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For nearly three decades, the Dayton family has donated chunks of their pristine land to create a rare Scientific and Natural Area in Hennepin County.

The 141 acres in Orono, known as Wood-Rill, are home to 350-year-old maple-basswood trees and the endangered red-shouldered hawk. Bruce Dayton, who helped run the famed Dayton's department store, owned the sprawling property. He died at age 97 in 2015, but the final two parcels of the area recently were turned over to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to complete Dayton's goal as a discreet conservationist.

"These nature areas are a pretty unique asset in Minnesota's legacy commitment to conservation and the environment," said Hennepin County Commissioner Chris LaTondresse, whose district includes Wood-Rill. "The areas are still left very wild but are accessible to the public. It's a real gift."

The state's Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) program started 52 years ago. There are 168 areas across the state — from peatlands of the north to bluffs in the southeast — but only two in Hennepin County. The program's annual budget is about $3.5 million, most of which is targeted for the acquisition of high-quality lands through easements or purchase for the conservation of native habitat and rare animals.

Managing the properties requires specialists with technical expertise and involves such activities as invasives management, prescribed burning and habitat restoration, said Kelly Randall, the program's outreach coordinator. The program relies on volunteer contributions to make observations and help with some management tasks and events, such as prairie seed collections.

The property for what became Wood-Rill was identified by a DNR biological survey in the mid-1990s. Bob Djupstrom, a retired SNA program supervisor who wrote a story on the DNR's website after Dayton's death, said he called Dayton's brother Wallace to arrange a meeting with Bruce Dayton.

They got together at Djupstrom's office, where he made his pitch to Dayton about the ecological importance of his forest land and "how we would like to see it protected in perpetuity as a SNA."

"I noted that one of the options that the DNR used to protect land was purchase. Even today I recall, before I could mention other options, Bruce's response: 'What would you say if I gave it to you?' " he wrote.

Wood-Rill was named after a line in a poem by William Wordsworth, "His daily teachers had been woods and rills," referring to woods and small streams, Dayton told Djupstrom. Dayton started acquiring the land in the 1940s and funded the purchase and demolition of small houses on the property and the restoration of trees. The first land gift was more than 100 acres.

Dayton, the father of former Gov. Mark Dayton, also donated to the University of Minnesota to establish the Center for Forest Ecology to research the ecological relationships within hardwood forests. He built a deer exclosure and a boardwalk for people with disabilities to access the area's hiking trail.

Wood-Rill is one of the few Scientific and Natural Areas that has a trail and public facilities, Randall said. It has more than 125 species of wildflowers and ferns, 49 species of trees and shrubs, and dozens of types of grasses and sedges. Nearly 100 kinds of birds have been spotted in the area.

Dayton's wife, Ruth Stricker, died last year. The couple had earmarked the last two parcels of Wood-Rill to be donated after their deaths.

The parcels include native maple-basswood forest and a larger block of black ash swamp. It also contains the Dayton family's home, several other buildings and a small prairie restoration. The Daytons had all the buildings removed from the land, which will be planted with native vegetation from seeds collected at the site.

Because the parcels are now public land, the Hennepin County Board approved the transfer in May. Such places as Wood-Rill are "a stunning beautiful way to engage and connect with nature in our own backyard," LaTondresse said.

"To have a conserved forest like this in Hennepin County, so close to where so many people work, live and play, is a treasure," he said. "Especially this past year. It allowed people to get out of their homes and safely connect."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465