Trustees to pursue conservation easement on Star Lake property, will not seek sale in 2016


March 15, 2016

By: Christa Meland

Members of the Minnesota Conference’s Board of Trustees voted last week to pursue selling conservation easements over individual parcels of Star Lake Wilderness Camp land.
 
The decision comes after a four-member task force spent the past year exploring options for the 441-acre camp, located in Pequot Lakes. The task force presented five options and recommended the conservation easements, which the trustees unanimously approved.
 
The conservation easements will ensure the preservation of the pristine Star Lake land so that it can be enjoyed for years to come, generate resources for the camping and retreat ministry, and allow the conference to explore future uses for the property. 
 
Why conservation easements?
 
Murray Thurston, a trustee and head of the task force, said the group recommended the conservation easements because they represent a win for everyone.
 
“That’s the option that would allow us to fulfill the Social Principles, be a good neighbor, preserve the land, and generate income for the conference,” he explained. (The United Methodist Social Principles call for “the preservation of old-growth forests and other irreplaceable natural treasures.”)
 
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner (in this case, the conference) and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of a piece of land for conservation purposes. The landowner agrees to sell certain rights associated with the property—typically the right to subdivide or develop it—and a private organization or public agency can enforce the landowner’s promise not to exercise those rights. The agreement exists even if the property is sold.
 
During the task force’s exploration, members learned that several groups are interested in providing “substantial” funding to the conference for the conservation easements, said Thurston. 
 
“What excites us is the number and diversity of public and private entities that have come to the table that want to be involved in the preservation of Star Lake,” he said.

Star Lake Camp is located within the yellow lines of this aerial map.
 
Keith Shew, director of camping and retreat ministries for the Dakotas-Minnesota area, was pleased with the trustees’ decision.
 
“This demonstrates the annual conference’s commitment to honoring Star Lake’s camping ministry and the beauty of the natural spaces while also providing financial resources to help advance the camp and retreat ministry’s strategic plan for ministry,” he said.
 
How did we get here?
 
In 2012, camp consultant Kaleidoscope, Inc., recommended selling three camp sites, including Star Lake, as part of a long-range Camp Minnesota strategic plan—and a year ago, trustees commissioned the task force to explore all options for Star Lake, including divestment. At that time, they intended to seek approval from members of the 2016 annual conference session to sell the property in order to generate funds for the camping ministry. But after learning that they could preserve the land and receive income for the camping ministry, they decided to pursue a new route and thus are not interested in selling the property at this time.
 
For the past several years, the conference has not conducted programming at Star Lake and has instead leased it to an independent nonprofit organization that a number of Minnesota United Methodists operate. The current lease with that organization goes through 2017.
 
Karen Andrew, chair of the board of trustees, said the conservation easement option balances the need to realize a financial return from the property to further the mission of Camp Minnesota with the desire to allow it to be preserved and enjoyed into the future.
 
“It’s a win for the treasury of the conference and specifically the camping ministry, and it’s also a win because we can continue to use that land as a wilderness camp,” said Andrew. “It’s clear to me that this is very special property. It’s in an area that is fairly heavily populated with resorts and cabins and so to keep this spot from development is important. It’s quite a coup to be able to do this and realize substantial funds which our camping ministry needs.”
 
Rev. Mark Woodward, who serves Faith UMC in Eyota and takes members of his church to Star Lake each summer, said he’s “absolutely elated” about the trustees’ decision.
 
“Star Lake has brought vitality and energy to the church I serve,” he said. “It’s a great place to build relationships and explore the beauty of God’s world.”
 
Woodward estimates that he’s taken 600 to 700 people from Eyota to Star Lake over the years. Some of the young people who have gone have become more involved in the life of the church after returning home.
 
“This is a day of jubilation,” he said. “All the parties involved have accomplished something wonderful.”
Star Lake is now leased to a nonprofit operated by United Methodists.
 

What’s next?
 
The next step for the task force, which will be expanded to include a member of the conference finance team and a camping ministry representative, is to determine which portions of the land should have easements and which should remain as-is. There are now 11 buildings on the property, and Thurston said they would not be part of the easements so they can be updated or modified in the future. The task force and trustees will then negotiate with the interested public and private groups to come to an agreement on easements and funding. Thurston estimates that the process of creating the easements will take several years.
 
In addition to Star Lake, the Minnesota Conference owns Northern Pines in Park Rapids and Koronis Ministries in Paynesville, and it operates Kowakan Adventures near Ely. It also owns Decision Hills Camp in Spicer, but programming there has been suspended for several years, and the property is for sale.

The Dakotas and Minnesota conferences’ camp and retreat ministries recently combined their strengths and leadership and came together to form a joint governance team. The area camping ministry’s mission is to invite campers to experience Christ, creation, and community through camp and retreat ministries, and the desired outcome is disciples and leaders who hear and respond to God’s call to articulate their faith, love and accept everyone, serve others, and trust God.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.




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