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DNR considers future management of Kilen Woods State Park

LAKEFIELD -- The sounds of leaves crunching underfoot and a nearby deer rustling through the trees were all that could be heard inside Kilen Woods State Park Tuesday morning. The campsites were bare of fifth-wheels and pop-up tents, the picnic ta...

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A view from one of the hiking trails inside Kilen Woods State Park Tuesday morning. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

LAKEFIELD - The sounds of leaves crunching underfoot and a nearby deer rustling through the trees were all that could be heard inside Kilen Woods State Park Tuesday morning. The campsites were bare of fifth-wheels and pop-up tents, the picnic tables were void of family gatherings and the trails were absent of laughter and the staccato of a hiker’s accelerated breathing.

The state park has been here, along the winding West Fork of the Des Moines River, for approximately 70 years. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources considers it among the rustic state parks in its offerings, while frequent visitors may be more apt to view it as a jewel amid the flat farm fields and prairie landscape of southwest Minnesota.

Located northeast of Lakefield, Kilen Woods State Park features five miles of hiking trails, 3.5 miles of ungroomed snowmobile trails, camping, birding, canoeing, fishing, abundant prairie flowers, wooded acres and wildlife.

The Minnesota State Legislature authorized the creation of a state park here in 1945. The 202-acre wooded parcel was purchased from Agil Kilen, hence the state park’s name, Kilen Woods.

With its now barren trees, tall prairie grasses and still well-maintained hiking trails, the future management of Kilen Woods is up for discussion this week. While there are no immediate plans for change, the DNR is hosting an open house from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Jackson County Library Community Room, 311 Third St., Jackson, to gather public input on the park’s future management.

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Kathy Dummer, DNR Parks and Trails Division’s southern regional manager, said the DNR and Jackson County have discussed management of the park for roughly a decade. With declining resources to manage the lands in the state park system, the DNR is looking specifically at some of its rustic parks in the hopes of potential collaboration.

In the case of Kilen Woods, Jackson County Parks and Trails Director Jacqueline Knips said the county has expressed interest in taking over a portion of the state park, specifically the campground.

“We have five other campgrounds in the county and we have the staffing to manage it at a local level,” Knips said. Shifting ownership of the campground to the county will ensure it remains open - something that isn’t a guarantee if the DNR chooses to manage the site as a Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).

Knips said two community groups comprised of volunteers, including a parks department committee and Friends of the Jackson County Trails, are supportive of the county’s interest in managing the campgrounds, and the DNR-sponsored meeting Thursday night is hoped to get input from individuals who may not have been part of those discussions.

DNR staff will meet with individuals and collect input during the open house, but for those who can’t attend the meeting, an online survey is available  at mndnr.gov/input/mgmtplans/parks/kilen_woods.html.

“We are really interested in hearing what people think about ... Kilen Woods being managed differently,” said Dummer.

The number of annual visitors to Kilen Woods is relatively low compared to others in the state’s 75 park and recreational areas, but Dummer said the minimal services provided in the park begets lower visitation.

“It may not have the visitation that Itasca or Gooseberry does, but the people that are there enjoy the rustic experience,” she said. “We know that Kilen Woods is a very attractive park to travelers - it has a lot of usership for travelers going east and west (on Interstate 90). Does it have to be a state park to provide that service? Is there a different management model?”

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It isn’t unheard of for the state to transfer ownership of a park to a county or other entity. Dummer said in the late 1980s, Little Elbow Lake State Park near Itasca State Park was turned over to the White Earth Band of the Ojibwe, which now owns and manages the park land. She said other parks in the state’s system - particularly those considered rustic - are being reevaluated.

“The rustic camps can provide a unique place in the system,” she said. “We’re really being honest about what investments we’re going to put into the facility there, the management we have and the services we can offer.”

In the last four years, Dummer said reductions within the DNR led to the elimination of a full-time park manager at Kilen Woods. Now, there’s a full-time manager who doubles as the DNR’s area trails supervisor.

Last year, the DNR began offering a 100 percent guarantee reservation system for park use - an investment in the park system that Dummer said is paying off.

“We had many weekends this summer where the park was full,” she said.

That’s good news if Jackson County hopes to one day own the campground, which boasts four walk-in campsites and 32 semi-modern campsites, 11 of which have electricity.

If the county does become the owner of the campground, Knips said the remainder of the park could be managed as a Scientific and Natural Area.

As Dummer pointed out, the land was established as a state park for specific reasons - the landscape was and remains a natural and cultural resource within the state.

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“It shows us what the prairie and the Des Moines River Valley was like,” Dummer said. “The resources there … need to be preserved on behalf of the state of Minnesota.”

Among those resources is an outcropping of Prairie Bush Clover - believed to be one of the largest remaining stands of the federally protected plant species in the nation.

Brad Bolduan, Minnesota DNR’s Southern Region SNA Specialist, said the Prairie Bush Clover is one of a few federally threatened species found in this part of the state. Its location within Kilen Woods State Park is protected as an SNA - a site that is continually monitored by the DNR, and one that is considered one of the best research populations of the species.

“They’re trying to maintain sufficient numbers of populations to assure the plant can survive into the future,” Bolduan said.

If public input is favorable and the DNR opts to split the management duties of Kilen Woods State Park, such a change wouldn’t happen overnight. Knips said state legacy dollars were invested in the park, which requires the grounds remain open to the public. The legacy board would need to approve a transfer of any land to Jackson County, and Knips said National Park Service approval would also be necessary.

Getting all of those approvals means the earliest the county could gain ownership of the campground would be the summer of 2018, Knips said.


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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