History & Mission
Our mission is to build lasting relationships between people and the natural world.
To help achieve this, Warner Nature Center:
- provides programs for groups and individuals that teach environmental respect through knowledge and also to illustrate ways to implement such respect,
- provides a forum for discussion of environmental issues,
- cares for the unique nature center habitats while using them as teaching tools, and
- partners with other organizations that have similar goals.
The Early Years
In 1957, the Amherst Wilder Foundation purchased two square miles of land in northern Washington county from the May family and the land became "Camp Wilder" with an agreement that the land never be divided and sold for development.
That first summer in 1958, The Science Museum of Minnesota assisted with summer programming at the site and consultant Reynold Carlson recommend that,
"there should be a small building and meeting area to serve as a nature center, where children from any of the camps might gather for science interests. In time a summer naturalist may be employed to assist camps in their science and develop the program of the nature center... The nature center could serve an important function in school science education during the time of year when children are not in camp."
After four years of partnering on programming, The Wilder Foundation agreed in 1962 to have the Science Museum of Minnesota submit a proposal for the development and operation of a nature study area at Camp Wilder.
In 1965, the Science Museum of Minnesota was granted exclusive rights to use 385 acres out of Wilder's original 1200-acre tract. The Wilder Foundation built the original 10,000 square foot Trailside Museum and the Science Museum provided staffing. The Trailside Museum was built using the old steel trusses and frame of the Science Museum's exhibition hall from the Merriam Mansion in St. Paul. The museum had just moved out of the exhibition hall one year earlier.
With funding help from the Junior League of St. Paul, the Museum hired Bernie Fashingbauer as "chief curator of Biology and Education." Summer programming at the new nature center began right away that first summer in 1965. School groups began classes in the fall of 1967.
Enter the Lee and Rose Warner Foundation
January 1, 1970 the name of the center was changed from the Wilder Nature Center to the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center when the Lee and Rose Warner foundation purchased the land and buildings and agreed to take over the funding of the center. The foundation had been established by Rose Frenzel Warner in 1959 to carry on interests she shared with her husband Lee Warner. The Science Museum of Minnesota stayed on to manage the site and staff for the Lee and Rose Warner Foundation. The foundation was merged into The Manitou Fund in 2010 and continues to provide funding.
Looking to expand the land base of the center, the Sundberg Farm property was acquired in 1975. Much of this land remained fallow farm fields until a prairie and oak savannah creation project began in 2005.
Just as the center expanded its land base it also expanded the physical layout of the center. The Richard Ordway Memorial Library was constructed in 1977 to house an impressive collection of natural history books as well as a table constructed onsite out of a section of "the big one" the largest douglas fir ever cut by Weyerhaeuser. The tree section, from Longview Washington, had to be lowered into the new addition with a crane. A second addition to the building took place in 1987. The Grace Arend Volunteer lounge now provides a space for volunteers and recognizes the important contribution they make to the center.
In 1991, the first director of the center, Bernie Fashingbauer, retired and naturalist Tom Anderson became the new nature center director. Under Tom's leadership the land base of the center again increased when the nature center purchased the adjoining Happy Hills farm in 1993. This bought the nature center to around 800 acres. Seven years later, in 2000, Warner joined up with other community partners to create a greenway corridor between the nature center and the St. Croix River. The new St. Croix Greenway Corridor covers 2,400 acres or about four square miles making the nature center part of a much larger protected area.
Growing for the Future
As staffing and programming grew at the turn of the century, new offices, shop/exhibit fabrication space, and an artist studio were added to the building in what was the third addition since the Trailside Museum opened.
In recent years, expansion and improvement of the site has continued. A new natural bowl limestone amphitheater was installed in 2005 and scientists began a savannah and prairie restoration in the fallow farm fields on the north end of the property. 2006 saw accessibility improvements to the site including an elevator-lift, power doors, new parking areas and accessible bus parking. A new green space for children to play in took over the old parking lot.
2007 saw the addition of a spectacular new atrium onto the building that features an eco-friendly green roof design. The lower level of the center was remodeled and all new exhibits were installed just in time for the 40th anniversary of the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center. Director Tom Anderson retired from his position and handed the reins over to the new director Ron Lawrenz who looks forward to continuing the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center's tradition of excellence.
Warner Nature Center celebrated 50 years of building lasting relationships between people and the natural world in 2017. Beginning in November 2018, Warner Nature Center welcomed a new director, Vikki Getchell, as Ron Lawrenz retired in 2019, celebrating 30 years at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
The Lee & Rose Warner Nature Center is generously funded by the Manitou Fund with additional support from family foundations, Friends of Warner, private donations and user fees. The Manitou Fund is possible thanks to the generosity of Lee and Rose Warner and Don McNeely who shared a vision for excellence in outdoor education and for educating people of all ages about the wonders of nature. The Manitou Fund, formerly the Lee & Rose Warner Foundation, received the Excellence in Interpretive Support award in 2005 from the National Association for Interpretation in recognition of their years of dedication to the center.