“Nerstrand Woods: From Sylvan Expanse to State Park,” by Andrew Wilder

Once, before the first French explorers or westbound pioneers set foot in Minnesota, a dense maple-basswood forest blanketed the southern part of the state. Today, all that remains is a small state park, occupying a mere 2,884 acres in Rice County. Surrounded by fields and pastures clear-cut long ago, Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park features 11 miles of hiking trails and a pristine waterfall on the Prairie Creek, and is home to abundant wildlife, deciduous trees, and over 200 varieties of wildflowers. Receiving some 93,000 annual visits, the park is a popular recreation destination for residents of southern Minnesota.1 However, the park’s importance is not merely scenic or recreational. A relic of a once massive forest, Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park is the “best sample of the Big Woods that remains today,” and its stands of elm, sugar maple, and basswood stand testament to the drastic effects of humans on the earth.2

Historically, the Big Woods covered some 3,000 square miles in southern Minnesota, and in the words of St. Olaf biology professor Kathy Shea, “it must have seemed to… early explorers that such a grand and extensive forest had existed for thousands of years.” This, however, was not entirely the case. It is true that studies have shown that the forest emerged some 5,000 years ago, growing on the fertile soil deposited by the receding glaciers of the last ice age. But in fact, for the majority of those 5,000 years the forest was predominantly oak. The flora that we currently associate with the Big Woods—elms, maples, and basswoods—had only just begun to appear when French explorers first entered the area in the 1600s. Thus, they were in fact seeing the “first generation” of what they called the “Bois grande.”3

The shape and size of the forest that the French explorers discovered was largely controlled by fires and firebreaks. Native Americans (predominantly Sioux), who generally made their homes in the forest edge, putting them in close proximity to both the prairie, where they could hunt bison, and to the woods, where they could hunt smaller game and forage for supply materials produced by the forest vegetation,4 made a regular practice of burning the prairie in order to flush out game or force an enemy to move camp. But an unintended consequence of these man-made fires was that they regulated of the size of the Big Woods. Writer John Plumbe, Jr. noted that “the timber [would] increase rapidly” as soon as the land was settled and fires became less common,5 and ecologists generally agree that fire was a controlling factor of both the vegetation and the size of the Big Woods.6 Indeed, if not for natural firebreaks such as rivers, streams, lakes, rough topography, and fire resistant oak-aspen edge zones, it is not inconceivable that the Big Woods might never have existed at all.7 The result of these checks and balances was a forest that maintained at roughly 100 miles long and 40 miles wide on average.8

So why didn’t the Big Woods expand without bounds once the brush fires were suppressed? The answer is logging. Originally, pioneers built their farms at the forest edge like their Native American predecessors. Building in the fringe of the woods gave them equal access to the farmland and pastures afforded by the prairies and to the building materials and fuel that could be had in the forest. However, the settlers soon realized that the soil of the Big Woods was significantly more fertile than that of the prairie, and so began to inexorably clear-cut the woods for farmland. By the time botanist Dr. Harvey E. Stork of Carleton College addressed the residents of Rice County via radio in the 1930s, “the present generation [knew] the Big Woods area principally as open fertile farm land.” In fact, between the 1850s and 1930s, 90% of the Big Woods was cut down.9


The once vast expanse was reduced to scattered groves that were “used as woodland pastures so that the cattle… changed completely the makeup of the vegetation of the forest floor.”10 Only the remnant that would become Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park was left in any semblance of pre-settlement conditions. The credit for the conservation of this part of the forest is due to a handful of German and Norwegian settlers, who divided the land into small woodlots as a permanent source of firewood for their farms.11 These woodlots were too small to be fenced off individually for pasture, and were instead used to provide a steady source of building supplies, fuel, and maple syrup.12

Thanks to these early settlers who “recognized the value of maintaining forested areas,”13 by the 1930s the Nerstrand area was clearly “the best sample of the Big Woods that [remained],”14 and people began to take a serious interest in conserving the last vestiges of the once great Big Woods. Dr. Stork noted the pristine nature of the forest floor and its abundance of wildlife, venturing that “there is not a biologist in the state that would not lament the disappearance of this last fine sample of the ancient ecology of the Big Woods area.”15 St. Olaf and Carleton science students were accustomed to going on excursions to the woods for their classes, and the idea of turning the woods into a state park was already a decade old by the time Dr. Stork gave his radio address.16

Stork’s argument for establishing a state park at Nerstrand was persuasive. Stork held that such a park would have historical, ecological, and recreational significance, for it would 1) “stand as a living historical monument dedicated to early pioneer life,” 2) preserve “for us and for generations yet to come the secrets of plant and animal lore that inevitably pass away from the living record when farms and villages replace the primeval forest,” and 3) be ideal as a state park because of its natural “scenic beauty and its advantages as a recreation center.”17 What is striking about this argument is that Stork, a scientist, emphasized not only the scientific and recreational importance of the park, but its historical importance as well. But more significant still is that, though he did recognize the pre-settlement history of the land, his focus was clearly on the history of the pioneers.

The Carleton botanist was hardly the first to highlight the relationship between the land and the early Euro-American settlers. Such ideas stretch at least as far back as 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner first proposed his Frontier Thesis at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Turner put forward that “the different Wests of the United States had recapitulated the social evolution of human civilization as Europeans and easterners repeatedly encountered the ‘zone’ of ‘free land’ and ‘primitive savagery’—what he called ‘the frontier’—that was the source of American energy, individualism, and political democracy.”18 This viewpoint, which idealized and romanticized the pioneer lifestyle yet neglected other historical factors such as the influence of the Native Americans, would become a hallmark of early American conservationism, being held even by such figures as Theodore Roosevelt, who named one of the first conservationist organizations in America “The Boone & Crockett Club” after the legendary and venerated frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.19

Further reinforcing his argument, Stork cited the increasing amount of free time afforded to Americans due to industrialization and increases in efficiency as justification for the creation of the park. Stork felt it was “necessary that we plan and provide for the best use of such time,” predicting, perhaps, the couch-potato-culture that could and did result from shorter work hours. Making the Leopold-like assertion that “there is nothing more wholesome and better designed to keep our sanity and emotional stability than frequent communing with nature,” Stork held that a state park would be integral to ensuring the health of the community.20

Finally, at the end of his address Stork drove his point home by pointing out the hypocrisy of the contemporary plan to plant new-growth forests while allowing important old-growth forests like the Big Woods to disappear, saying “I am reminded that conservation is a good deal like the weather, of which Mark Twain remarked, ‘There’s a lot said about it, but very little ever done about it.’” He ended his speech with the question of whether the state would be willing to purchase the land necessary for the park and called the populace to act, saying “[an appropriation bill’s] success would be assured if the legislators knew what a very wide popular appeal the project commands, and if they were assured by their constituencies that they would have no trouble explaining their vote favoring such [a bill].”21 Just as the park would benefit the community, he felt, so did its creation depend on the community.

The project finally met with success in 1941, when the Minnesota Department of Conservation discovered it already had the means of acquiring the land. In 1943 the Department of Conservation reported in The Conservation Volunteer that “the state Land Exchange Commission has the power to exchange state-owned lands for federally-owned lands through collaboration with the federal Land Exchange Commission.” This meant that if the federal government bought up the Nerstrand woodlots, it could trade them to the state for tracts of land that it wanted for the Superior National Forest. With both governments set to profit from the deal, the project was embarked upon posthaste, and though “for a time, the difficulties of acquiring a sufficient area seemed almost insurmountable,”22 the park was officially created in 1945.23

Today, almost 70 years later, the park still meets Harvey Stork’s three criteria for a state park. A living record of the history of southern Minnesota, a botanist’s dream, and a hiker’s paradise, Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park stands testament to the great accomplishments that can be made by conservationists and a community that stands together. But while it is admirable that Stork valued the land’s historical significance as much as its ecological and recreational value, he was nevertheless a part of an inherently exclusive school of thought that idolized the history of the Euro-American pioneers while ignoring the deeper history of the land.


1. “Park Info: Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park: Minnesota DNR,” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, accessed April 25, 2013, http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/nerstrand _big_woods/narrative.html.

2. Stork, “Big Woods at Nerstrand Ideal Site for a State Park,” Rice County History scrapbook: 29, accessed April 25, 2013, http://contentdm.carleton.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT =%2FNfldLibrary&CISOPTR=3097&REC=3&CISOBOX=stork.

3. Kathleen L. Shea, “Forest Ecology,” in The Cannon River Valley, eds. Paul Gruchow and Gary Deason (unpublished collection, 1993?), 1.

4. Stork, “Big Woods Played Part in Trend of Early Settlement,” Rice Country History scrapbook: 25 , accessed April 25, 2013, http://contentdm.carleton.edu/cdm4/document.php ?CISOROOT=%2FNfldLibrary&CISOPTR=3097&REC=3&CISOBOX=stork.

5. Plumbe, quoted in Grimm, “Fire and Other Factors Controlling the Big Woods Vegetation of Minnesota in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Ecological Monographs 54, no 3 (September 1984): 293, accessed April 12, 2013, GreenFILE, EBSCOhost.

6. Shea, “Forest Ecology,” 7.

7. Grimm, “Fire and Other Factors…” 297, 307.

8. See note 2 above.

9. See note 6 above.

10. See note 2 above.

11. Morrison, “A Report on Nerstrand Woods,” The Conservation Volunteer (March 1943): 30.

12. Shea, “Forest Ecology,” 8.

13. See note 6 above.

14. See note 2 above.

15. See note 2 above.

16. See note 11 above.

17. See note 2 above.

18. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 31.

19. Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 136.

20. See note 2 above.

21. See note 2 above.

22. Morrison, “A Report on Nerstrand Woods,” The Conservation Volunteer (March 1943): 29.

23. See note 12 above.


Works Cited

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

Grimm, Eric C. “Fire and Other Factors Controlling the Big Woods Vegetation of Minnesota in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Ecological Monographs 54, no. 3 (September 1984): 291-311. Accessed April 12, 2013. GreenFILE, EBSCOhost.

Morrison, Ken. “A Report on Nerstrand Woods.” The Conservation Volunteer, (March 1943): 26-31.

“Park Info: Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park: Minnesota DNR.” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: Minnesota DNR. Accessed April 25, 2013. http://www.dnr.state .mn.us/state_parks/nerstrand_big_woods/narrative.html.

Shea, Kathleen L. “Forest Ecology.” The Cannon River Valley eds. Paul Gruchow and Gary Deason. (unpublished collection, 1993?).

Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Stork, Dr. Harvey E. “Big Woods at Nerstrand Ideal Site for a State Park.” Rice County History Scrapbook: 29. Accessed April 25, 2013. http://contentdm.carleton.edu/cdm4/document .php?CISOROOT=%2FNfldLibrary&CISOPTR=3097&REC=3&CISOBOX=stork.

Stork, Dr. Harvey E. “Big Woods Played Part in Trend of Early Settlement.” Rice County History scrapbook: 25. Accessed April 25, 2013. http://contentdm.carleton.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=%2FNfldLibrary&CISOPTR=3097&REC=3&CISOBOX=stork.


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