Good Friends Make All the Difference
Lake Maria State Park is a quiet, wilderness-like place that holds one of the few remaining stands of the “Big Woods,” an elm, basswood, maple, and oak forest that once covered part of southern Minnesota.
A visitor can walk for miles through these woods, sometimes with only the eagles, woodchucks and deer as companions. And, while this lack of crowds is part of its charm, it is surprising that it isn’t more popular.
In 1996, a group of parkgoers decided to do something about this and banded together to form the Friends of Lake Maria State Park. Since then, they’ve been working tirelessly to ensure more people know about and appreciate this place in the woods.
One of the biggest challenges these volunteers face is that Lake Maria State Park has no interpretive naturalist—the park staff with the job of connecting visitors to a place through education and outreach. That leaves these volunteers with a big job to tackle using only their own ingenuity and dedication. But, they have proven to be up to the challenge.
Just last year, the friends group engaged 1,400 visitors in 14 programs—all free and open to the public, thanks to the friends group’s generous fundraising. Programs brought in experts and dedicated hobbyists that help illuminate the natural wonders found in the park. They brought in a mushroom foraging expert, a biology professor, and educators from the Raptor Center and International Wolf Center, to name a few. They also organized noneducational events, like a candlelight walk in the woods, and a clean-up day.
Last fall, the friends group received a grant from Parks & Trails Council to engage youth in the park. They ended up bussing 159 students in to spend the day digging up invasive worms, petting five species of Minnesota turtles, and peering through microscopes to see bugs that live in the Maria Lake, and more.
It was an ambitious event with the friends reaching out to new community partners that fostered meaningful relationships, which will hopefully continue well into the future. A testament to how this group has grown and made a tremendous impact on opening this park to more people to enjoy.