Audubon nature center looks to the future

The Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary near Warren, Minn., will continue to operate as a single facility, and the new board of the Agassiz Audubon Society that oversees the nature center will begin the search for a site director in the...

The Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary near Warren, Minn., will continue to operate as a single facility, and the new board of the Agassiz Audubon Society that oversees the nature center will begin the search for a site director in the new year.

There had been some question about the future of the sanctuary earlier this year after a dispute between the local Audubon board and Audubon Minnesota -- the state affiliate of the National Audubon Society -- and the Omdahl family that donated land for the sanctuary.

Eldor Omdahl, and his wife, Stella, in 1981 began donating 640 acres -- 40 acres a year -- to the Agassiz Audubon Society for creating the sanctuary and improving its wildlife habitat. But after a dispute with then-manager Pam Wockenfuss, hired in 2005, and the Agassiz Audubon board, Omdahl decided in 2009 to withhold the final 40 acres of the property and donate the land to the Audubon Minnesota instead.

That final 40 acres included the sanctuary headquarters and manager's residence.

The Agassiz board sued Omdahl, and the courts in October 2009 ruled in his favor, saying he could withhold the 40 acres and sell to the state Audubon affiliate instead. The ruling also required that Wockenfuss and her husband, Scot -- who was president of the Agassiz Audubon board -- vacate the premises by Oct. 1, 2010.


Competing Audubons

Despite the ruling, 440 acres of sanctuary land remained under control of the Agassiz Audubon Society board, and Pam Wockenfuss last spring said plans were in the works to set up a modular building for a new headquarters. The headquarters would have been situated next to the 40 acres Omdahl retained.

That, in essence, would have meant two adjacent facilities -- one operated by Audubon Minnesota and the other by the Agassiz Audubon Society.

That possibility began diminishing in June, when two incumbents on the Agassiz Audubon board, a 10-member panel that oversees day-to-day operations of the sanctuary, were defeated in an election during the board's annual meeting.

A third board member resigned before the election, and Scot Wockenfuss resigned as president after the annual meeting.

Three other board members also later resigned and since have been replaced. With the change in membership, the board's dispute with the state Audubon Society essentially disappeared.

According to Mark Peterson, executive director of Audubon Minnesota, the National Audubon Society operates 50 nature centers across the country, and partnering with the local Agassiz Audubon board will mean more potential resources for the sanctuary.

"What we're doing is really bringing the skill sets of both entities together -- National Audubon with its management expertise of nature center personnel and the local board with its knowledge of local conditions, local partnership groups, and all the knowledge they collectively will bring to the table," Peterson said. "I think it's a win-win, and that's how the current board feels, as well."


Looking ahead

Van Hapka of Warren, the new board president, said he prefers not to dwell on what's happened in the past. Instead, he said, the board is focused on maintaining a locally run facility, while working with the state and national Audubon organization to gain the most from its management and financial resources.

He said "financial constraints" led the board to dismiss Pam Wockenfuss as manager this fall.

"We needed to restructure, close down and come up with a new plan," he said.

Wockenfuss wasn't available for comment Friday.

Peterson said a formal job description for the new sanctuary director will be developed and posted in the new year. Plans also are in the works, he said, to improve some of the infrastructure on the sanctuary site, including a storage barn and a granary.

Also to be decided, he said, is what to do with 440 acres of farmland in Pennington County that Eldor Omdahl gifted to the National Audubon Society. The Audubon Society is renting out the land, Peterson said, and may sell it eventually to support the sanctuary and its personnel.

"I feel really good with how things have turned out, and I think there are going to be some great days ahead for the sanctuary, because it is such a wonderful base for teaching as well as, for us, kind of a base of operations to reach out to the community," Peterson said. "This is the best possible scenario for everyone."


Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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