Guest Commentary: Wish nature a ‘happy birthday’ this spring

Published 6:30 am Saturday, March 13, 2021

By Luke Reese

Executive Director Jay C. Hormel Nature Center

For 50 years, the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center has been uncommon. The origin, composition, and 50-year community commitment to this special place make it unique among Nature Centers. Yet there have been challenges. While this past year will likely rank among the most challenging, the year has been a reminder of nature’s importance to us all.

Over 90 years ago, Jay C. Hormel looked to expand the floodplain forest that ran through his property by planting trees and creating an arboretum. Over 40 years after Jay began planting trees and over a decade following his passing, a debate began to discuss what should be done with the remnants of the arboretum. Should it be developed or preserved?

Had that question been posed 10 years earlier or later and a different response might have been found, but during the middle of the environmental movement the City of Austin decided it should be preserved. The City worked with local citizens, conservation groups, The Hormel Foundation, the State of Minnesota, and the federal government to acquire and protect the original 123-acres of property. From 1971 to 2021, the property has grown from 123-acres to over 530. With each acquisition, restoration effort, or infrastructure improvement, the City of Austin reaffirmed its commitment to providing a natural space for its visitors and citizens.

For 50 years, this natural space has been an uncommon asset for a community the size of Austin to support. Most of southern Minnesota is ag land. Landscape scale opportunities for nature conservation are rare. They generally focus on wetlands that were not easily cultivated, forests that were never harvested, or other habitats that remained unscathed by agriculture. Minus about 25 acres of remnant prairie near the tower and streamside forest along Dobbins Creek, most of the natural areas at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center have been returned to a natural state. That makes the story of the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center an example that nature can be brought back.

Once nature is restored, people can return to it for learning, relaxation, and enjoyment. From the Nature Center’s inception, the Austin Public School District planned to use the center to develop an environmental education curriculum as one of twelve school districts involved in the Minnesota Environmental Education Project. Larry Dolphin worked with the school district in 1988 to align lessons to science standards. In 2019, 3,744 Austin Public School students from Kindergarten through 7th grade participated in the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center’s environmental education curriculum. Most school-aged kids do not get a dedicated environmental education like this.

The number of kids visiting the Jay C. Hormel Nature in 2020 fell dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While our public, summer, and school programming suffered, the Nature Center has served as a refuge to more than the wildlife this past year. When people needed to escape their homes, computers, and Zoom meetings, they visited the Nature Center. More people than in recent memory witnessed the transitions from winter to spring to fall and back to winter. While the world seemed to be tumultuous as ever, the trees still offered shade, the marsh marigolds and shooting stars bloomed, and the sandhill cranes sounded like dinosaurs over our prairies. I’m sure the Blanding’s turtle that I encountered near the remnant prairie in June had no idea that a pandemic was wreaking havoc, but the deer must have known something was up, there were just so many people.

For 50 years, the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center has been uncommon and has become increasingly important to the people of Austin, southeast MN, and northeast IA. It took foresight, passion, and constant care to grow to this state. Just like every other birthday and anniversary that occurred during the pandemic, the celebration of the 50 year old Jay C. Hormel Nature Center will be different. Right now, on our website, we are focusing on the history of 50 years and individual connections made here. We hope to have larger celebrations that bring people together later in the summer. If you want to wish this special place well, please come out for a walk this spring, find a quiet spot, and tell the plants, trees, creek, and animals, “Happy Birthday.”