The Evolution of Maplewood Nature Center

By Chris Soutter, Maplewood Naturalist

Since development in our area began in the 1800’s, the Maplewood Nature Center site has been home to Governor Merriam’s horse breeding farm, a potato field, an ice skating pond, a tree nursery, and has been known by some neighbors as “Witches Woods.”

Most of the Nature Center’s 40 acres of marsh and oak woods became City of Maplewood property in four acquisitions in the 1960s. Originally, the southwest corner of the area was developed as a picnic area and the marsh was eyed for ball fields. At a neighborhood meeting in 1974, local residents made it clear they wanted “Witches Woods” to be left natural.   This land use was supported by a hydrological study which recommended keeping the area as a water detention pond. 
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At a time when the environmental movement was strong, Eric Blank, the Director of Community Services, pursued the vision of a nature center for Maplewood.  Michael Lane Nature Center, as it was initially called, was given priority status by the Metropolitan Council for a Land and Water Conservation (LAWCON) grant from the federal government. The LAWCON grant funded fencing, a boardwalk, the Visitor Center and parking lot. In 1977, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) provided funds to hire Naturalist-Director Megan Gange and a crew to clean debris from the marsh and develop hiking trails. Erosion was controlled, benches constructed and trees planted. 

Programming for school groups began in 1978, when naturalists Jim McKee and Chris Soutter were hired under another CETA grant.  Independent School District 622’s Community Education funded all elementary students in the district to attend field trips at Maplewood Nature Center, where programs supported the district’s science curriculum as an outdoor experience for classroom concepts.  In addition, scout programs were led on afternoons and weekends.

The initial development of Maplewood Nature Center was complete when the Visitor Center held its grand opening in May 1979. 

Much has changed since the early years, but the trails of Maplewood Nature Center remain a place to see leaves change color in fall, to snowshoe on a bright winter day, to observe returning waterfowl in spring, and to enjoy an evening stroll in summer.

Maplewood’s Nature Center Mission: To enhance awareness and understanding of land, water and wildlife resources; and to empower the community to become stewards of the environment.