Parks, Recreation and Open Space Inventory

This part of the manual provides an inventory and assessment of the existing system, contextual information regarding complementary state facilities, and a framework for Stearns County to follow in order to meet regional needs for recreation and open space, and to preserve significant natural resource

Stearns county ParkS dePartment

The Stearns County Parks Department was established in 1974 and carries the responsibility for acquisition, planning, development, administration, and daily maintenance of over 2,600 acres of parks and trails. It is the operating arm of the Stearns County Park Commission. Parks department staff duties include:

  • Operate County parks, trails, and recreation programs
  • Provide and manage facilities
  • Improve and maintain parks and trails
  • Partner with recreation groups and organizations on programming
  • Acquire land and build new parks and trails
  • Manage natural open space in parks and along trails

Role of the County Parks System

The County’s role in park and recreation planning is regional – it works to meet needs and provide facilities that are broader than those of an individual city or township. The County also plays a key role in coordinating among federal and state agencies and programs, municipal governments, and semi-private or nonprofit organizations such as watershed and lake associations.

Stearns County’s existing system of parks, trails, and open space includes eighteen unique park and recreation facilities, ranging from boat landings to regional trails to significant regional parks

The County system is supplemented by a number of State forests, Scientific and Natural Areas, and Wildlife Management Areas, as well as city parks and trails. Major recreation features in the Stearns County system include the highly used and valued Quarry Park and Nature Preserve in Waite Park, and the Lake Wobegon Trail, which stretches east and west across the County.

The County Park Commission

The Stearns County Park Commission was created by the County Board on October 20, 1970. Its responsibilities are described as follows:

  • To study and determine the park, recreation and open space needs of the County and make recommendations to the Planning Commission and the County Board of
  • Recommendations include “general and specific development standards and criteria for evaluating potential sites, the extent and objectives of county participation in outdoor recreation and a program for coordination with other groups or agencies, all in conjunction with the Stearns County Comprehensive Plan.”
  • To submit an annual budget and priority projects to the Administration Department to be approved by the Stearns County Board of Commissioners.
PARK COMMISSION'S MISSION STATEMENT: To provide natural resource-oriented parks and outdoor recreation opportunities, that enhance the quality of life of Stearns County residents through physical fitness, community building and economic vitality.

Past Planning

The Parks, Open Space and Recreation Plan chapter is an update to the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, which has its roots in the 1989 Recreation Plan. The 1989 Recreation Plan set the framework for the Stearns County park classification system and standards. The first recreation plan for Stearns County was developed in 1970, and it was comprehensively updated in the mid-1980s. The 1970 plan established the park acreage need of 20 acres of County parkland per 1,000 County residents.

Park Classification System

Stearns County has defined its parks facilities using a park classification system, which articulates the diversity and types of recreational uses available within the county (see Table 9.1 and 9.2). Table 9.1 has been revised from the version in the 2008 Comprehensive Plan to align with the existing and potential future park types in the County. The local or municipal park classifications have been removed as cities typically define their own classification standards.

Stearns County’s existing system of parks, trails, and open space includes two (2) signature County recreation facilities, eight (8) County parks and open spaces, three (3) linear parks/greenways/trails, and seven (7) special features. The County system is supplemented by a number of State forests, Scientific and Natural Areas, and Wildlife Management Areas, as well as city parks and trails.

Recent System Additions

Since the last Comprehensive Plan update, the County system has expanded with the following acquisitions:

Kraemer Lake-Wildwood Park, established in 2007, provides unique recreation and interpretation opportunities including cross-country skiing, hiking, maple syrup production, picnicking and swimming, amidst a high-quality forest landscape. The park has been designated as “Regionally Significant” by the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission following development of a master plan in 2016.

Rockville County Park and Nature Preserve was established in late 2006 and early 2007 through the purchase of three major parcels of property. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources grants were used to match donations and county bonding funds to establish the park. This parcel is encumbered by a conservation easement held by the Minnesota Land Trust.

The largest parcel, the John and Linda Peck parcel, was donated to the project. Mr. Peck is a volunteer with the Minnesota Land Trust and was the chair of the Stearns County Park Commission. He and his wife, Linda were recognized as Stearns County Volunteers of the Year in 2007 for their commitment to conservation and their donation of property for the new park.

Clearwater River Canoe Access is three parcels with less than an acre of land. The tax forfeited property has been maintained by the Stearns County Parks since 2016. There is access to the Clearwater River which leads into Clearwater Lake.

Lake Wobegon trail expansion from St. Joseph to Waite Park. The trail extended east of St. Joseph during 2017 and 2018 to add 3 miles of paved trail to the system.

Federal and State Programs and Facilities

Stearns County works closely with other government agencies on protection of natural and recreational resources. Other types of protected open space within the County include:

Wildlife Management Areas: are managed by the Minnesota DNR for wildlife production, public hunting and trapping. Stearns County contains 42 WMAs totaling 8,772 acres. Many are located near wetlands, where they also help protect water quality.
Waterfowl Production Areas: are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain breeding habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. There are 2,152.6 acres in Stearns County owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs): are managed by the Minnesota DNR to “preserve and perpetuate the ecological diversity of Minnesota’s natural heritage, including landforms, fossil remains, plant and animal communities, rare and endangered species, or other biotic features and geological formations, for scientific study and public edification as components of a healthy environment.” (MN DNR web site) There are currently 7 SNAs in Stearns County, totaling 1,811 acres:

  • Cold Spring Heron Colony, Wakefield Township, 65 acres
  • Partch Woods, St. Wendel Township, 124 acres
  • Quarry Park (southern section of this County park), City of Waite Park, 323 acres
  • Roscoe Prairie, Zion Township, 57 acres
  • St. Wendel Tamarack Bog and Fen – 663 acres
  • Avon Hills Hardwood Forest/Collegeville Township – 354 acres
  • Sedan Brook Mesic Prairie – North Fork Township near Brooten – 225 acres

National and State Trails: Stearns County has worked with neighboring counties and the DNR to obtain bonding funds for construction of the Glacial Lakes State Trail from Richmond to Paynesville (16 miles). Portions of the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) is also located in the County. The MRT is a designated bicycle and pedestrian trail that traverses the shores of the Mississippi River in the United States. The trail extends from the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to near the mouth of the river in Venice, Louisiana.
SWCD: Stearns County support Stearns County SWCD’s efforts in natural system corridor planning.
To rank and prioritize conservation easement acquisition in the Sauk River Watershed in partnership with the Minnesota Land Trust. Priority is given to tracts of land that fall under multiple state priority designations for protection and provide the greatest benefit to citizens of Minnesota. Typically, tracts of land that augment or create habitat corridors rank highest. Land in close proximity to already protected habitat is also prioritized.

To rank and prioritize conservation easement acquisition in the Avon Hills ecoregion in partnership with the Minnesota Land Trust. Priority is given to tracts of land that fall under multiple state priority designations for protection and provide the greatest benefit to citizens of Minnesota. Typically, tracts of land that augment or create habitat corridors rank highest. Land in close proximity to already protected habitat is also prioritized.

To assess the potential for wetland and native vegetation restoration using a scoring matrix created by the MN Board of Water and Soil Resources to rank and prioritize applications for MN CREP conservation easements. Priority is given to tracts with greater wetland restoration potential in addition to being near species of conservation concern and near permanently protected habitat.

Trends in Recreation

The following list includes trends that have emerged locally and nationally over the last ten years that serve as potential opportunities for Stearns County. Whether the trends are on the rise or in decline, they are worth noting in this plan as they may affect how Stearns County plans for the future.

National Trends: The National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) 2019 Agency Performance Review indicates that in the coming years, park investments will grow compared to the last ten years. This
is in comparison to the depressed spending following the 2008 economic downturn. In addition, local government agency tax revenues have been increasing, which provides park agencies with greater economic resources for recreation investments.
Nationwide there has been an increased use of technology for providing recreational services, monitoring use and performance, and collecting data. Impacts can be seen in parks agencies through the use of:

  • beacon counters to measure park use
  • autonomous vehicles to move people through parks and open spaces
  • georeferencing and GPS technology to monitor users and facilities
  • drones that photograph facilities as well as deliver food and
    beverages to park users, assist with public safety monitoring, and mapping natural areas

Changing climate and an increase in severe weather events globally and nationally has had an impact on our environment and outdoor spaces. It is important to recognize this issue
and plan for future changes in the climate and environment to reduce economic impacts, mitigate where possible, and adapt as necessary.

Statewide Trends: The 2014-2018 State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MnDNR), gives outdoor recreation decision-makers and managers a focused set of priorities and suggested actions to guide them as they make decisions about outdoor recreation. The SCORP outlines outdoor recreation trends, challenges and issues including protecting existing natural resources, sustaining existing facilities, promoting healthy lifestyles, connecting people with nature and an increasing demand for a diverse range of recreation opportunities based upon population changes.

Some challenges identified in the SCORP include low population growth in Minnesota compared to the rest of the nation, with the majority of the population growth in the state occurring in the metro area, and especially between Rochester and St. Cloud. This concentrated growth in the more densely populated areas of the state compared to low growth in the rural areas correlates with more interest in nature-based activities such as fishing and boating, and less interest in activities such as hunting, snowmobiling, and ATV use.

The Minnesota State Demographer states that recent population growth in Minnesota has been increasingly coming from immigration. “While both the U.S.-born population and foreign-born population have grown since 1970, the foreign-born population has swelled more quickly. Minnesota had about 113,000 foreign-born residents in 1990, but that number had more than quadrupled to about 457,200 residents by 2015.”

The Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission provides a new funding stream for out-state regional parks and trails by designating State Legacy Funding to be allocated to specific projects. Stearns County has six regionally designated facilities: Kraemer Lake Park, Lake Wobegon Trail, Rockville Park, Quarry Park, Warner Lake Park, and Beaver Island Trail.

Regional/County-wide Trends: Emerging trends in regional and county parks and recreation facilities include a continued growth and interest in trails and linear recreation, such as biking, walking, and running. This interest in trails is expected to continue to increase in the coming years. Regional destination trails with amenities and facilities, such as trailheads, campsites, views/overlooks, cultural interpretation, and connections to local breweries and eateries, are becoming more popular statewide.

Physical and mental health have been recognized as important considerations for parks, trails, and recreation programming with county- wide active living plans and Safe Routes to School (SRTS) investments. With an increase in obesity and mental health issues, regional parks have been tasked with providing facilities and programs that help people lead healthier lives.

Counties are dealing with a variety of demographic changes, such as increasing diversity, an aging population, and smaller households and families. These changes indicate a greater need for parks and recreation providers to be flexible in terms of programs and facilities that they are offering to meet the needs of their residents.

In addition to the above trends, a number of recreation facilities and programs are becoming more popular for regional park agencies to provide in their systems:

  • Outdoor events - trail runs, adventure races
  • Aquatic facilities - splash pads, swim ponds, beaches
  • Events and experiences - amphitheaters, outdoor wedding facilities, family reunions, festivals
  • Efficient operational models – public/private partnerships
  • Environmental learning - camps, nature centers, naturalist-led programming
  • Cultural and natural interpretation – sign panels, overlooks and views, plant identification, arboretums
  • Natural resources preservation and restoration - prairies, oak savannas, woodlands
  • Adventure recreation - rock climbing, mountain biking
  • Unique amenities - off-leash dog parks, disc golf, archery
  • Camping - camper cabins, yurts, RVs/campers
  • Winter recreation - snow shoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling
  • Outdoor activities - fishing, boating, canoeing/kayaking

COVID-19 was at the forefront of all of our lives during the last several months of developing this Plan. During this time, Stearns County’s park and trail system experienced a large increase in the number of users. Much of the response to COVID is continually evolving and few concrete answers exist to how we will continue to feel impacts in our communities and parks/trail systems.

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