The drive from the University's Twin Cities Campus to Itasca State Park takes exactly four hours. I should know. I've been making that drive regularly for the last 30 years to reach one of my favorite parts of the University of Minnesota - Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.
Nestled in the heart of the park and on the edge of Lake Itasca, the field station is in my opinion the most beautiful spot within the University's statewide network. As you know, the park, preserved by the state in 1891, serves as a sanctuary for plant and animal species that have vanished from other parts of the state. The headwaters of the Mississippi, lakes and geological features complete its beauty.
The University created the station in 1909 to train forestry students. Field biology summer sessions were added in the 1930s. And ultimately, the station was devoted to the study of biology.
Today, every freshman in the College of Biological Sciences begins his or her educational journey at Lake Itasca with Nature of Life, a biology immersion program that has become a national model.
But while the station has become an increasingly important educational center, time has taken a toll on its facilities. Most of the rustic, wood-frame buildings that serve as labs and classrooms were constructed cheaply after World War II for seasonal use. They are obsolete and, despite maintenance, gradually being reclaimed by nature.
Help may be on the way. The University has asked the 2012 Minnesota Legislature for $4.1 million to build a new 12,000-square-foot campus center that will provide technology-enabled labs, classrooms and an auditorium. Gov. Dayton included the campus center in his capital budget. I have been meeting with key members of the House and Senate to encourage them to support this project. Alumni and supporters who understand the value of the station for biology education are providing the remaining $2 million needed.
The new facility is vitally important for the University, the College of Biological Sciences and students. But it would also be a boon for local residents and businesses. Initially, there would be construction jobs, and after that, twice as many year-round jobs with benefits as the field station currently supports. In addition, the University plans to offer the center to outside groups for conferences and retreats, which would bring more people to the area and mean more traffic for local businesses.
ROBERT ELDE is dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota.