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Dakota County aims to create 4,000-acre natural area/regional park in Empire Township

Dakota County Commissioners are looking at buying a big chunk of property that could become an important part of an even bigger natural area complex.

On Feb. 26 Dakota County Commissioners will consider the conditional purchase of the 816-acre Butler Trust property, a key piece in a collaborative effort to create a 4,000-acre natural-area complex in Empire Township.

The complex could include areas for recreation, trails, wildlife and habitat preservation, fishing, hunting and more. Dakota County, the University of Minnesota and the Department of Natural Resources would jointly manage it. The complex plans include a new 456-acre Dakota County Regional Park, an expanded 830-acre Wildlife Management Area and the 2,840-acre Vermillion Highlands Research, Recreation and Wildlife Management Area.

Dakota County, the University of Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources and the Metropolitan Council will work with non-profit groups, cities and the township to preserve the natural-area complex, which would include a Dakota County Regional Park adjacent to a Department of Natural Resources' wildlife management area and a research area once part of the University's UMore Park.

The various agencies have committed $9.67 million of the $14.81 million needed to acquire the Butler Trust. The remaining $5.14 million would come from the 2008 Minnesota Legislature and grant funds from the Metropolitan Council.

The $9.67 million includes $6 million from 2006 state bonding, $1.87 million from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, $800,000 from a regional-park grant to Dakota County from the Metropolitan Council, and $1 million from the county's Farmland and Natural Areas program, which will help fund the expansion of the Vermillion River Aquatic and Wildlife Management Area.