Weather Forecast


Happy campers as naturalist programs return to Sibley State Park

Sibley State Park naturalist Melissa Rothwell, right, looks at a dragonfly snagged by Bennett Schwartz as he checks a guidebook to identify it. Schwartz, of Boston, Massachusetts, is visiting his grandmother Jonette Engan and participated in a naturalist program offered Thursday at Sibley State Park near New London. The park had been without a naturalist since the retirement last year of Dick Clayton. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny) 1 / 2
Naturalist Melissa Rothwell, right, helps Kayla Hanson of Willmar, left, and Samantha Schwartz of Boston, Massachusetts, identify a dragonfly they caught Thursday at Sibley State Park. Rothwell is leading a full slate of naturalist programs at the park near New London through the remainder of the summer. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny) 2 / 2

SIBLEY STATE PARK — Bennett Schwartz has not been invited to the Home Run Derby at Target Field, but at Sibley State Park he proved he could swing a butterfly net like a major league pro.

On Thursday he was snagging dragonflies zipping by like speed balls fired by Aroldis Chapman.

Bennett was having a lot of fun, said his grandmother, Jonette Engan, She was more than happy to have escorted him to the park for a park naturalist program on dragonflies.

Engan said she was very happy to see the return of naturalist programs at the park.

The park has been without naturalist programs since Dick Clayton retired in December after 35 years with the park.

Melissa Rothwell took on the duties July 3 and hasn’t missed a beat. “She hit the ground running,’’ said Jack Nelson, park manager.

It’s familiar ground to Rothwell, a Spicer native. She served as a seasonal naturalist with the park during the summers of 2010-12. She introduced the park’s popular archery program.

She holds a degree in natural resources management from the University of Minnesota, Crookston. She’s certified as an instructor for both archery and flatwater paddling. Rothwell said she will be offering these and many other programs in the weeks ahead.

She is serving as a seasonal naturalist in a position funded into late September through Legacy funds — sales tax revenue dedicated to the outdoors as specified by the Legacy amendment. The seasonal position works well for her. Her husband is in the military.

A tight budget has forced state parks to leave some positions unfilled when vacancies occurred. The naturalist position at Sibley is among them. Last year’s harsh winter and the unexpected rise in the cost of propane for heating added to the financial challenges, noted Nelson.

Sibley State Park is one of the most popular state parks, ranked sixth overall in usage with more than 300,000 visitors in a year. It has also established a reputation for offering one of the best naturalist programs, and Nelson said that tradition will remain.

By weathering the financial challenges today, he is hopeful that the park will be in a better position to lobby to replace the permanent naturalist position next spring.

In the meantime, he’s hearing from campers and day visitors alike about how much they enjoy having naturalist programs back at the park.

Rothwell’s focus is on offering programs that combine education with hands-on, outdoor activities. Programs are mainly offered Thursdays through Mondays. Upcoming programs are listed on the park’s website, in the West Central Tribune and neighboring newspapers, and on fliers in the park.


Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335