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Crosslake loon center project attracts national attention

Loon floating on a lake

“People protect what they know and love.” It’s a concept that community leaders in the Crosslake area have rallied around, according to Molly Zins, Executive Director of the University of Minnesota (UMN) Extension Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Central RSDP). The outcome? Plans for the first-ever National Loon Center.

Working with the Minnesota Design Team, Crosslake community members envisioned a National Loon Center on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes that would help protect the area’s natural resources and wildlife. With support from the Central RSDP, the UMN College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research’s Virajita Singh worked with the community to develop a master plan to design their long-term vision.

“Minnesota has the largest population of loons in the nation,” said Jim Anderson, President of the National Loon Center Foundation in Crosslake. “There is a need to educate the public on how to protect our Minnesota state bird.”


An environmental center dedicated to the bird can provide the connections that help community members feel protective of the lakes. Visitors will learn about the threats loons face and what we can do to protect their survival.

“Their plan is to create a conservation and environmental center that gives everyone great access to this beautiful chain of lakes, and hands-on learning opportunities to better understand our state bird and the habitat upon which it depends,” Zins said. “Ultimately, everyone who has those touchpoints will likely want to play our part for long-term protection.”

The effect of those individual touchpoints could be widespread. “Through proposed programs, lectures, exhibits and lake tours the Center will give, it’s expected that hundreds of thousands of people will be able to understand the things that are important to preserving our loon population,” Anderson said.

Grassroots community effort

Central RSDP is playing a lead role in managing and facilitating the community-University effort. In addition to Extension RSDP and other University of Minnesota colleges, partners include the National Loon Center Foundation, City of Crosslake, Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), National Park Service, Initiative Foundation, Crow Wing County, Crow Wing County Lakes and Rivers Alliance, Crosslakers, Lions Club, National Joint Powers Alliance, Widseth Smith Nolting, U.S. Congressman Rick Nolan, Minnesota State Senator Carrie Ruud, and a diverse group of community leaders and private donors. “The project is supported by many partners that give the Center great visibility, credibility and support,” Anderson said.

Three people sitting behind a table with a presentation screen above their heads.
Joe Polacek, Virajita Singh and Molly Zins share the project at a UMN public engagement conference in 2018.

Advancing the effort requires a deep understanding of what the community wants from the center. Hundreds of community members participated in the master planning process facilitated by Singh. According to Zins, “We’ve found in many of our RSDP projects that those who are directly part of a planning process continue to be engaged with the long-term effort.”

Singh worked with UMN Humphrey School of Public Affairs graduate student Joe Polacek to develop the master plan. Connecting with community members in a genuine way was essential, according to Zins. “Joe has a really terrific sensibility for connecting with community partners, using their history and institutional knowledge of the community and region to inform the research and planning process.”

The end product of this phase of work is a master plan reflective of broad stakeholder input. “It was incredible to see the passion that people in Crosslake share for loons and their habitat,” Polacek said. “Many community members and field experts were engaged [in] presenting opportunities that a National Loon Center could offer. We illustrated what we were hearing, expressed the options that arose, and continuously brought ideas to the community for feedback. The planning documents we prepared were truly a result of community-based design.”

National spotlight

The project has attracted attention far beyond the city of Crosslake. Congressman Rick Nolan, who represents Minnesota’s 8th District, met with the project team to discuss the project’s significance to the region and funding opportunities. His weekly e-newsletter has raised its profile.

“Among many other things, the project would help build awareness and advocacy for loons and formulate loon survival strategies. The effort would also help restore fragile shoreline and loon habitat, promote environmental education, recreation and tourism, and enhance the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ campground to encourage folks to watch and appreciate loons in their natural state” (Congressman Rick Nolan Monday Report, November 27, 2017).

Behind the scenes

While it’s an effort attracting strong interest, the behind-the-scenes work is being handled deliberately. After Singh and Polacek facilitated the community design process, a team from the UMN Department of Applied Economics launched a market feasibility study to help community members ensure the effort’s economic viability. Under the leadership of Dr. William Gartner and Ph.D. student Elliot Charette, the study should be completed in spring 2018.

A group of people gathered at National Eagle Center in Wabasha standing in half circle listening to presenter.
National Loon Center project partners learn from the experience of National Eagle Center peers in Wabasha.

Minnesota has a long history of supporting successful wildlife conservation centers, and project leaders are reaching out to these resources to understand cost and revenue considerations. “We have great examples right here in our state and a really collegial atmosphere among these wildlife conservation centers,” Zins said. “Learning from their best practices and lessons learned will continue to be a part of this next phase of market feasibility research.”

Last fall, Zins and other partners felt the power of the personal touchpoints the Center could provide. In October, the project team took a boat ride on the chain of lakes prior to one of the community input meetings. A DNR loon expert narrated the loon watching and pointed out what to watch for in their migratory patterns.

“As you’re observing wildlife in their natural habitat, while listening to an engaging expert explain their behaviors and how they’re gathering in preparation for migration … it’s a really powerful educational experience,” Zins said. And it’s one the project partners hope hundreds of thousands can have.

For more information on this project, contact Central RSDP Executive Director Molly Zins at zend0007@umn.edu or 218-828-2332.

Caryn Mohr, March 2018

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

Related topics: RSDP Happenings March 2018 Spring
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