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Thinking big at tiny park

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SUNBURG -- Most people discover Monson Lake State Park when they come to drop a line into its waters.

They usually find themselves rewarded with a fishing pole that's throbbing and kicking like a new puppy.

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Monson Lake offers up plump sunfish and crappies, largemouth bass, northern pike and even its share of good-sized walleye to those who know how to work its quiet waters.

There are many other good reasons to visit this state park and soon, maybe a lot more.

The park is in the beginning stages of developing a new management plan. It's something that happens only about once every 20 years or so for any given park, and generally represents the best opportunity to expand a park's resources.

That's exactly what's on the table for Monson Lake Park. The tiny park of 120 acres could more than double in size, according to Gary Bullemer, assistant manager of Sibley State Park. Bullemer said a proposal to expand the park's statutory boundaries was raised when the Department of Natural Resources hosted a public informational meeting on Oct. 4 to solicit public input on a new management plan.

The statutory boundaries of a park designate the area in which the state is able to purchase land from willing landowners. Landowners cannot be compelled to sell land within the boundaries to the state. The DNR does not have the power of eminent domain.

In this case, four long-time hunting buddies have offered to sell 158 acres of land adjacent to the park to the DNR for its expansion. It takes an act of the Legislature to change a park's statutory boundaries. State Senator Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, and State Representative Bug Heidgerken, R- Freeport, indicated their interest in seeing the boundaries changed and the land added, according to records of the meeting.

The property being offered includes 1½ miles of shoreline along West Sunburg Lake, as well as the other half of an island that the park owns in the lake. West Sunburg Lake is connected to Monson Lake by a short canoe portage. It is known to yield its share of monster-size panfish every so often, but West Sunburg Lake is famous most of all for the thousands of migrating waterfowl it hosts each year.

The property also includes upland habitat for pheasants and wooded lands of oak, basswood and ash that connect to the woodland already protected in the park.

The owners of the property purchased it in 1976 for duck hunting. "We're all getting older,'' one of the property owners told the Tribune, asking not to be identified. He said the four would like to see the wildlife resources of the property protected for future generations by making it part of the park.

If the land is acquired, it would open the way for developing a public access point on the lake, noted Bullemer.

The addition of the property could also make it possible to offer a new type of recreation at Monson Lake State Park. One of the proposals being considered for the master plan is the addition of canoe-in campsites. The have proven very popular at state parks such as Glendalough, near Battle Lake.

Monson Lake State Park is benefited by an active volunteer group of "Friends of Monson Lake State Park.'' They are continuing to make known their interest in seeing camping sites at the park improved to better accommodate modern RVs and campers. Six of the 20 camping sites in the park have been authorized to have electric services installed on them. There is $25,000 appropriated for the project, which was estimated to cost $21,000 in 2005, according to Colin Kelly, a park planner with the DNR's St. Paul office.

Many would like to see electric services expanded to more sites than the six already authorized, and made that point during the planning process. That might prove a challenge for budget reasons, according to Kelly. It would cost an estimated $3,000 to $5,000 per site for required archeological work on any new electric sites, as well as about $3,500 per site for installation and maintenance of electrical services.

The park was created in 1923 as a memorial to two families who died in the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. The park is also considered a historical resource for another reason. Like neighboring Sibley Park, it retains stone shelter buildings erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Bullemer said the historic resources, the fishing, and the opportunity for quiet, rustic camping opportunities are among the main reasons that people give for visiting the park. Its part-time manager, Rod Gronseth, hosts over 7,000 visitors a year, according to DNR records.

The numbers of visitors would likely be greater if the camping season were lengthened and electric camping sites added. The state park's central office requires the campground to close after the Labor Day weekend and not open before Memorial Day.

These and other issues will be addressed in the management plan, which could be completed in as little as six months. Public input is welcome and can be addressed to Colin Kelly, park planner, at colin.kelly@dnr.state.mn.us or by calling 651-259-5606.

A second open house to solicit feedback will be scheduled in February 2008, said Bullemer.

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