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Bison Buggy planned at Blue Mounds: Advisory group faces difficult decision with Interpretive Center

LUVERNE -- The Blue Mounds State Park may begin offering its visitors educational rides through the prairie where the bison roam as early as this summer if the Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Trails Division has anything to say about it.

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The former Frederick Manfred home opened as an interpretive center for the Blue Mounds State Park in 1976. It was closed in 2015 due to serious structural problems, from rotting beams to ponding water after rainfall. (Special to the Daily Globe)

LUVERNE - The Blue Mounds State Park may begin offering its visitors educational rides through the prairie where the bison roam as early as this summer if the Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Trails Division has anything to say about it.

In the second of four scheduled meetings between the DNR and a citizens advisory group in Luverne Thursday night, Parks and Trails Regional Manager Kathy Dummer said funding is already secured for a bison buggy - a truck that would seat up to a dozen people in the back, with a wheelchair lift to make it handicap accessible. In addition, Parks and Trails received funding for an 80 percent, year-round naturalist, whose primary work will be to lead the buggy tours and plan other programs at Blue Mounds.

Noting there are still a lot of internal politics to getting the bison buggy on the ground, Dummer said her department is pushing hard in hopes it could be a summer feature at the park.

Funding for the buggy came from the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). The naturalist position, funded for three years, is the result of dollars from the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment.

The bison buggy is something for which leaders in Luverne have been asking. There was a recent attempt to offer the opportunity, but the DNR halted the idea.

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One of the greatest concerns, aside from safety, is prairie plant life. DNR Regional Naturalist Alex Watson said traveling through the prairie can damage the grasses and flowers found there. As a result, he said there will not be a consistent schedule of operation.

The buggy will not go in the pasture in the rain - or for possibly two to three days after a rain, depending on how much moisture is in the ground. Also, Watson said three different routes have been identified so the buggy does not go over the same path each time, creating a hardpan soil where plants don’t grow.

Dummer said the bison buggy is a unique project for her department. There are no other such buggies operating in Minnesota’s state parks.

The reason to have one at Blue Mounds is to showcase the bison and to explain their significance to the southwest Minnesota prairie. The herd is considered to be pure - free of any cattle genetics.

“We feel we need to have a naturalist guiding people through the range so they can have some personal connection with the resources and with the bison that are there,” Watson said.

As for safety, the bison buggy rides will take park visitors no closer than 75 yards from the herd.

“We are not driving this through the middle of the herd,” Watson said. “We could get into the prairie - give a safari-like experience - but we’re not going to be parting the herd with a truck.

“I think Luverne is really going to love this amenity,” he added. “It sells itself.”

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Interpretive Center Another primary focus of Thursday’s meeting was discussion on Frederick Manfred’s home, which was transformed into an interpretive center for the state park in 1976.

The DNR recognizes the home as an iconic building - built against a natural cliffline of Sioux Quartzite and quarried bedrock. It’s where Frederick Manfred penned a dozen books significant to Minnesota’s arts and cultural heritage, Watson said.

“We’ve inherited that wonderful legacy, but with it we face all of the challenges he’d faced since he moved in,” Watson said, pointing out structural problems that range from a leaking foundation to rotting beams and cracks in the walls that allow for water and snakes to enter.

“There’s incredible challenges with moisture,” Watson said. “(Manfred) built this house to fulfill his literary ambitions, but I don’t think he knew a lot about hydrology. It’s built in a wetland almost. It’s an immense challenge to operate a visitor center, given this context.”

The interpretive center was closed for all of 2015 because of the safety hazards posed by the structure. Based on the information the advisory group heard Thursday, member Larry Lanphere asked if it was worth it to try to fix the problems.

“That’s the discussion we’re going to need to have,” replied Blue Mounds State Park Manager Chris Ingebretsen.

Park employee Dan McGuire said the roof on the center has been replaced twice, and four dehumidifiers run inside non-stop from the spring thaw to the winter freeze. A decade ago, the state health department said the water coming from the sinks wasn’t safe so, although the toilets were usable, people had to use hand sanitizer instead of soap and water.

Dummer said the last estimates received for repair work in the interpretive center came in 2014. At that time, approximately $400,000 was needed in deferred maintenance. If the choice was made to totally replace the building with a new structure, the cost was estimated at more than $800,000.

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“There’s no easy fix - it’s why it hasn’t been addressed for a long time,” she said.

There was some discussion Thursday about removing the structure and creating a ruin - a feature in the park where it could be noted Manfred’s house once stood. With that, a new interpretive center was discussed - one located closer to the campground and other amenities of the state park.

Dummer said she’s open to public comment on the matter.
“There’s a recognition for us in the DNR that there is a cultural significance. We’re trying to be sensitive to the value of that,” she said. “What’s going to be the acceptable compromise … while dealing with the reality of the situation?

“We really appreciate your interest in wanting to talk about this. The department has been tiptoeing around it,” she added.

Advisory member Jane Lanphere said she didn’t think there would be a public uproar about removing the structure, especially if people understood the significant problems with the building.

“I would certainly be an advocate,” she said. “To me, it’s more important to provide services … than keep something that can’t continue.”

Long-time Luverne resident Carol Svingen said that while the Manfred structure is valued, if she had to choose between saving that and getting water to the park, she’d want water. She asked how citizens could get the state legislature to provide funding this session to help get water to the park.

Talking priorities Having a reliable water source is the No. 1 priority of the DNR, Blue Mounds State Park and the advisory group. The park has had no water available for drinking, cooking or showering since late 2015 due to the presence of e.coli in its wells.

Ingebretsen said there is money identified in Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding bill, which would allow the park to get a hook-up to Rock County Rural Water. That money would bring the pipe to the park, but would not extend into the camping area.

Since the first meeting a month ago, he and two staff members identified their Top 14 priorities for Blue Mounds State Park. Following water, the wish list includes restoration of Mound Creek with a bridge over the creek channel (funds have been designated from the DNR and Federal Emergency Management Agency, with construction to begin by June 2018); the bison buggy; the interpretive center; upper dam rehabilitation; expansion of the parking lot used by rock climbers from 8 to 16-18 stalls (should be completed by June 30); mill and overlay of the roads to the interpretive center and campground; electrical upgrades in the campground to 50-amp service; construction of a new picnic shelter in the park; identify a storage site for the bison buggy; add new playground equipment and a nature play area in the park; develop some pull-through camper sites; and explore the park’s participation in the Rock River Water Trail.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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