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Agassiz Environmental Learning Center a haven for outdoor recreation and education

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Wendell Johnson (left) and Wayne Goeken check out the recently planted botanical garden at the Agassiz Environmental Learning Center in Fertile, Minn. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

FERTILE, Minn. -- It doesn’t happen very often in the spring, but the nature center nestled in the trees above the Sand Hill River is a quiet place on this Friday afternoon in May.

Quiet, that is, except for the sounds of the outdoors that draw people here. The gurgling waters of the Sand Hill River. The calls of orioles and other birds. The light but persistent rain that dampens the day.

Quite a contrast, that, from the previous Friday, when more than 200 students -- 42 from South Point Elementary School in East Grand Forks and 160 seventh-graders from Thief River Falls -- converged on the Agassiz Environmental Learning Center to help spruce up the campground and plant the botanical gardens.


Whether it’s students learning about nature, hikers and cross-country skiers enjoying more than 12 miles of trails or kayak enthusiasts paddling the Sand Hill River, good things are happening here.

And they happen pretty much year-round on the 642-acre site of the city-owned nature center and Fertile Sand Hills.

“We just like to see people get out here and use it,” said Wayne Goeken, an avid kayaker and nature enthusiast who serves as secretary on the Learning Center’s board of directors. “A lot of people park out here and never come in so we don’t really have a good handle on how many users are out here, but they’re coming from all over.”

Nine kayaks are available for rent through the city of Fertile, “and people are checking them out left and right,” Goeken says; cross-country skis are available for rent in the winter.

Sandy remnants

The Agassiz Environmental Learning Center is situated in the Fertile Sand Hills, so-called for the sand dunes left behind by Glacial Lake Agassiz. Oak savannas and native prairie -- two of Minnesota’s most endangered habitats -- along with steep bluffs overlooking the Sand Hill River and riparian forest all are part of the landscape and a haven for a variety of plant and animal life.

“We’ve had eagles out here, we’ve had wolves out here, we’ve had snakes and all sorts of other things,” said Dan Wilkens, board treasurer and mayor of Fertile, who recently retired as administrator of the Sand Hill River Watershed District. “It’s a unique place, I’ll tell you. Look how pretty it is just looking out the window.”

According to Danielle Spiten, director of education at the Learning Center, 966 students from nine schools across northwest Minnesota participated in hands-on nature programs at the site during the school year that just wrapped up.

That doesn’t include library outreach programs Spiten conducts in communities around the region.


Educational strategic plans for the center, which Spiten calls the “ultimate goal for the future,” include creating a sense of place through interactive and interpretive opportunities along the trails, and promoting wellness and fitness. The plans are outlined in an eight-page document.

“Our goal is to introduce students of all ages and academic levels to nature in a way that is approachable and digestible for students,” she said.

Wendell Johnson, a retired biology professor who taught for more than 40 years at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, said he brought students to the site for 35 years to study and explore the Sand Hills landscape.

Johnson is chairman of the nature center’s board of directors.

“I would usually have five or six laboratory sessions out here for freshmen, and at the end of four years, you ask them what they remember about biology, and it’s this trip,” he said. “We can capitalize on that sort of interest in adults and children.”

Plans in the works

The city of Fertile and the Learning Center’s board of directors are working to complete a Master Plan for the Fertile Sand Hills as part of a process to apply for funding from the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission, Goeken said.

The Learning Center has about 100 dues-paying members, and plans are in the works to increase that membership, he said.

The Regional Parks and Trails Commission, which administers dedicated parks funding through the constitutional amendment Minnesota voters passed in 2008, recently designated the Sand Hills as a Park of Regional Significance, a “high-priority status” that opens doors to grants for improvements and marketing. Funding applications for the current grant round are due in early August.


“Initially, we want to upgrade the facility and do signage and improvement of trails and the walking bridge for sure,” Johnson said. “That’s sort of our initial plan.”

Longer-term plans include expanding the campground and, ultimately, building a new nature center in addition to the building that currently houses classroom programs.

The facility, which has two bathrooms with showers and an adjacent observation deck with picnic tables overlooking the Sand Hill River, is available for rent for reunions, birthday parties or other gatherings and serves as a warming house for cross-country skiers in the winter.

“Fertile is probably one of the biggest voids in the state as far as being by a state park,” Goeken said. “It’s 65 miles to Buffalo River State Park, Bemidji and to Old Mill. For ski trails also, there’s nothing (nearby) so they’re trying to find these parks of regional significance where it fills a gap that’s lacking in the state.”

Habitat work

Efforts to maintain and enhance the habitat of the Fertile Sand Hills are ongoing and benefit from Johnson’s experience and tenure as a biology professor.

Historically, fires, bison and grazing maintained the landscape, he said, but since Fertile bought the property in 1976, managing the habitat has required people power to slow succession, the ecological process by which landscapes evolve.

“Succession is ripping along as it always does,” Johnson said. “We’re taking and playing the role of bison and cattle and fire.”

Volunteers and various partners have replanted three native prairies within the 642 acres, Johnson said, and are working to keep the sand dune areas from becoming overgrown with invasive plants such as creeping juniper.


Controlled burns also are part of the management regimen.

“With the open sand comes interesting insects and spiders and amphibians or other kinds of animals,” Johnson said. “We’re kind of in maintenance mode.”

School visits are done for the season, but the Learning Center doesn’t shut down for the summer. A series of “Summer Learning Experiences” features a presentation on orchids with David Remucal of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum at 4 p.m. June 15, Kayaking the Sandhill River at 11 a.m. June 29, Nature Play Date at 11 a.m. July 20 and a Nature Photography Hike at 11 a.m. Aug. 17.

For more information on upcoming programs or to become a member, contact the Learning Center at agassizelcfertile@gmail.com or call (218) 689-7208.


Participating schools

Here’s a listing of northwest Minnesota schools that participate in educational programs at the Agassiz Environmental Learning Center in Fertile.

  • Fertile Beltrami.

  • Thief River Falls Franklin Middle School.

  • South Point Elementary, East Grand Forks.

  • Sacred Heart Elementary School, East Grand Forks.

  • Win-E-Mac Elementary School.

  • Goodridge Elementary School.

  • Newfolden Elementary School.

  • Norman County East.

  • Cathedral, Crookston

  • Mahnomen Elementary School.


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 bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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