History of Sunfish Lake Park

City Park of Lake Elmo, Minnesota (Washington County)

Compiled by Judith (Moris) Blackford,
Member City of Lake Elmo Parks Commission

September 23, 2011

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Sunfish – the Beginning

In 1974, the City of Lake Elmo Village Council, Planning Commission, and Park Advisory Board distributed a fact packet (Attachment A) to residents of the City describing a proposed $725,000 (equivalent to perhaps $5,000,000 today) Park Bond Budget. The elected and appointed City officials were proposing and seeking community financial support to purchase and preserve undeveloped farmland and private open space for City park use. The Lake Elmo Park Advisory Board members finding this parkland and working with landowners were Don Dau, David Morgan, Jess Mottaz, Mike Johnson, Ruthmary Logue, Ed Nielsen, and Diane Trudeau. Others mentioned in this fact packet were the City of Lake Elmo Village Council: Mayor Maynard Eder, Councilmen (Robert) Bruce Abercrombie, Calvin Brookman, Lloyd Sherwheim, and Francis Pott, and William Lundquist, Chair of the Planning/Zoning Commission. The Parks proposed and purchased through the passage of this Park Bond were Sunfish Lake Park, Demontreville Park, Reid Park, and Tablyn Park.

Most of the land selected for purchase had not been farmed and was not tillable due to woods, steep slopes and wetlands. The largest area of contiguous land was Sunfish Lake Park. At the time, some of the most desirable land was being considered for early housing development by Orrin Thompson Homes. The City packet mentions this as being a strong impetus to pass the bond before these potential park lands were lost forever.

This land purchased by the City for park use was sold at a substantial discount below the assessed valuations. The threat of seizing the lands by eminent domain was expressed by the City. Farm couples expressed their desires for preserving the land and for desired park usages (Appendix C). The bond issue presented to the taxpayers listed preservation of natural wilderness, hiking trails, nature areas, and cross-country skiing for Sunfish Park’s woods. By selling the lands which became Sunfish Lake Park at a discounted cost to the City of Lake Elmo for its citizens, landowners Lehart and Frances Friedrich, Mervin and May Nippoldt, William (Percy) Collopy, Everett and Evelyn Beaubien, William Sander, and Edward and Laverne Whitman lost opportunities for greater/later private-party offers. The sacrifice and generosity of all landowners was highly valued and contributed to the passage of the 1974 Park Bond Referendum.

Joseph and Charlotte Moris, Jr. were another farm couple presented with the City’s interest in purchasing a contiguous northern section of woods of the current Sunfish woods. In 1973, Michael J. Scanlan with the MN Chapter of The Nature Conservancy performed an inspection and report (Attachment B) of their woods, compiling an extensive catalogue of the flora and fauna. The report called these woods the best upland forest in the County with species of red maple, wild lily-of-the valley, bracken, and pyrola. Mr. Scanlan classified the soils as Edith sand and the topography as irregular. His report stated that the Moris family had preserved the land to date, and because of the irregularity of the topography and vulnerable sand, it should not be allowed that it be sold for parkland, but kept and used for only very occasional observation. In a May 21, 1990, report/catalogue (Attachment B) of this Moris contiguous woods, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) called it a high-quality, native forest, with recorded sightings of Blanding’s turtles and a Red-shouldered hawk in nearby woods, which were probably also in this woods, and therefore in Sunfish.

Fauna/Flora Sightings – by Judith (Moris) Blackford

My home is within the contiguous woods north of Sunfish. I’ve studied nature through weekly walks in Sunfish through every season for 30 years. The sightings were in Sunfish and our contiguous woods abutting Sunfish’s north border.

Fauna – Sunfish is home/haven to many creatures. Mammals: Deer, Coyote, Red/Gray Fox, Raccoon, Badger, Woodchuck, Muskrat, Northern River Otter, Mink, Weasel, Striped Skunk, Flying/Grey/Fox/Red Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, Opossum and smaller animals.

Amphibians: Spring Peeper/Wood/Chorus/Leopard/Gray & Green Tree Frog, Tiger Salamander, American Toad, Painted/Snapping Turtle, Garter Snake.

Butterflies: Monarch, Viceroy, Mourning Cloak, Eastern Blue, Red Admiral, Common Sulphur, Cabbage White, Red-Spotted Purple, Common Banded Skipper, Question Mark, Comma, Painted Lady, Meadow Fritillary, Common Wood Nymph, Tiger Swallowtail, and Spicebush Swallowtail.

Birds: Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant, Barred/Grey/Screech owls, Red-tailed/Sharp-shinned/Cooper’s Hawks, Pileated/Hairy/Downy/Redheaded/Golden-fronted/Northern Flicker Woodpeckers, Cardinal, Blue Jay, Crow, Eastern Blue Bird, Junco, White/Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, Mourning Dove, Rose-breasted American Goldfinch, Whippoorwill, Red-winged Blackbird, Barn Swallow, Western Meadowlark, Bobolink, Killdeer, Cedar Waxwing, House Wren, Rubythroated Hummingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Wood Pee-wee, Blackcapped Chickadee, House Finch, Common Redpoll, Rufous-sided Towhee, Wood Thrush, and many warblers. Water birds: Wood/Bufflehead and Mallard Ducks, Canadian Geese, Loon, Great Egret, Belted Kingfisher, and Great Blue Heron. A pair of Bald Eagles has nested on various shores of Sunfish Lake since 1990.

(In 2009-2011, the following birds, in addition to those I mentioned above, were seen/heard by Linda Kellar, who has led Audubon groups on birding tours in Sunfish Lake Park; yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Kingbird, Great-crested/Least/Acadian/Alder Flycatcher, Tree/Barn Swallow, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Swainson’s Thrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, yellow-throated/Red-eyed/Warbling Vireo, Ovenbird, Common yellowthroat, Brown-headed Cowbird, Dickcissel, Northern Waterthrush, Savannah/Vesper/Chipping/Song/Clay-colored/White-throated/Lincoln’s Sparrow, Black and White/Hooded/yellow-rumped/Palm/yellow/Chestnutsided/Tennessee/Bay-breasted Warbler, and Orchard Oriole. A dead Great Horned Owl was also seen.)

Trees/shrubs – Paper Birch, Bur/White/Red Oak, Sugar/Black Maple, Black Cherry, Elm, Mountain Ash, Cottonwood, Cedar, Basswood, Aspen, Poplar, Black Walnut, and American Plum are some trees. Sumac, Bush Honeysuckle, Bayberry, Blackberry, Black Raspberry, Gooseberry, Dogwood, Prickly Ash and Bittersweet are some shrubs. I saw Hazelnut in the 1960’s.

My family has owned this land since 1958. Buckthorn was brought to America as an ornamental. It is now the most prolific, undesirable invasive in Sunfish’s woods and other woodlands. Oak Wilt and Dutch Elm disease have taken many trees. Emerald Ash Borer currently challenges trees.

Flowers/Herbs – Wild Geranium, Blue Flag Iris, Bloodroot, Large-flowered/Sessile-leaved Bellwort, False Wild Lily-of-the-Valley, Interrupted fern (other ferns as well), Greater Solomon’s Seal, Common Blue/yellow Violet, Canada/Wood/Rue Anemone, Wild Bergamot, Western Spiderwort, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Columbine, Hepatica, Wild Blue Phlox, Mullein, Milkweed, Canada Goldenrod, Tufted Vetch, Wild Strawberry and Ginseng. Yellow Lady-slipper, an orchid found growing in the contiguous Woods of Sunfish 50 years ago, still grows in contiguous private woodland gardens.

People – Sunfish Lake Park is a critical haven for people. Nature affords us that escape to the wilderness – that tonic that Thoreau spoke of – as being essential to man’s well-being. Communing with a wild deer brings one closer to our original place in nature, and it deeply resonates in our being that when we are in nature we are home. Perfumes of seasonal flowers and autumn stews of fallen leaves are nature’s aromatherapy. The wind whistling through pines, tambourining coins of aspen leaves, and frog, bird, and cricket choruses are nature’s meditative music. A pallet of golden aspen and crimson maples against autumn’s canvas of azure sky is nature’s masterpiece. Skiing or snow-shoeing on new snow under low-hanging, snow-cloaked branches creates an enveloping embrace of quiet, pristine beauty – a forever memory. The laughter of families sledding together carries on the wind to skiers. Introducing a child to nature’s wonders is a priceless gift. Being teacher and classroom, nature inspires orchestral music, paintings, poetry and many scientific inventions. Nature’s sensory and recreational gifts and solitude refresh mind, body and spirit – free, natural, holistic medicine.

Geology – The glacial history of these lands clearly leaves clues in the sandy/gravelly soils, the ridges and carved hollows, and the area’s glacial lakes/ponds: Sunfish Lake, Berschen’s Pond, Lake Elmo, Lake Jane, Lake Olsen, and Lake Demontreville. Some glacial rocks/boulders left on these lands are quartz, chert, agate, jasper, calcite, basalt, porphyry, rhyolite, granite, gneiss, slate, sandstone, conglomerate, shale, and limestone.

Sunfish – some chronicling of history

May, 1975 – The Washington County Bulletin reported the Lake Elmo Park Board planted 5,000 trees in Sunfish Lake Park. They used Ed Nielsen’s Ford tractor. Dave Morgan and Sue Dunn were on the Park Board at this time. Vicki Nielsen provided lunch for this tree planting.

July, 1975 – An article appeared in The (Oakdale/Lake Elmo) Review. Steve Kopesky, owner of North Country Inc (a cross-country ski shop) approached the Lake Elmo Park Advisory Committee seeking to lay out trails in Sunfish Lake Park. Mr. Kopesky indicated the design would include laying out trails, blazing/bulldozing them, cleaning out brush, laying straw in areas where there is little ground cover (in the fall), and dragging the trail after each heavy snowfall and spring cleanup for summer use by hikers. A 3M pilot/plane was hired to take the aerial photos, which were used to build the trail system to attract cross country skiers, hikers, and snowshoers.

David Morgan (a park commissioner) laid out the trails. During trail design placement, he found an old trail that was either an old settler or old farm wagon trail. It became part of the trail system, and was named Morgan Trail. This historic trail runs along the south border of Sunfish (overlooking City Park Pond). A bench sits along this trail. Steve Kopesky bulldozed trails.

Nov., 1975 – The Review reported the Council authorized $2,000 to rough in a split entry and exit road.

Feb., 1977 – St. Paul Dispatch covered the intent of Lake Elmo to purchase the Washington County Landfill of 110-acres to add to Sunfish Park with the stipulation that the land remain in public use. The article mentions the County’s desire to retain access to the property to access monitoring of methane gas and wells. Only 35 acres of this 110-acre parcel were used in the landfill operation. The landfill operated for about six years. Fran Pott, Fire Chief, wanted the land for a fire station, and Parks received the remainder. Fran Pott made this purchase happen!

Original 1978 map showed an expansion of ski trails with the Lake Elmo Jaycees helping brush the trails.

1980 – The Valley Branch Watershed District oversaw pumping of Lake Jane (where homeowners’ properties were being threatened by high lake levels because these homes had been built below historical high water levels) into Sunfish and into City Park Pond within Sunfish. Many over-100-year old trees were killed, but many homes/citizens were helped.

The trails that were initially put in were widened at this time by Dan Olinger. Wider trails made winter ski trail grooming easier, but wider trails invited new, not-intended usages like mountain biking. These usages started the erosion, and a series of meetings took place beginning in 1992, which culminated in the ordinance banning mountain biking and similar cycles within Sunfish Lake Park. Restorative measures were undertaken on recommendation from the Soil Erosion Agency to help prevent further erosion, water bars were placed to divert water runoff off of hills, but these have largely been rendered useless because they fill up with organic matter/soils. Soil and wood chips were brought in to fill eroded areas. This work was accomplished through strong, yearly volunteer efforts, and is now performed as needed by staff.

1981 – The Lake Elmo Jaycee women sponsored a cross-country ski race in Sunfish Lake Park. Another race was sponsored in 1984.

1985 – The City Hall was proposed to be built in Sunfish Lake Park. Kelly Brookman, et al, donated the site north of Brookman Motors to keep the Lake Elmo City Hall in the Old Village.

1989 – A wedding was held in Sunfish Lake Park.

The Stillwater H.S. cross-country running and Nordic skiing teams train in Sunfish Lake Park. Bill Simpson has been their coach for many years.

Advocacy

Parks commissioners, North Star Ski Club (NSSC) members, Lake Elmo City Parks Maintenance staff, Lake Elmo citizens and other individuals and organizations who love nature have rallied to the aid of Sunfish on many issues threatening to undermine its beauty as a nature park allowing passive recreation. The appeal of the 1974 sale was preservation of the tract and woods therein specifically intended for only passive recreation.

The North Star Ski Club, directed by Ted Cardozo, was involved in annual fall cleanups readying trails for Nordic skiing. The NSSC helped raise money to clear Ernie’s Trail, named in memory of a member’s husband, who loved skiing in Sunfish. Residents and Lake Elmo Parks Commissioners also helped in this trail maintenance. Mike Bouthillet, Lake Elmo Parks Supervisor for 25 years, provided wood chips and organized these cleanups. Mike Bouthillet is respected as an excellent manager, working alongside his crews with skill, good judgment, great ideas, common sense, and a good head with figures that saves the City money and keeps Lake Elmo’s parks always beautiful, functional, and fun. His wise counsel has been invaluable over the years to our many Lake Elmo park commissions.

Biking Ban Ordinance – Konrad Koosmann, Washington County Soil & Water Conservation District, examined Sunfish’s trail soil erosion, calling the soils gravelly, sandy and severely eroded/ible. Mountain biking was damaging trails & causing unsafe walking in Sunfish, and based on extensive Park Commission research, 300 citizen petitions/signatures, a Sierra Club memo, City liability/safety (NSSC member, Ted Cardozo, hurt himself riding his bike and sought City medical compensation,) a Nature Conservancy report, a MN DNR report, the above-referenced erosion report, citizen letters, and Park Commission recommendation, Ordinance 8065 (5/18/1992) was passed prohibiting mountain bikes and similar cycles on Sunfish Lake Park trails (Attachment B). (Language prohibiting biking in Sunfish also exists in the Minnesota Land Trust document.) Lake Elmo Parks Commissioners moving this protection ban forward Were Kes Tautvydas (Chair), Judith Blackford, Karen Leach, Gloria Knoblauch, Ron Kuehn, and Steve Peterson.

Water Tower/Maintenance Facility Stoppage

Elder neighbors have rallied for Sunfish Lake Park. Ed Stevens came to many meetings standing with frailty but firmly speaking for Sunfish. He formerly participated in fall trail clean ups. When Sunfish was proposed as the site for a maintenance facility and water tower (w/o park commission input), it was pointed out that verbal promises (to the previous owners who sold the land at a loss and its citizens who funded the park purchases) to use the parkland for only passive nature purposes were not in writing-therefore they weren’t legally binding. Resident and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, Rosalie Wahl, and others strongly stated that our verbal promises should be considered as binding as our written promises! That spoke to the moral integrity of my neighbors, and it carried considerable substance.

Many citizens spoke and contributed to keeping the proposed water tower/maintenance facility out of Sunfish, but Ed Nielsen, resident/past Parks Commissioner on the original 1974 Sunfish acquisition, advocated the strongest and led the community to success on this issue (Attachment C). Resident Jim Blackford suggested the current/better site at Ideal Ave. because this elevation was not only higher but it was 3M-owned land, which the City should be able to/and did obtain with no dollar exchange because of 3M’s drinking water/Perfluorochemical contamination of Lake Elmo’s water.

Perfluorochemicals contaminated what would have been Sunfish Lake West (Lake Jane Landfill) park land. A July 8, 2010, MN DNR letter to Bruce Messelt, Lake Elmo Administrator, states that the City has a binding agreement with the State of Minnesota that taken park lands (said Lake Jane Landfill) proposed for Sunfish Lake West will be replaced with park land of equal fair market value. The City is researching this issue, our legal rights, and a just exchange of parkland for this contaminated/unusable Sunfish Lake West parkland taken from Lake Elmo citizens.

Minnesota Land Trust

On September 22, 2009, Sunfish Lake Park was put into the Minnesota Land Trust for permanent preservation/protection (Attachment D). This legal document contains usages/restrictions for Sunfish Lake City Park. Lake Elmo Parks Commissioners moving this protection piece forward for Lake Elmo citizens were David Steele, Parks Chair (who crafted much of the Trust language), John Ames, Rolf Larson, Judith Blackford, Sue Dunn, Mike Zeno, Marty Dobbs, Vincent Adadene, and John Booher. The Lake Elmo City Council supporting this Park recommendation was Mayor Dean Johnston and Council Members Steve DeLapp, Anne Smith, Liz Johnson and Nicole Parks.

In 2010, the Parks Commission returned 20 acres of farmed park land south of the parking lot into prairie with park funds and grants brought to Parks by staff, Carol Kriegler. Better trail location maps were also placed within Sunfish. Concentrated flower/grass plugs were planted within the prairie. Interpretive kiosks, boulder barriers, flower gardens, and flower plug plantings were completed in 2010/2011 for Sunfish’s entrance/prairie.

Summary

As residents and lovers of nature, we’ve left relatively dense stands of woods within Sunfish untouched for wildlife. We’ve cleared trails so that the beauties of the woods could be enjoyed. We’ve planted trees when water damaged existing trees. When trails needed grooming or damage occurred, we’ve tended the park with excellent care overseen by Mike Bouthilet (LE Parks Supervisor for 25 yrs). When needed, we’ve even curtailed/prohibited damaging usages that would have diminished Sunfish and left us poorer. We’ve tried to be good stewards of Sunfish Lake Park.

In 1974, Lake Elmo Park Commissioners and its citizens were visionaries in investing in the preservation of Sunfish’s beautiful wild places. Sunfish Lake Park has often been called the “Jewel” in our necklace of parks. At almost 300 acres, its quality/size for a city park are rare. On September 22, 2009, our finest park became permanently protected and preserved through legal placement into the Minnesota Land Trust that current and future generations of Lake Elmo City citizens may enjoy its beauty, wildlife, and passive recreational opportunities — our permanent slice of wild.

Sunfish’s enchanting beauty will easily claim your heart and loyalty (Attachment E). Like others, you will be quick to speak up for any needs this treasure might have in the future. It is like that, when you love something!