By: Christa Meland
In a transaction that closed late last month, Minnesota Land Trust paid the Minnesota Conference $1.218 million for a conservation easement covering 383 acres of its Star Lake Wilderness Camp.
The conservation easement will ensure the preservation of the pristine land so that it can be enjoyed for years to come while also generating resources for the conference’s camping and retreat ministry. Star Lake spans 441 acres and is located in Pequot Lakes.
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—in this case, the right to 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.
“I am overjoyed,” said Bart Seebach, a member of the Minnesota Conference Board of Trustees who has been working on the easement for the past five years.
Seebach pointed out that the easement demonstrates the conference’s commitment to responsible stewardship of God’s creation, affirmed in our Social Principles, which call for “the preservation of old-growth forests and other irreplaceable natural treasures, as well as preservation of endangered plant species.”
The easement also “honors the vision of the clergy and laypersons whose commitment and ‘sweat equity,’ together with God’s grace, pieced together the Star Lake wilderness camp and brought generations of United Methodists face-to-face with the stunning beauty and challenge of meeting God in the wilderness,” said Seebach.
In 2012, camp consultant Kaleidoscope, Inc., recommended selling three camp sites, including Star Lake, as part of a long-range Camp Minnesota strategic plan. (The other two sites, Camp Kingswood in Mound and Decision Hills Camp in Spicer, were sold in 2013 and 2017, respectively.) In 2015, conference trustees appointed a four-person task force to explore various options for the land, including divestment—and in 2016, at the recommendation of that task force, they voted to pursue selling a conservation easement after learning that they could preserve the land and receive income for the camping ministry.
In recent years, the conference has not conducted programming at Star Lake and has instead leased it to an independent nonprofit, Star Lake Camp Incorporated. That organization, operated by a group of Minnesota United Methodists, is in the midst of a five-year lease and will be able to continue to use the land for its summer camp ministry.
“I’m excited about this easement and think it’s a good thing,” said Rev. Walter Lockhart, the executive director of Star Lake Camp Incorporated. “I don’t think any of us has a good sense of what the future of the UMC looks like but this is a statement of faith and value of this land. We know we don’t want to turn this land into homes.”
Lockhart has been to Star Lake every summer since 1987, and what he values most is the type of ministry that the land allows. Campers sleep in canvas tents, cook meals over an open fire, and bathe in the lake. There are many more trees than people, and campers are able to spread out. The majority of campers are not from United Methodist churches and many lack financial resources typically required for camp participation, said Lockhart. Last year, Star Lake welcomed nearly 100 campers, and Lockhart is hoping to reach 200 next summer.
Keith Shew, director of camping and retreat ministries for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, is also pleased with the conservation easement.
“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.
The buyer of the easement, Minnesota Land Trust, is an organization formed in 1991 whose mission is to protect and restore Minnesota’s most vital natural lands in order to provide wildlife habitat, clean water, outdoor experiences and scenic beauty for generations to come.
“By protecting these lakes, the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is doing much more than protecting the camp for the young conservationists of the future,” said Ruurd Schoolderman, program manager for Minnesota Land Trust. “These lakes play a vital role in protecting tullibee fish populations, an important species in our state that relies on cold, deep waters, and undisturbed shoreline to survive. This conservation easement truly is a gift to all Minnesotans.”
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.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church