In the late 1960’s, Charles Bell and Lucy Winton Bell found themselves in a unique position to do something to help address the challenges of diminishing wild spaces, water pollution, and the lack of outdoor education for children. They had recently acquired 200 acres of ecologically diverse land in Afton, Minnesota and wanted to use it to counter these devastating trends.
In the 1960’s the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) were in the process of searching for a site for outdoor science classes. In the summer of 1970, Charlie Bell and Lucy Winton Bell met with Rod Frye, the teacher charged with finding the right property, and a new partnership was born: Belwin Outdoor Science Laboratory, today referred to as Belwin Outdoor Science.
To facilitate the partnership, Belwin built and continues to maintain the 5,000-square-foot Belwin Education Center and dedicated a 225-acre portion of its preserve to the program. SPPS designs and delivers the curriculum through its trained staff, and provides student transportation to and from the property.
In 1975, SPPS staff Larry Kline, the building’s janitor, and Belwin Conservancy staff John Palmen, together devised a vehicle to transport students with special needs into the woods, the stream and out on the prairie. This program, one of the first of its kind, continues today.
As the outdoor science program became more successful, it grew to include students from Stillwater Area Public Schools (District 834), notably Afton-Lakeland Elementary and Bayport Elementary (now Anderson Elementary).
Today, more than 10,000 SPPS students are served each year by the program in single-day, science-focused field investigations. This includes every third- and fifth-grade student in SPPS, approximately 1,000 middle and high school students, and approximately 1,800 students with special needs who attend Belwin’s adaptive outdoor education programs. Since 1971, more than 550,000 children have participated in the Belwin Outdoor Science program.
Belwin owns over 1,500 acres and holds conservation easements on more than 100 acres of land in Afton and West Lakeland Township, Minnesota. The property comprises one of the largest nature preserves in the region.
Belwin was founded with 225 acres of land donated by Charlie Bell and Lucy Winton Bell. That initial footprint grew when Belwin went through a large land acquisition period in the 1990s and early 2000s, expanding to own and steward nearly 1,400 acres. Our challenge now is to maintain and improve wildlife habitat by protecting our borders and in-holdings from future development.
In 2020, Belwin acquired ownership and easements on an additional 97 acres of land that will be protected forever. These recent acquisitions were made possible through donations from individuals and funding from the Washington County Land and Water Legacy Program and Minnesota’s Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
When Belwin restores land it also creates new spaces for the community. For the first 20 years of Belwin’s history the main focus was on the St. Croix River watershed and on outdoor education for the Saint Paul Public Schools, Special Education classes, and the Afton Lakeland Schools. With these programs established, Belwin began to branch out to meet the needs of our local community in new ways.
1990 and 1995: Stagecoach Prairie was bought in two portions, restored over the subsequent years and opened for hiking. Today, decades later, these grasslands are examples of well-established, restored tallgrass prairie for generations to enjoy.
2000: Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields facility was created to fill a community need for a youth, outdoor sports facility. It was built in partnership with local municipalities and private donors, and is run by St. Croix Soccer Club and St. Croix Valley Athletic Association. Three generations of athletes and their families enjoy these fields and the surrounding 2.5 miles of hiking trails.
2008: Belwin reintroduced bison to the prairie! Bison, long absent from this area, play an essential role on the prairie. By reintroducing them, Belwin enhanced the health of its prairie, can study the effect of bison on the landscape, and has made the site accessible to the public to learn about these amazing mammals. Belwin built two bison observation platforms, with one ADA accessible. Both platforms include informational on the bison’s relationship with the prairie. They are open and free of charge while the bison are at Belwin. This program is possible because of Belwin’s partnership with NorthStar Bison.
Currently, Belwin provides 7.5 miles of open hiking trails accessible 365 days, dawn to dusk, holds three major events: Bison Festival, Music in the Trees, and Winter Solstice Bonfire, and also offers community programs focused on natural history, ecology, and the integration of arts, culture and ecology.