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Protecting a special place: Thanks to Prairie Woods, Geer Island will remain a natural sanctuary

Submitted Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center staff and families recently tested out Geer Island for tent camping. Gathered around the fire ring, from left, are Steve Friedlein, Wesley Friedlein, Hayden Klebe, Mandy Friedlein, Josie Klebe and Mari Klebe.1 / 4
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Dave Pederson, executive director of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in rural Spicer, said the recent acquisition of Geer Island, visible in the background, means it can be preserved in its natural state for perpetuity. 2 / 4
Submitted Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center staff and families recently tested out Geer Island for tent camping. Gathered around the fire ring, from left, are Steve, Mandy and Wesley Friedlein; Josie, Mari and Hayden Klebe; and Ali Dahmes.3 / 4
Submitted A short hike leads to Geer Island, where staff and family with the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center recently pitched their tents. 4 / 4

SPICER - Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center can now boast of having its own island destination.

A five-acre site, long known as Geer Island, was added this fall to the 500 acres comprising this already special destination in rural Spicer in Kandiyohi County.

The "island" is really a peninsula, but being surrounded almost entirely by water and cattails marsh, it has all the feel of an island. The island includes a mix of mature ironwood, burr oak and basswood trees with a grassy and open, park-like understory.

To this has been added exactly one fire ring. The fire ring is where Prairie Woods staff and their families recently pitched tents and tested the theory that the island may make a perfect location for tent camping.

Or perhaps someday, it could be the site for residential cabins for students.

The cabins are only in the dream stage, said David Pederson, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center director, as he walked the deer trail leading to the new acquisition.

The small site was owned for many years by the Geer family, and left undeveloped. It's just large enough that someone might have entertained the idea of putting up a cabin and developing an access driveway.

The Geer family knew of interest from Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in protecting this valuable natural habitat and landscape, Pederson said. When the family decided earlier this year that it was time to sell the parcel, they offered Prairie Woods the opportunity to purchase it.

Last month, auctioneer Kristine Fladeboe Duininck, serving as a volunteer, needed maybe 15 minutes to raise the funds needed for its purchase from donors attending the annual Prairie Stars fundraiser.

"We felt it was really valuable going forward to try and protect this land,'' Pederson said.

The island will likely become the canoe launching site soon, as cattails are fast encroaching on the access site now being used. Pederson can envision a walking and winter ski trail winding through the trees at the site someday too.

Otherwise, there are no definite plans for the island, but residential use in the form of a cabin is a possibility. Someday, Prairie Woods is hoping to reach its original goal of becoming a full-fledged residential environmental learning center, Pederson explained.

Prairie Woods is committed to introducing young people to the outdoors, and residential opportunities would benefit that goal, he noted.

In the past year, Prairie Woods has served an estimated 30,000 people, most of them young people. Many are reached through some 70 different outreach programs that are offered at sites within a 100-mile radius of Prairie Woods. And of course, many more thousands travel to Prairie Woods to participate in programs as members of school, scout, and other organized groups.

The outreach programs serve as a "built in marketing'' tool to introduce people to Prairie Woods . Many of those who make their way to the site for programs, or to hike or ski and enjoy the landscape, had first learned about what's here through an outreach program, he explained.

Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center served all of 800 people in its first full year in 1995, and has continued to see steady growth in the numbers of people served ever since.

And yet, Pederson maintains that Prairie Woods is only "scratching the surface" in terms of its mission to connect kids to the outdoors and nature. It takes much more than a once-a-year visit to Prairie Woods for youths (or adults) to make their connection to the outdoors lasting, he explained.

The acquisition of the island is just one more step in protecting a landscape and natural world that is disappearing only too rapidly. Pederson said he's convinced that the value of the landscape protected at Prairie Woods will only increase in importance in the years ahead.

He credits it all to those who had the foresight to protect this site. "Twenty and 30 years ago (they) realized there was an opportunity here to create something special,'' he said.

Tom Cherveny

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

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