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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Conservation concerns led to creation of Minnesota’s Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

photo of waterfall
Hidden Falls at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Between 1934 and 1945, many local advocacy and state legislative efforts were introduced to preserve the Nerstrand Woods as the last sizable remnant of Minnesota’s “Big Woods.” On March 28, 1945, the bill establishing the Nerstrand Woods State Park was approved by the legislature. It was signed by Governor Edward J. Thye on April 2.

Dakota people called the immense woods that stretched across what are now southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin “Ċaŋṡoke,” or Thick Woods. When the French arrived in the 1600s, they named the over 3,000 square miles of timbered hardwoods “Bois Grand,” or Big Woods.

In Minnesota, the forest began with the pineries of the northeast and extended like a long, irregular belt to the grasslands of the southwest. The woods measured 100 miles long and, at places, nearly forty miles wide.

As German and Norwegian settler-colonists arrived in the Nerstrand area starting in the mid-1850s, they readily appreciated the woods for its supply of timber and fuelwood and set aside two sections. Parcels of small woodlots, from two to thirty acres, were acquired by 170 families. They understood the need to preserve the tract for future long-term use, and refused to sell to loggers intent on stripping the timber.


By the early 1930s repeated logging in adjacent sections prompted conservation-minded citizens to act. The conservationists included botanists from Northfield’s St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, who regularly took classes to study local vegetation in a never-pastured environment. Abundant wildflowers included 100 varieties, including the unique, pink-flowered dwarf trout lily (Erythronium propullans), endemic only to Minnesota.

In 1934, a Wisconsin logging company’s plan to clear-cut an area rallied numerous organizations to act. On September 14, representatives from twenty-seven organizations appeared before the State Conservation Commission, urging purchase of the two untouched sections in order to establish a state park. The commission favorably agreed, but offered no funds to support the recommendation, and referred the matter over to the State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA).

In the next few years, various plans were floated but failed to secure the tract for such uses as a Transient Relief Administration Camp and a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. During this time, the “Save Nerstrand Woods Association” organized and lobbied by various means, including print, radio, and public appearances.

An interesting development occurred in December 1938, when the state commissioner of conservation recognized the Robinson–Patman Act of 1936. The act allowed the state government and federal government to exchange lands (to the mutual advantage of both without expenditure of funds).

The following year, in 1939, bills were introduced in both Minnesota houses authorizing the Department of Conservation to acquire the land for a state park. The bills failed to pass. Advocates were undeterred, and another bill was introduced in 1941, but once again failed. However, the legislature adopted the measure presented by the Robinson–Patman Act to seek a way to turn the Nerstrand Woods into a state park.

Although the state lacked funds to outright purchase the stand, the US Forest Service (USFS) favored the land-exchange plan. The national forestry commissioner set aside $25,000 for the purchase of a portion of Nerstrand Woods with the intent of exchanging the track for tax-forfeited state land within the boundaries of the Chippewa and Superior National Forest in Lake County.


Appraisals for the land exchange were completed by November 1941 and approved the following month. In April 1942, the State Land Exchange Commission gave its approval of optioning from owners sixty-eight parcels in Nerstrand Woods. The agreement stated that the USFS would pay for the optioned parcels. By February 1945, another bill appeared before the legislature seeking to establish the Nerstrand Woods State Park.

Of the 460 total acres originally designated for the state park (renamed Nerstrand Big Woods State Park in 1992), 100 acres were set aside for park purposes. The remainder 360 acres fell under the University Forestry School for experimental and scientific purposes. The bill was approved on March 28, 1945, and signed by the governor on April 2.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 02/24/2020 - 10:02 am.

    I wish our common lands in the southern half of the state were 20-30 times the current size. But neither land access nor the health of ecosystems is a priority…big polluting, pollinator-exterminating agribusiness is.

  2. Submitted by Michael Hess on 02/24/2020 - 10:17 am.

    Thanks for this really interesting article on the history of the park. I ‘m surprised how many people in the cities have never been to this park or sometimes have never even heard of it! We did a weekend fall campout with my Cub Scout pack (www.pack33.net, might be some pics there) and it was a great experience – the natural deep woods setting, the waterfall, great campsites, kids and adults had a great time. This is an overlooked park in a town where everyone equates the parks with going “up north”.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 02/24/2020 - 11:15 am.

    I believe that Nerstrand Woods may be the largest tract of virgin hardwood forest in the state. Maybe one of the largest in the country??

    We’re lucky to have it.

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