Three Rivers Park District to enter into partnership with MAC Wildlife Area to restore boardwalks

(Sun Post photo by Laci Gagliano)
The boardwalk at the Metropolitan Airports Commission Wildlife Area near Crystal Airport.

Park District will fund reconstruction, implement outdoor educational opportunities

By LACI GAGLIANO
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The Crystal City Council heard a presentation from John Elholm, parks and recreation director, and Jonathan Vlaming, Three Rivers Park District associate superintendent at a Sept. 5 work session.

Elholm and Vlaming proposed an agreement between the city and the park district to help replace a boardwalk that has been under water, which rendered portions of the park unusable.

Located beside the Crystal Airport on 60th Avenue and Regency Avenue, the 40-acre park has been leased by the city since the 1970s, but is owned by the Metropolitan Airport Commission, which has allowed devoted volunteers to help maintain the park over the years. In addition to functioning as a wildlife conservancy, the park is used as a storm water retention area. The park is popular among birders and wildlife enthusiasts who spot animals like herons, owls, red-tailed hawks, and small mammals.

The boardwalk at the Crystal MAC Wildlife Area is surrounded by marsh grasses, vegetation, and is a premium spot for birdwatching. (Sun Post staff photo by Laci Gagliano)

Under the agreement, Three Rivers will fully fund and design a new boardwalk that accommodates flooding due to changes in hydrology over the years, and will additionally implement several educational opportunities at the park, such as interpretive stations along the boardwalk providing information about the surrounding wetlands, water ecosystems, and other related topics, as well as a multitude of community and educational outreach.

“Three Rivers does a really good job of working with wetlands and with outdoor education as well,” Elholm said. “They have a lot of expertise on this.”

Education about water will be the primary focus of the educational aspects the park district will introduce. Other possible outlets will include continued work with nearby schools that can use the lands for education purposes, and cultivating public programs.

“There are about 15 schools within a 2 1/2- or 3-mile radius of that open space. We already partner with some of those schools,” said Denis Hahn, director of outdoor education. “MAC property is a water-based area with a marsh, and part of the reason for it being there is to improve water quality as it flows downstream. It’s an opportunity for us to do scientific work with local schools, like measuring water quality.”

A red-tailed hawk spotted from the boardwalk perches on a tree in the surrounding marsh. The new boardwalk is expected to be complete by Memorial Day 2018. (Sun Post staff photo by Laci Gagliano)

Students can also study wildlife, view migratory birds on their way north and south during spring and fall and learn environmental stewardship. Summer camps will likely be offered in the future.

Hahn also said the opportunity for public interpretive programs would promote a sense of stewardship to the park among the entire surrounding community.

“We might do an evening walk when the moon is full for the public to get to know the park and the wildlife after dark. There’s also a chance for actual environmental stewardship work, like working with community members to take out invasive species. It’s a great opportunity for learning, enjoying, and being outdoors, as well as for stewardship and restoration. It’s really bringing what Three Rivers does into communities that don’t have a regional park,” he said.

He observed that children who visit the park often enjoy the woodland areas surrounding the central marsh as a natural play area.

“They enjoy nature-based play, and the creativity and imagination that it inspires. We know from observing outdoor education and experiences kids have in nature that it improves academic performance. Lots of imagination comes into play,” he said.

Hahn commented on the wide range of experiences the partnership will bring to the communities.

“There will be opportunities for education, and then opportunities for quiet enjoyment of the park on a personal basis … for people who just want to come to those areas and sit and enjoy the view. It’s kind of a meditative process,” he said.

Vlaming said the boardwalk will be constructed on top of piles so it can be raised above the water level. The finished trail will be about 8 feet wide, contain railings, and will be ADA accessible. New boardwalk areas will be added to provide extra trails leading to currently inaccessible areas of the land.

“There will be more trails altogether. There will be a really nice loop through the nature area,” he said.

Vlaming said the goal is to have the boardwalk completed by Memorial Day. The pilings must be installed during winter. A warm winter with unreliable freezes could mean postponing the project another year.

“Since it’s a wetland area, you can’t go in and drive the posts into the ground in the summer months; you need it to be frozen to bring in the machinery. Once we’ve got the posts in, then we can build the boardwalk at any time. It’s very imperative that stuff is frozen when we’re putting in the pilings,” he said.

Both the city and Airport Commission will be involved in the boardwalk’s design, but Three Rivers will manage all of the construction. The city will perform routine maintenance at the park, but Three Rivers will also rebuild the boardwalk and take on major infrastructure costs in the future.

“We envision a really strong relationship between Three Rivers and the MAC. This is just phase one of that partnership. Our goal in all of this is to build regional park services in first-tier communities,” Hahn said.

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kylawn Park in Brooklyn Center will host an open house to provide the public with an opportunity to view the plans and provide feedback. The public is welcome to attend.