See more of the story

It's been more than 20 years since Boe Carlson abandoned his plan to go to law school and turned onto a career path that fit his passion for the outdoors.

"I realized the last thing I wanted to do was spend my career sitting behind a desk," Carlson said.

Today, he's about one month into the job of overseeing the state's largest park system. Carlson, 41, is the new superintendent of the Three Rivers Park District, which owns and operates more than two dozen park reserves, regional parks and regional trails on 27,000 acres, mostly in suburban Hennepin County.

Carlson, who began his career with the Park District in 1998, most recently served as associate superintendent for park and trail operations.

He says his love of the outdoors began when he was growing up in Golden Valley, where he worked for the city's park and recreation department during summer breaks from high school and college. After deciding not to go to law school, he joined AmeriCorps, where he worked in environmental education programs for Idaho's state park system. He later returned to the Twin Cities, earning a master's degree in public administration from Hamline University in St. Paul.

Carlson succeeds Cris Gears, who retired after holding the top post at Three Rivers since 2007.

John Gunyou, Three Rivers' board chairman, said Carlson was one of four internal candidates considered for the superintendent's job. "The board decided to first look within the organization for a successor, largely because of the unique nature of our district and the available talent within our existing senior staff," he said.

"I think it's fair to say we unanimously selected Boe based primarily on his extensive experience with all aspects of Three Rivers operations," Gunyou said.

Ready to 'right-size'

Carlson steps into his new job as Three Rivers continues to shake off the effects of the recession and its impact on the Park District's budget. Most of its operating budget comes from taxes levied on properties in Hennepin County — property taxes account for nearly 80 percent of the district's general fund $34.1 million operating budget this year. The decline in both homebuilding and property values during the economic downturn put a crimp on that funding source.

"We were able to capitalize on growth [in households and property values] back in the day, but that's no longer realistic," Carlson said. "We're realizing how to right-size our organization."

The Park District has trimmed some expenses — reducing its workforce with early retirements and cutting some programs, like mounted horse patrols. Carlson said the expense reductions present a challenge because park usage continues to climb, with more than 10 million visitors a year, about double from five years ago.

"We do have to think of a new way to do business, and partnerships are a key part of that," Carlson said. An example, he said, is its four-year-old partnership with Scott County to provide regional parks in the south metro county. Under the arrangement, the county and Park District share some resources and expertise.

"I know our board feels very strongly that type of arrangement could be replicated in other areas. We can expand our reach, and it doesn't have to come solely at our expense," he said.

Carlson said state Legacy Amendment grants present another potential revenue stream. In May, the Legislature approved $370,000 in funding for a 250-acre prairie restoration project at the Crow-Hassan Park Reserve in Hanover. Work on the restoration will start next year and will be ongoing over the next three to four years. The restoration will provide nesting habitat for several species of birds, mammals and reptiles as well as native pollinators.

Other projects include an ambitious makeover of French Regional Park in Plymouth, one of the metro area's most visited parks.

Next month the park's boat launch will be closed for reconstruction. Water mains within the park also will be reconstructed this fall. Starting next May, rehab work will be done on roads, parking lots and paved trails.

Carlson and Gunyou agree that a top priority going forward will be to bring more of Three Rivers' recreation and natural resources programs into inner-ring communities.

That includes projects like the Intercity Regional Trail, which will travel through Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington and connect to the Grand Rounds at Lake Nokomis Parkway. Another is the Nine Mile Creek Regional Trail, which when complete will span the cities of Hopkins, Minnetonka, Edina, Richfield and Bloomington. Significant portions already are in place, and last month the Edina City Council approved a final route for that city's trail segment.

Carlson said he also wants Three Rivers to bring more programs into inner-ring suburbs, like holding a kayaking class on a lake or having a naturalist speak at a park.

"For many years we had this idea of bringing people out to the park or the nature center. It's a matter of understanding that we can take some of those same programs off-site," he said.

Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282