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Chimney Rock, long known as a local marvel and hidden teen hangout south of Hastings, is getting statewide attention -- and protection.

The sandstone and limestone pillar that rises 25 to 30 feet, described in 1905 as "the most picturesque and perfect example of a columnar rock weathering in Minnesota," will soon be the focal point of the Minnesota DNR's newest scientific and natural area.

The rock and the land around it has been in private hands, owned by the Schoen and Voelker families for decades. On Tuesday, Dakota County agreed to team up with the DNR to buy 72 acres that include Chimney Rock, the forested slopes of the mesa next to it and habitat for rare plants.

"It's really beautiful," said Casey Schoen, whose father, Harry, lived on the land for decades until his death in 2009. "Allowing more people to access it would be great."

The rock is considered one of the most well-preserved examples of such a geological feature in the state.

The families began negotiating with the county and state in 2007, but discussions stalled. After Harry Schoen's death, talk of turning the land into public property picked up.

"My dad, when he bought it, realized it was a very unique piece of land," Schoen said. "He was looking for a way to sell the property and preserve it and not run the risk that somebody would come along and develop it."

Al Singer, director of the county's Farmland and Natural Areas Program, said the rock pillar, a remnant of the time when glaciers covered Dakota County, is the only one of its kind left standing in the county. There used to be two others -- Castle Rock, in the township that bears its name, and Lone Rock, now inside the boundaries of UMore Park near Rosemount. Both have collapsed and been worn down.

There are 149 scientific and natural areas in Minnesota, most of them outside the metro area. Chimney Rock would be No. 150.

The property, valued at $590,000, will be sold for $550,000 with the county chipping in $80,000 and the state paying $470,000.

"In the scientific and natural areas program, the purpose is to protect in perpetuity those natural features that have statewide significance," said Peggy Booth, the program supervisor with the DNR.

Most such areas are open to public use for hiking, birding, botany and photography. But they are largely undeveloped, save for a parking area. Trails or footpaths are usually remnants of previous land use.

"It's our basic policy to let people experience nature as close to its original state as we can," she said.

That doesn't necessarily mean the public will be able to roam free.

The DNR might consider restrictions -- especially those prohibiting climbing on the historic rock -- as officials complete the final approvals for the Chimney Rock Scientific and Natural Area this summer. "We want people to be able to see the sight and get a sense of why it's important, but our first charge is to protect the geological feature and protect the rare species," Booth said.

In addition to the picturesque rock pillar, the Chimney Rock site also features a handful of rare native plants, including kittentail wildflowers.

Kittentails are considered threatened plants in Minnesota. Their natural habitats overlap with preferred sites for housing developments. A 2005 survey of the Chimney Rock site found 35 of the plants in the area.

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056