Students win awards for park research

by Amy Olson

After three years of meticulously counting 150 animal and 125 plant species in Anoka County parks, University students were recognized Tuesday at the Anoka County Government Center for their work.
The National Association of Counties presented three awards to Anoka County officials at its conference in Portland, Ore., including an achievement award for its Natural Resources Inventory program.
In what Anoka County Commissioner Margaret Langfeld called “an innovative partnership,” more than 150 students from the College of Natural Resources inventoried the natural resources in the county’s parks over a three-year period.
The students began the project in 1995 as part of two classes taught by professors Dorothy Anderson and Paul V. Bolstad. For the first two years, the students collected plant and animal population data and assessed the parks’ environmental health.
Out of 125 plant species, the students found 15 that are either threatened or endangered; out of 150 animal species, they found 12 in similar predicaments. The students recommended ways to preserve the habitats while allowing for recreational use.
Jill Pohjonen, a graduate of the college, said her group saw two endangered species — a bald eagle and blue herons — on one of the two sites they surveyed. Besides gaining valuable field experience, the students had to work together to complete the project.
During the last year of the project, the students analyzed how the health of animal and plant life on 14,000 acres of privately-owned land adjoining the park would affect the county’s plan to develop a natural resource-centered park system. Randall Cutting, a senior in the college, said the students evaluated 14 sites and recommended to the park board ways to preserve the land.
“We had a blast,” Cutting said. “To say we worked hard is a drastic understatement, though.”
Cutting said most of the students worked on the project 30 hours each week, but quickly added the hands-on experience was well worth it.
Marty Moen, communications coordinator for the college, said if Anoka County had contracted a government agency or private firm to conduct the research, it would have cost more than $1 million.
The information in the inventory is helping Anoka County to redevelop four of its parks to maximize their natural resources. About 2,000 acres of land will be redeveloped. Cutting said the county park board took the students’ suggestions and it is developing agreements with neighboring land owners to preserve the natural environment.
In addition to the award for its natural resource inventory, Anoka County’s parks program was one of 14 national “Best Of Category” winners. The National Association of Counties is the only national organization of county governments; it began giving out awards in 1970 to recognize improvements in county government.