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Courtland Nelson leaves lasting legacy

Courtland Nelson didn’t know what else to do. It was the summer of 2011, the state government was shut down and Parks and Trails Division director for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decided to clear his head by jumping on his motorcycle. From his home in Forest Lake he sped over to the Wild River State Park, near Center City.

Where nothing was happening.

“I parked and I stood there and looked at this locked gate,” Nelson says. “And some guy pulled up behind me. He didn’t know me from Adam. I just kind of shrugged, and he shrugged, and he turned around and left.

“The helplessness of that time …” The thought hangs unfinished.

Helplessness is not a word you’d associate with Nelson, 63, who retires April 21. The 6-foot-4 former Augustana College basketball guard is trim and fit, uniformly gray, his face a pleasant maze of sharpened crags.

In outdoor recreation circles, Nelson is something of a legend.

“The guy has worked all over the country, he has national stature for parks and trails,” says Erika Rivers, the assistant DNR commissioner who is voluntarily demoting to take over Nelson’s job, a fact that maybe makes her a little nervous. Nelson’s big shoes will be hard to fill.

“He has elevated Minnesota Parks and Trails into the national spotlight, I would say,” she says.

More highs than lows

Nelson has managed state parks and trails in Minnesota for 10 years. If his visit to Wild River State Park in 2011 was a low point, he can look fondly on many more high points.

He took over in 2004 knowing Minnesota’s finances were in a tangle and parks were low on the priority chart. But on his watch in 2007, voters approved the Legacy Amendment, providing a powerful fiscal shot in the arm for the system.

Nelson also was a key player in the DNR’s $18 million acquisition from U.S. Steel of a former mining site near Soudan, Minn., which will open next year as Vermillion State Park.

He also had a hand in the development of Brown’s Creek Trail that, once open next year, will run over the former Minnesota Zephyr train line. The state’s newest park, La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, was purchased for $8.5 million in Legacy Amendment funds and opened on his watch, in June 2012.

Nelson also guided the launch of the I Can Camp program, which teaches children the ins and outs of camping. He has built up geocaching programs for parks and trails, including the two-year-long Geocaching Avian Adventure that takes participants all over the state in search of birds and their secrets.

The efforts have had some measurable impact. In 2012, the DNR’s most recent Minnesota State Park Visitor Survey showed state park visitor satisfaction ratings at a 25-year high. Eighty-three percent of visitors gave ratings of “completely satisfied” or “expectations exceeded,” the survey showed.

All that doesn’t even count the role Nelson played as Utah’s parks and trails director. There in the late 1990s, Nelson almost singlehandedly rescued the Winter Olympic games for that state. He identified and led the development of Soldier Hollow Resort after the International Olympic Committee took a pass on Utah’s originally proposed Nordic events site because of poor water quality. (Soldier Hollow happened to be close to where Nelson lived at the time.)

Working with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and others, he helped build the facilities and nearby resort and to get it selected for the 2002 Olympics cross-country skiing and the biathlon events.

As parks director, he pushed hard to ensure that the Soldier Hollow site became a permanent fixture, or as he puts it, “a four seasons healthy lifestyle way of life.” And so it has. The Soldier Hollow Resort now grosses $1 million a year for Utah tourism.

“For a fledgling outfit after 10 years to be grossing a million,” Nelson says proudly, “that’s a successful venture.”

Get your motor running

By the time Nelson earned an undergrad degree in sociology, natural resources seemed a likely career path, given all the family vacations he had taken in the Western states. Also, the environmental movement then gaining steam affected him. Eventually, he steered his motorcycle onto the Utah State University campus, enrolled, and set about earning a master’s degree in outdoor recreation education.

His first job in the field was picking up garbage and cleaning up filthy camp restrooms. He didn’t care: “It was just exciting to be out there and finally be making a little bit of an income doing what I thought I wanted to do.”

It took two years to land a job as a regional parks manager in Utah, where he doubled as a conservation officer. Several years later, Nelson got a bigger job in Arizona, as state deputy director of parks. He stayed there six years. In 1987, he returned to Utah, lured by an offer to become director of Utah Parks and Recreation.

Development of Soldier Hollow’s Nordic ski trails and golf courses is only part of his Utah legacy. He also helped develop previously unused Antelope Island State Park for an off-highway vehicle program. People who served under him went on to become directors, deputy directors and regional directors in Utah, Montana, Nevada, Colorado and Idaho.

By 2003, Nelson and his wife, Mitzi, were empty-nesters, and Nelson was looking for a way to come back home to Minnesota. Bill Morrissey, then Minnesota’s Parks and Trails director, convinced him to compete for the job Morrissey was vacating.

Saved by the Legacy Act

Nelson took the Minnesota job in 2004 knowing the fiscal situation was fraught. The DNR’s Parks and Trails Division budget fluctuated from just under $60 million in 2000 to around $70 million in 2003. When Nelson took over in 2004, the division budget was on a downward slope, dipping back to around $60 million in 2006.

“That was the beginning of eliminating a few positions, of going much more seasonal and really starting to do some cost-containment measures,” he says. His division went from full employment to having 20 percent of its positions vacant.

“So we kind of maintained that,” he says. “Then, God bless our pea-pickin’ hearts, the Legacy thing came through. That solved a lot of problems.”

Legacy Amendment dollars cannot be used to pay for positions funded through the general fund — which at Parks and Trails is most of them. But the influx of new money was a godsend, Nelson says, allowing the division to play catch up on a lot of needed improvements.

“It was kind of the bounty of riches,” he says. “We initiated lots of programs.”

John Edman is director of Explore Minnesota, a small standalone state agency that is guided by the 28-member Minnesota Tourism Council. Over the years he has worked a lot with Nelson on various promotions. They also have served together on the University of Minnesota’s Tourism Center Board.

“He has definitely done a great job of managing parks and trails in Minnesota,” Edman says. Nelson, he says, brought to Minnesota an unusual savvy about the inner workings of tourism and the role natural resources plays in the key industry.

“Courtland has always understood that when people travel to parks, they also go to hotels and resorts and restaurants,” Edman says. “That is kind of the reason I guess we have worked so well together — he gets it.”

Brett Feldman, the executive director for the Park & Trails Council of Minnesota, says Nelson’s greatest strength was fiscal management. Nelson steered Parks and Trails through a recession and summertime government shutdown that cost the division a net $2 million in lost revenue, Feldman notes. Yet the system remains strong, he says.

“There is no doubt,” he says, “that perhaps Courtland’s greatest contribution has been his fiscal management of a growing system.”

Now, Nelson is preparing to literally ride off into the sunset: He and wife Mitzi are heading back to Utah. They maintained their old home there, renting it out during their absence, and will move back in after he retires.

An active member and past president of the National Association of State Park Directors, Nelson has long maintained a national footprint in the parks and rec world. So Nelson thinks there may be more work in store for him, perhaps with the National Park Service. But there is time enough for all that. It has been a long haul, he says, and it’s time to stretch his legs.

“I’ve got a couple of buddies who are already scheming for a weekly canyon hike once I get set up out in Utah,” he says. “And that sounds way, way fun to me.”


Name: Courtland Nelson

Job: Outgoing Parks and Trails Director, Minnesota DNR

Age: 63

Grew up in: Forest Lake

Lives in: Forest Lake

Education: B.A., history and sociology, Augustana College; M.S., outdoor recreation education, Utah State University

Family: Married to Mitzi Anderson Nelson, an office manager at a law firm; his daughter, Megan, recently graduated from law school.

Hobbies: “Mostly the outdoor stuff,” he says. “Bicycles, cross-country skiing, motorcycles, camping, canoeing.” But no more basketball — his banged-up knees will no longer tolerate it.

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