Belwin Conservancy recently acquired 12- acres of rolling grasslands and oak forest at the headwaters of Valley Creek that provide critical habitat for wildlife, enhance the water quality of the creek and the Saint Croix River and preserve the scenic and natural character of the community. This purchase and Belwin Conservancy’s other holdings are part of a larger initiative to protect special habitat within the Valley Creek watershed, which is home to more than 20 endangered, threatened and special concern species, including the American brook lamprey, the Hooded Warbler and Blanding’s turtle. Valley Creek, one of the few remaining high-quality trout streams in the Twin Cities metro area, has been identiﬁed as an area of exceptional habitat value in Minnesota’s State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive “blueprint” for conserving Minnesota’s wildlife.
Belwin Conservancy purchased the land with the help of a $250,000 grant from The Conservation Fund, in partnership with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and a $250,000 grant from the James Ford Bell Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Minnesota Land Trust and others. “We are so thankful for our partners, especially The Conservation Fund and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation,” said Steve Hobbs, Executive Director of the Belwin Conservancy. “We look forward to working with them on future projects as part of the Valley Creek Initiative.”
“This project demonstrates successful and eﬃcient conservation of one of the Twin Cities’ most important wildlife habitat areas and serves as an excellent model for landscape-scale conservation utilizing the strengths and vision of a variety of organizations,” said Tom Duﬀus, upper Midwest director for The Conservation Fund.
The new addition to Belwin Conservancy, situated at the heart of the Creative Center, also forms the core of a new Art and Nature program meant to inspire others through nature. The rolling and peaceful landscape near Afton has inspired generations of Minnesotans. It inspired Charlie Bell to found Belwin Conservancy nearly 40 years ago. He believed in the importance of protecting the natural world and giving others – especially children – the opportunity to derive their own inspiration from it. The land he dedicated to Belwin Conservancy has been a living laboratory and a source of enlightenment for the students of the Saint Paul Public Schools since the early 1970s.
Just up the road, another man had found inspiration in this land and used it to help others on their spiritual journeys. Father George Metcalf was an Episcopal minister who, during World War II, served as a chaplain in the 29th Infantry and personal chaplain to General George S. Patton. When Father Metcalf returned from the war, he and his wife moved to a secluded spot in Afton where they could build a small retreat center. They constructed buildings on the property speciﬁcally for this purpose. Their Oratory of Saint Mary was a cherished place where people came from around the world to ﬁnd spiritual enlightenment in nature.
The Metcalfs decided to scale back their work in 1977. Because they wanted their land to be protected and to continue to serve a greater purpose, they dedicated over 100 acres of their property to be used as a study location. In time, this land became the core of Belwin Conservancy’s Creative Center.
While the Metcalf’s dedicated the bulk of their property to scientiﬁc pursuits, they reserved a 12-acre plot on which their house sat for their use. When this property was placed on the market earlier this year, Belwin Conservancy saw a unique opportunity to unify Father Metcalf’s original property, and at the same time marry the visions of two conservationists. Charlie Bell and Father Metcalf – although each went about it diﬀerently – both had very similar ideas about the importance of conservation to the community and how nature could be a source of inspiration for all.
The unique structures that Father Metcalf constructed as a religious retreat are well suited to life as an artistic one. Belwin Conservancy now plans to raise the necessary capital to renovate these buildings for this purpose. When complete, the organization and its partners will use the facility for a new artist-in-residence program rooted in the natural world. By using the property in the manner, Belwin Conservancy is excited to preserve Father Metcalf’s original vision of using this special place as a source of inspiration for generations to come.