Belwin Conservancy announces $10M capital campaign to expand access

It’s been more than 65 years since Charles and Lucy Winton Bell of Wayzata began acquiring land in Afton for what would eventually become a conservancy.

Charles Bell, the son of the founder of General Mills, and Lucy Winton Bell wanted to do something to help address the challenges of diminishing wild spaces, water pollution and the lack of outdoor education in the east metro area.

The couple established the Belwin Foundation – a combination of their names, Bell and Winton – and donated 225 acres of their land to it. They also signed an agreement with St. Paul Public Schools that would dedicate their land to outdoor science education for children.

More than a half million children have come to Belwin Conservancy for outdoor science education over the years, and more than 1,500 acres in the St. Croix Valley have been protected from development. The permanently protected land includes woodland, prairie, oak savanna, ponds, streams and wetlands.

On Wednesday, Belwin officials will launch a $10.2 million capital campaign to make one of the area’s most diverse nature preserves more accessible. Money raised through the capital campaign, dubbed “Inspiring through Nature,” will be used to improve educational facilities, open more land to the public and protect and restore critical habitat in the Valley Creek watershed, said Katie Bloome, Belwin’s executive director since 2018.

“We know people benefit from time spent in nature, but as the area around Belwin develops, wild spaces are being lost,” she said. “People need places where they can sustain that connection.”

New education center

Belwin officials have already raised $7.8 million toward the goal of the capital campaign – the first in the history of the organization, which was founded in 1970.

About $3.5 million of the Belwin Conservancy’s new $10.2 million capital campaign is being used to create the 5,000-square-foot Peter J. King Family Foundation Wetlands Center. The new center, which will open to students in the fall of 2025, will be able to accommodate an additional 5,000 students per year, including students from Stillwater Area Public Schools. It also will be the new home of Belwin’s adaptive outdoor education programs for students with special needs, operated for 48 years in partnership with St. Paul Public Schools. (Courtesy of Belwin Conservancy)

About $3.5 million of the campaign is being used to create a new 5,000-square-foot Peter J. King Family Foundation Wetlands Center, which will allow Belwin to accommodate an additional 5,000 students per year, including students from Stillwater Area Public Schools, Bloome said.

The new education center also will be home to Belwin’s adaptive outdoor education programs. Designed for SPPS students who have special needs, the building will feature support spaces like calm rooms, easy access to surrounding paved trails for children and adults with mobility devices, and geothermal heating and cooling, she said.

Students from St. Paul Public Schools have been visiting Belwin every year since 1971, said SPPS Interim Superintendent John Thein. “For many, it is their first time experiencing the beauty and vastness of nature,” he said. “We are thrilled that this space will become even more welcoming and inclusive for the next generation of SPPS students.”

Not done growing

David Hartwell, president of the Belwin Conservancy board, talks about his grandparents, Charles and Lucy Winton Bell, from atop the Druid Circle at the Belwin Conservancy in Afton while giving a tour in his 1960 Fiat Jolly on Tuesday July 9, 2024. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

David Hartwell, 67, of Minneapolis, is the president of the Belwin board. The grandson of Charles and Lucy Bell, Hartwell is serving his 50th year on the Belwin board.

“My grandparents bought 66 acres (for $33,000) in 1958, and they immediately started to worry about what their neighbors were going to do,” he said during a tour of the site on Tuesday in his family’s red 1960 Fiat 600 Jolly. “So they bought out additional property to keep it from being developed in the 1960s.”

“My grandmother finally said to my grandfather, ‘Figure out what you’re going to do with this because we don’t need this extra property,’” he said. “He started looking for programs that would use it. They talked to the Boy Scouts, they talked to lots of different groups.”

St. Paul Public Schools officials had hired someone to find a facility to do environmental education in the St. Croix Valley, and he connected with the Bells in July of 1970, Hartwell said. “Three months later, they signed an agreement,” he said. “That would never happen like that today. It would take years.”

Belwin isn’t done growing, according to Hartwell. The organization eventually would like to end up with 2,000 acres of protected land in the area.

“It’s really infill at this point,” Hartwell said. “It’s our border protection. It’s infill of stuff between things that we already own. … We have kind of gotten as far as we are going to get without buying developments and tearing down houses, which just isn’t practical.”

Fishers and mountain lions have recently been spotted on Belwin land, he said. “We’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to preserve it at this point – for the health of animals, for human health, for mental health,” he said.

Hartwell said Charles Bell, who died in 2003 at the age of 95, loved coming back to the St. Croix River Valley from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and visiting the property.

“I’d always take him out here, and he would always say the same thing as we drove in: ‘I can’t believe we did this,’” he said. “He was amazed we got to where we were. I think he’d be even more amazed to see how big it’s gotten.”

Other plans

Signs direct visitors at the Belwin Conservancy in Afton on Tuesday, July 9, 2024. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

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In addition to the new Peter J. King Family Foundation Wetlands Center, Belwin officials plan to use money raised through the capital campaign to install clearer, more visible entrance signage and infrastructure across the conservancy’s multiple sites; the opening of Oxbow Trails, a new public hiking area on St. Croix Trail north of downtown Afton; habitat protection and restoration along Valley Creek; and renovations to the Savanna Center, a new program and artist-in-residence site located on a 300-acre oak savanna.

Lead campaign gifts include $2 million from the Bell/Hartwell Family, $1.3 million from the Peter J. King Family Foundation, $1 million from the Washington County Land and Water Legacy Program, $500,000 from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, $435,000 from the Smikis Foundation, $380,000 from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, and $250,000 from the Fred C. and Katherine B. Andersen Foundation.

“We want to be an asset for the community,” Hartwell said. “We have hiking trails that are open here for anyone who wants to use them. The local community often doesn’t have much in the way of that, but we’ve been able to help create that for the community.”

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