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The day she learned that her beloved Warner Nature Center was closing, 11-year-old Beatrix Rhone broke down crying. She has spent the past seven summers tromping through the unspoiled woods west of Marine on St. Croix with Warner volunteers, banding birds, studying bogs and moving through a wilderness unlike anything in her urban neighborhood.

“You can still learn about science, but it’s not like mixing things together” in a lab, she said.

The shared experiences of thousands of school kids like Beatrix will end this year after the Manitou Fund, the St. Paul-based private foundation that owns the land, said last month it was severing its relationship with the Science Museum of Minnesota, which staffs the center and runs programming.

For the Warner staff, volunteers and the roughly 9,000 students who visit the St. Croix Valley center each year, the announcement that it’s closing at the end of the year came as a shock. Warner has let kids study prairie restoration, monitor dragonflies, band birds such as downy woodpeckers and research the endangered Blanding’s turtle.

Since learning Warner will soon close, the Science Museum has been scrambling to find new homes for the animals that live there. Warner staffers have contacted schools that booked visits into next year to tell them they’ll need to go somewhere else. Eleven paid staff members along with dozens of volunteers, some of whom have been at the center for decades, are preparing to say goodbye to their duties.

“It’s so hard,” said volunteer Dllona Clendenen. “One of my questions is about the mystery of not knowing what this place will be used for. Will it be maintained?”

It’s not yet known what will become of the 900-acre site or the buildings, trails and boardwalk installed there. But in a statement last week, Manitou Fund trustees tried to make clear that they’re committed to preservation.

“Manitou Fund has always been committed to supporting Warner Nature Center’s original mission of building lasting relationships between people and the natural world,” according to a statement released Wednesday to the Star Tribune. “Going forward, Manitou Fund is steadfast in its commitment to preserve the land for future generations.”

The statement added that the Manitou Fund is working with nationally recognized nature center experts while exploring their options. The process will take time, it said.

But the statement didn’t explain why Warner is closing. A spokeswoman for the Manitou Fund said Friday only that Warner’s closing was not part of a larger reorganization within the foundation.

The Manitou Fund has had a period of strong growth, with the fair market value of its assets listed at $50.2 million at the end of 2017, the most recent year available. A spokeswoman for the fund said the Warner closing was not based on financial reasons.

Science Museum staffers were blindsided by Manitou’s decision, which was delivered in early June to top administrators. Science Museum Vice President Joanne Jones-Rizzi said she had no inkling that Manitou was unhappy. The foundation has annually renewed its relationship with the Science Museum for 52 years.

“It’s five decades long and it’s been a very successful partnership. We’re very proud of the work we’ve been able to do together,” Jones-Rizzi said.

Land conservation

The Manitou Fund is the philanthropic foundation of the family of Donald McNeely, one of the original investors in the Minnesota Vikings and the son of St. Paul Terminal Warehouse founder Harry McNeely Sr. The family warehouse business, begun in St. Paul in 1916, grew into a real estate empire before it split into two companies: Space Center Inc., run by Donald, and Space Center Enterprises (now Meritex), run by his brother, Harry Jr.

In one of the largest warehouse deals in the country this year, Space Center Inc. sold its entire 20-million-square-foot portfolio of warehouses and storage space to Blackstone Group for $1.24 billion.

The family’s legacy lives on in Minnesota through donations Donald McNeely made in the name of his wife, Marjorie, and his aunt and uncle, Lee and Rose Warner, including the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum at the Minnesota State Fair and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park.

Donald McNeely died in 2009 at age 94, and Marjorie died in 1998. Donald’s children Greg, Kevin and Nora sit on the Manitou Fund board.

Anyone hoping to learn what’s next for the Warner land might find conflicting signals in the property records. The Manitou Fund applied for tax-exempt status for the Warner land for 2020, according to the Washington County tax assessor’s office. That might signal a plan that doesn’t include for-profit development.

At the same time, there are no conservation easements on the land. An effort to create one nearly came together a few years ago, according to Wayne Ostlie, the director of land protection for the Minnesota Land Trust. The most recent plan was for the Land Trust and Washington County to pay the Manitou Fund for an easement, and some of those proceeds would be used to purchase adjacent land owned by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

The undeveloped land is extremely valuable. Ostlie estimated it at $20,000 an acre.

“I’m not sure where the Manitou Fund is headed,” he said. “Is there a potential for a conservation easement down the road? I certainly hope so.”

Still lobbying

The absence of a clear path forward has inspired some Warner volunteers to lobby for continuing the nature center. They created a website, welovewarner.org, where they’ve been collecting signatures for a petition along with stories about the role Warner has played in the community.

“There’s so many positive stories and feelings,” said Kelsey Depew, the hand behind the website. “Lots of volunteers have been out there for years, some for 50 years, and now it’s being ripped away from them almost.”

The group has sent letters to Manitou Fund trustees, asking if they could at least help with a transition to whatever comes next. Some volunteers are hoping their work can continue at other area nature centers.

“We just want answers, is the real thing,” Depew said. “If they’re planning to continue the legacy of the Warner Nature Center, then why aren’t they telling us that that’s what they’re going to do?”

Some staff members like Paul Smithson haven’t had much time to think about their next job. As Warner’s avian coordinator, he’s been too busy searching for new homes for the American kestrel, barred owl and eastern screech owl that live at Warner. After they go, Smithson will have to say goodbye to the birds he’s handled and cared for.

“It’s been part of my job, which has been part of my life for quite a while,” he said. “But things change.”

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329