DNR official, FL native will retire to Utah
There is something to be said about going home. The opportunity for someone to return to a place where they find comfort, peace and their roots can be cherished.
For the second time in his life, Courtland Nelson, 63, is going home, this time to his adopted home state of Utah. It will happen this summer when Nelson departs from Forest Lake, where he was born and raised only to leave for a career in the West.
“It’s been 10 years and that is all you ought to be in the saddle,” Nelson said on the eve of his retirement as director of the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. His last day on the job was Monday, freeing Nelson and his wife, Mitzi, to begin packing and the process of moving from Forest Lake to Midway, in the Heber Valley of northern Utah, high in the Wasatch Mountain range.
The move this summer will mark a second major transition in Nelson’s life. It was just over 10 years ago when Nelson was hired by then DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam to run the state’s parks and trails division. He had spent the previous 11 years working in a similar position in Utah.
Nelson felt the time was right for a career move in 2003. He turned his attention east and explored possible positions in the federal forestry or parks service. In such a move, Nelson said, he would be on the East Coast for a time before returning to his beloved West.
But then came the Minnesota DNR opening. The late Bill Morrissey, who also lived in Forest Lake, had retired. Nelson and Morrissey had shared park stories at a number of national gatherings and their Forest Lake history was a natural. Nelson applied and was hired.
“It was all intriguing,” Nelson said of the opening. “There was the family stuff and there was the Forest Lake stuff.”
It was a move that Nelson never expected early in his career. He was an academic and athletic leader at Forest Lake High School where he graduated in 1968. He earned his undergraduate degree in sociology and history from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and spent two years in Lamars, Iowa, working in admissions for a small college.
His career path shifted west in 1974 when he began pursuit of a master’s degree in the science of outdoor recreation from Utah State University, Logan. Nelson quickly determined that park work would be his calling, but not without hard work during the summers of his graduate studies. Nelson believes he paid his dues early, working in parks dumping trash and cleaning restrooms.
Nelson spent the first 10 years of his career in the Utah state park system working in law enforcement as a ranger (conservation officer) at the Great Salt Lake State Park. He also served as manager of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation in Salt Lake City from 1986-1987 and as a program specialist and park superintendent at Rockport State Park from 1981-1986.
It was 1987 when he moved south to Arizona where he remained for seven years. In Phoenix he was deputy director of Arizona State Parks from 1987-1993. In February 1993 Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt appointed Nelson director of the Utah State Division of Parks and Recreation.
As Nelson steps away from Minnesota, he looks back proudly at the changes and enhancements in the state’s parks and trails, but also with the realization he was in the right place at the right time. He was “lucky,” he said, to be at the helm when voters in 2008 approved the state sales tax that funds the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment that has sent badly needed cash to improve state parks and trails.
Legacy dollars were instrumental in helping fund the DNR move to buy land and establish Lake Vermilion State Park. Some 200 capital projects targeting parks and trails have been funded and are under construction or completed, Nelson said.
One project near and dear to Nelson is the DNR’s role in the Browns Creek State Trail in Washington County that will link to the Gateway Trail for a connection to Stillwater via the former Minnesota Zephyr rail line. By 2015 when work on the Luce Line State Trail is completed, a state trail will extend from Stillwater west to Hutchinson.
Nelson has been at the helm as the parks and trails employee force has grown to 1,200 workers and park use has soared. More than 8 million visitors use state parks each year, and overnight visitation is now set at just under 1 million per year. The state’s 67 parks, seven state recreation areas, campsites, visitor centers and historic districts and landmarks are more popular than ever, Nelson said.
Nelson’s 10-year stint was not without disappointments. The blow down and floods that devastated DNR facilities in northern Minnesota and Jay Cooke State Park and floods in southeastern Minnesota were tough pills to swallow.
More difficult was 2011 when a budget dispute at the state Capitol led to a government shutdown for nearly a month in July. The closing of all state parks couldn’t have come at a worse time, Nelson said, as the DNR lost $2 million in revenues from state park fees during its busiest season.
Nelson felt the matter on a personal level. He recalls driving his motorcycle from his home in Forest Lake to the gate at Wild River State Park near Taylors Falls. He sat by the locked gate deep in thought, wondering how this could have happened.
He also remains disappointed that carefully negotiated efforts to establish a Veterans Administration cemetery in the south region of Jay Cooke State Park to serve northern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin fell apart. The DNR had agreed to provide 100 acres of park property for the cemetery, but local approval did not come about, he said.
“I felt it was the right thing to do,” Nelson said.
A remaining task of high importance, Nelson said, is to secure funds for needed infrastructure upgrades at state park buildings. Many were constructed during the late 1930s and 1940s and are outdated, he said. That will be an early challenge for his successor, Erika Rivers, assistant DNR commissioner.
Nelson’s move to Utah is not being taken lightly. It involved family considerations. Mitzi Nelson’s father, 89, lives in Utah.
In his 10 years in Forest Lake, Nelson has been able to spend time with his mother, Dorothy, a retired social worker in Chisago and Isanti counties who has made Cambridge her home. His father, Neal, a well-liked teacher and coach at Forest Lake High School and a World War II veteran, passed away in 1984.
Dorothy Nelson plans to move this spring to a senior facility in Northfield where she will be close to son Nathan Nelson, an assistant principal at the School for Environmental Studies at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. A third son, Chris, is a musician in Los Angeles.
Making sure his mother was near family was a must, Nelson said. The Nelsons will retain ownership of their home in Forest Lake for a time, as they have in Utah. They plan to make regular visits home to Minnesota and to buy a small place in the Twin Cities in the near future.
Nelson has no plans for work, but may explore opportunities in Utah later on. Mitzi Nelson has served as office manager for Tennis Law Office in Forest Lake and will continue to work for Greig Tennis remotely from Utah after the move.
Nelson said he likes the idea of going home, again, this time to the mountains of Utah and a place that he has come to love. There is something special about the lakes, prairies and forests of Minnesota, but there is a draw to the West, too, he said.
“It (the West) is the magnet,” he said. “I like open space and big, long views and elevations.”
There are differences, he admitted, between his native home and his adopted home, but Nelson believes he is at the right place and at the right time for this move.
“It’s appealing,” he said. “I know where I am going. It’s just like coming to Forest Lake.”