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Protecting our treasure

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LITCHFIELD -- Planning for southern Minnesota's first state Recreational Area got underway just like you would expect.

"It's exciting,'' said State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, as he addressed the dozens of people who attended an open house meeting on Tuesday at the Meeker County Courthouse in Litchfield.

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The meeting represented the first step towards developing a plan for the Greenleaf Recreational Area, according to Cathi Fouchi, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' southern region planner. She's hoping to see a final plan ready by the end of the year.

To make the plan a reality, the DNR is putting together a committee of citizens representing a diversity of interests from the region. They will provide citizen input while professionals within the DNR also offer their ideas on how to protect and manage the site.

Those recommendations will be matched with the realities of what funding resources are available, according to Fouchi.

At stake is how one of the last remaining pristine lakeshore, hardwood and prairie areas of Meeker County is protected for the future.

The Greenleaf Recreational Area includes a statutory boundary area of 1,200 acres surrounding Greenleaf and Sioux Lakes in Ellsworth Township of Meeker County.

The DNR expects to take ownership of just under 400 acres of land along Greenleaf Lake this April. Future acquisitions will depend on both the availability of state funding and the willingness of landowners to sell land they allowed placed within the statutory boundaries.

Urdahl and Senator Steve Dille, R- Dassel, said they are optimistic about funding opportunities. The $6 million bonding request to be submitted this session for Parks and Trails includes $2.4 million for Greenleaf.

Dille said the Greenleaf project represents a "real bargain'' for the state. He pointed out that the state will be acquiring one mile of undeveloped shoreline along Greenleaf Lake for $1 million. That compares to a price tag of $10 million per mile that the state is negotiating as part of efforts for a new state park on Lake Vermillion.

Like a state park, the Greenleaf Recreational Area is very likely to include opportunities for camping and hiking, according to Steve Kirch, director for the DNR's southern division of parks and recreation. The DNR has already heard many requests from citizens for those opportunities, he explained.

But as a state recreational area, there is more leeway in the types of activities that can be offered at the site. Hunting is likely to be among them, said Fouchi.

"The sky's the limit,'' said Mark Martuska, director of the DNR's southern region, when addressing citizens at the public meeting. He encouraged people to come forward with their ideas on how they'd like to see the site managed.

Citizens attending the open house voiced lots of support for traditional opportunities like camping and trails for hiking and horseback riding. Meeker County has limited public camping opportunities right now, noted Amy Wilde, a Meeker County commissioner whose district includes the recreational area.

Meeker County has supported the development of the recreational area. Wilde said the area provides recreational opportunities for county residents, and is well situated to attract users from the Hutchinson area as well as the Twin Cities.

She sees the recreational area as a place where families can pitch a tent and enjoy a weekend of fishing and swimming in the clear waters of Greenleaf Lake, or hiking in the shade of its oak and basswood canopy.

It is without doubt a place waiting to be discovered. Dille and Urdahl pointed out how legislators who were introduced to the site expressed genuine surprise that so pristine an area could have escaped development all of these years.

That's a credit to the landowners around the lake, noted Wilde.

Some of the landowners living around the site have mixed feelings about what lies ahead. "Between this and development, I'd sooner have this,'' said Stan Radunz, who farms and lives on land adjacent to the recreational area boundaries. "But I'd like to keep it like it is.''

Janet Barrick, who said her family traces its roots here for seven generations, is very concerned about the potential for abuse by visitors. "They use it, abuse it. It's not theirs. They have no ties to it,'' she said.

Sue and Jim Barrick, who purchased land near the site only a few years ago, said they enjoy riding a horse-powered sleigh on snow covered trails in the area. Yes, they would like to keep things as they are, too.

But long term, Sue Barrick said she believes the site's preservation as a recreational area is the only sure way to prevent the kind of development that has lined so many other lakes in the region with wall-to-wall houses.

The DNR is well aware of the responsibility that comes with protecting this site, according to Fouchi. "It could get loved to death real fast,'' she said.

Fouchi said she hopes citizens will step forward to help with the process to assure a plan that's "best for the area.''

Comments on Greenleaf Recreational Area are welcome by submitting them to Fouchi via e-mail at cathi.fouchi@dnr.state.mn.us or regular mail at DNR Southern Region, 261 Highway 15 South, New Ulm, MN 56073.

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