Carpenter Nature Center plans $3.5 million expansion in Wisconsin

19December 2020

Jennifer Vieth is standing in Hudson, just a few miles south of Interstate 94, but it feels as if she’s deep in the North Woods.

“It’s incredible how close you are to a major highway and all of these malls, and it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, especially with all these huge trees,” said Vieth, the executive director of Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center, which has 300 acres south of Hudson and 425 acres near Afton.

“I was out here last week, and we saw white-winged crossbills, a northern finch species, up in the trees here,” she said during a tour of the Wisconsin site earlier this month. “It’s just a beautiful area.”

Next year, Carpenter plans to build a $3 million interpretive center on its Wisconsin campus, which includes a broad prairie, a wooded hillside, an old farmstead and an oak savanna. The building will include accessible classrooms, restrooms, meeting space and nature exhibits.

The project, which has a total price tag of $3.5 million, also includes improvements to the trail system, habitat-restoration work, outdoor teaching spaces and a small picnic pavilion.


The plan is more than 30 years in the making.

In the 1980s, when Laurie and Al Hein were looking for an organization to be stewards of nearly 100 acres of land they owned south of Hudson, their neighbor Dan Greenwald suggested they reach out to the Carpenter Nature Center in Minnesota.

“He knew of Carpenter and he suggested it,” Vieth said. “He said, ‘Rather than having two separate nonprofits doing the exact same thing so close together, why don’t we talk to Carpenter, and it will just be another part of Carpenter.’”

The Heins’ 98-acre donation in 1989 marked the beginning of Carpenter’s Wisconsin campus, located just north of the Troy Burne Golf Club.

More parcels were purchased when they came up for sale and the Wisconsin campus now boasts 300 acres permanently preserved for public use. Carpenter’s goal is to protect habitat and teach people about nature; it owns more than 725 acres of land in the St. Croix River Valley.


A rendering of a new $3.5 million facility the Carpenter Nature Center is building on its 300-acre property in Hudson, Wis. The building exterior will be constructed using a variety of nature-inspired materials including natural wood, stone, and earth-toned steel. Large and numerous windows will allow visitors to experience nature even while indoors. (Courtesy of Miller Dunwiddie / Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center)

The new interpretive center in Wisconsin was designed with extensive input from the community, Vieth said. Survey results, for example, showed that people wanted a room where they “can sit quietly indoors, maybe when their family is hiking, and watch wildlife,” she said. “It will be a wall of windows with bird feeders out the back there and a little coffee nook here.”

They also took lessons learned from the interpretive center in Minnesota to improve upon the Wisconsin design.

“One of the things we learned … was having this big space where everything happens doesn’t always work so well,” Vieth said. In Wisconsin, the classroom will have doors so school groups can be separated from other groups using the main room.

Carpenter in Minnesota records about 7,000 student visitors a year; the Wisconsin campus also is expected to attract school visits, but not at that volume, she said.

“The teachers would love to teach out here; they just needed some amenities,” Vieth said. Flush toilets and a warm room were key, she said, “because you can’t bring a bunch of kids out here without a place to wash their hands and go to the bathroom and warm up before and after a program in the winter.”

The building is tucked in the back of one of the parcels, near a stand of pine trees. A long, winding driveway will lead to it.

“It doesn’t ruin the viewscape,” Vieth said. “We’re not plopping a big building with security lights in the middle of a prairie.”


Bob Setzer takes a walk though the restored prairie near the site of the future Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center education building south of Hudson, Wis. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

The land is home to many threatened animals, insects and birds, including the Henslow’s sparrow, a tiny grassland bird that is rarely seen because it prefers to run on the ground rather than fly. Ornithologist John James Audubon dubbed it “a mouse with wings.”

Endangered in Minnesota, the Henslow’s sparrows nest in Carpenter’s restored prairies in Wisconsin.

“It’s just amazing,” Vieth said. “It’s that dream that if you build it, are they really going to come? And they did.”

Hundreds of red pines were planted on the property in the 1940s. Carpenter naturalists have decided to keep many of them “because we know there are certain species that have adapted to them,” Vieth said. “We have a family of broad-winged hawks that nest on the trails every year. We know that there have been fishers spotted in the area and we have a bear once in a while, but that’s pretty rare.”

From the “cool North Woods area,” students can take a short hike north and “look out over the prairie,” she said. “You get a picture of what the land was like before it was homes and malls and highways.”

Ten miles of trails wind through the property and trail usage has increased significantly since COVID arrived.

On a recent weekday, Bob Setzer brought Finlay, his golden Labrador, to hike through the prairie. Setzer, 91, said the pair usually do “half a loop” together.

A longtime Carpenter supporter, Setzer said he can’t wait to tour the new interpretive center next fall.

“I wasn’t sure I would live to see it, but by golly, I think I’m going to make it,” he said. “We’re so excited.”


Board Chairman Paul Gerbec, who lives in River Falls, Wis., said Carpenter has raised $2.5 million for the project. A capital campaign to raise the remaining $1 million will launch in January. Local foundations and neighbors in the area have been generous donors, he said, and many of the companies working on the project have donated time and materials.

Gerbec, who regularly hikes the trails at Carpenter, said he is especially excited about a new antenna that will be installed next fall at the Wisconsin campus. The Motus Wildlife Tracking System antenna, which can detect signals from birds fitted with “nanotags,” will match one installed in August at Carpenter in Minnesota.

The Wisconsin Motus antenna was partially funded by Tropical Wings, a group dedicated to raising awareness about birds that migrate between Central America and the Upper Midwest; the Minnesota antenna was funded by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.

The Motus antenna is “a really great tool for adding to the scientific knowledge of bird migration,” Vieth said. “It just went live at the beginning of August and already five birds with chips have flown over.”

Three of the birds were thrush originally tagged in British Columbia, she said. “We would never have banded them here because they went over at 4 in the morning on a non-banding morning,” she said.

“What is amazing … is how connected we are to the rest of the world by our birds,” Vieth said. “How we treat our habitat here impacts birds across country borders. When you think of those wood thrush making it to Venezuela, that this tiny little bird can migrate all that distance, it shows how important it is that we do all we can to protect their breeding habitat.”

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