The St. Olaf natural lands are a hot topic. Rumors have run rampant, with some suggesting that President David R. Anderson '74 plans to sell the natural lands for development. But what's the real story? To address this question, St. Olaf Biology Professor and Curator of Natural Lands Gene Bakko presented to a group of students on April 4. He revealed that St. Olaf property is the subject of dialogue between the College, the State of Minnesota, the City of Northfield and private interests, but that St. Olaf's natural lands are not in the cross-hairs. Also, he said the Board of Regents is gathering information on the lands so they can make decisions that will be in the best interest of the College.
Bakko began by clarifying the definition of natural lands. The natural lands are enclosed by North Avenue to the north, Cedar Avenue to the east, Eaves Avenue to the west and Highway 19 to the south. This area includes all the trails commonly used by St. Olaf students for recreation, and much of it is protected by a conservation easement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The easement preserves land indefinitely as restored habitat, such as wetland or prairie, which means that even if President Anderson wanted to destroy this habitat, he couldn't.
Much of the controversy, as it turns out, focuses instead on the so-called "agricultural lands," which lie around and to the north of the new hospital. St. Olaf leases this land to local farmers who practice sustainable agriculture. Much of what is now restored prairie and wetland surrounding St. Olaf was once farmland, and its conversion to our present-day natural lands was facilitated by Bakko with the permission of the Board of Regents. Bakko said that the Board would not allow permanent easements for land beyond North Avenue, a decision he understands. According to Bakko, the value of this land as a way to promote sustainable agricultural practices has great potential to be an exemplary example of how to practice land stewardship. But there's more to the story.
As Northfield grows, its residents become squeezed for space. The result is a pressure to develop, augmented by Northfield's proximity to the Twin Cities. Economic pressures from the City of Northfield have also become prominent, since the tax base essential to community prosperity is much larger for businesses and industries than it is for residential or agricultural areas. Bakko mentioned that St. Olaf-owned agricultural lands might be worth as much as $10 million as the site of an industrial park.
Another important concern is traffic flow, particularly as suburban areas outside the city expand. Additionally, because of the layout of major traffic arteries around Northfield, many semis and other large vehicles drive through town. Alleviating such traffic problems is a priority for Northfield, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation [MNDOT] is also involved. A proposed north-south route through the western edge of St. Olafs agricultural lands would relieve some congestion. However, any such north-south route, by MNDOT convention, would have to be accompanied by a road from Eaves Avenue to Highway 19 that would further disrupt St. Olaf lands.
Bakko explained that MNDOT convention is generally non-negotiable, and this is why he believes the idea for a new north-south route through St. Olaf agricultural land should be abandoned.
To Bakko, the most promising solution is the expansion of Garrett and Decker Avenues, a north-south route that lies west of Eaves Avenue and is comfortably removed from St. Olaf property. Fortunately, expanding Decker Avenue has been identified in a Rice County transportation study as a top priority.
Uncertainty about the College's overall land use options has stalled progress. To better examine its options, St. Olaf has enlisted the help of Boldt Consulting, whose parent company is also involved in the construction of the new Science Center. The Boldt consultants will pass on their findings to the Board of Regents, which has the final say about the fate of the agricultural lands. Without adequate input, the Board will have little idea of how much St. Olaf's lands mean to students and faculty members.
The future of the colleges agricultural lands remains unclear. Nevertheless, as long as community members are aware of others' interests and willing to voice their own, it is likely that a consensus will be reached and, regardless of public opinion, our natural lands should remain unchanged.
John van der Linden '10