kind of the visionary thinking that made Woodland Trails Park possible.
“The community ultimately made the right decision that allowed us to be big enough to be regional, which allowed us to qualify for grants.”
The Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission named Woodland Trails Park as one of 14 parks and trails in Greater Minnesota to achieve Significant Regional Designation status for 2016. This made a grant through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment possible.
Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hecker called the news back then an honor for the city and for entire region.
“Woodland Trails Park is the crown jewel of the Elk River park system, attracting people from miles around because of its dynamic topography and superb trail system.”
Phase 1 improvements have included the nature play area, trailhead improvements, and wayfinding signage, a picnic shelter, upgrades to the existing biathlon range and other changes to allow for the addition of an archery range and removal of invasive species.
And now that more has been done to the park, Hecker said they have already had three or four park and recreation agencies tour the park because of its playground.
“This is unique and we’re proud of it,” Hecker said. “You will see more. There’s a lot of passion.”
Woodland Trails Regional Park is located north of the Elk River Golf Club off County Road 1. The park over the years has been known for having a biathlon range, bird watching, open space, prairie, scenic views, skiing (cross country and Nordic), grass and paved trails, wetlands and its wooded nature.
Olympic athletes have trained at the biathlon range and the championship Nordic and cross country program at Elk River High School have been developed with help of having the park in the community. These same people have become stewards and teachers of the next generation of skiers.
Curt Hinkle told the Star News he turned out to the May 8 ceremony with his grandson, Seth, to honor his father.
“My dad was a visionary and a good steward of the land,” Hinkle said. “I remember one time in the ‘60s, standing at the end of our barn with my dad overlooking the farm when he said: “This farm will be all houses someday.”
Hinkle suspects he scoffed at the thought, but “it turns out he knew what he was talking about,” he said.
Hinkle said it’s his belief that the main reason his dad served as mayor was to help prepare the city for growth. He served on the planning commission prior to his role as mayor.
“As a farmer (for 50 years in North Dakota and Elk River), he modeled stewardship of the land,” Curt Hinkle said. “He practiced good soil and water conversation practices, including fallowing portions of the land each year. He received several Soil and Water Conservation awards during his tenure as a farmer.”
The late Dick Hinkle was Elk River’s mayor from 1981-87, and that led into a 12-year career as a Realtor.
“One of the visionary things I remember him talking about was the insurance of adequate green space as the city expanded,” Curt Hinkle said. “I’m guessing he was likely asked to be the listing Realtor of the property when the owners decided to sell. Though I wasn’t living in Elk River at the time, I remember him saying that he went straight to the city and told them they needed to buy the farm for a park. Visionary and a steward!”
Anderson recalled for the Star News that he also put his own sweat equity in the park when he used his equipment to seed prairie there in the early year.
“It’s amazing what this one decision (of the city to buy this 160-acre tract of land) has turned into,” Anderson said.
He’s glad Sherburne County has also now purchased right of way along the Great Northern Trail, and not just because he and his family members enjoy biking the trail.
“Woodlands Trails is not only a great recreational area for numerous people to enjoy nature, it also forever preserves a part of Elk River’s past the way it was when I was a kid,” he said. “This means even more to me now than it did when we bought the property.”
Curt Hinkle said he was struck at the ceremony by the amount of volunteer labor that has gone into the park and wholeheartedly appreciated Anderson’s use of “we.”
“Dave filled me in throughout the years of the plans and improvements and the key people involved, but to hear it condensed was pretty impressive,” Hinkle said. “And what a great gift for and by the Boy Scouts. I think my dad would be amazed at the size and breadth of the park 33 years later.”