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Recreation space has grown over the past decade

A lot of Dakota County land has disappeared under new homes over the past 10 years, but there is still plenty of open space out there for residents to explore. And the amount of land dedicated specifically to outdoor recreation is growing all the time.

According to the county's 2010 indicators report, there are 48 square miles of protected open space spread among city and county parks, wildlife refuges, the Minnesota Zoo and land protected under the county's farmland and natural areas preservation efforts. The county has added 700 acres of open space since 2001, including a 460-acre park currently in the works in Empire Township.

That open space has been a draw for residents. On county surveys, residents have consistently listed the preservation of open space as a priority. They take advantage of it, too. According to the indicators report county parks get approximately 900,000 visits a year, and that number is growing. According to Dakota County parks and recreation director Steve Sullivan, the number of people using county parks grew by just under 6 percent last year, faster than the population of the county.

"We find people desire to recreate outdoors. That it's an important piece of the quality of life within Dakota County," Sullivan said.

The Rosemount area has its own bounty of open space. In addition to its numerous city parks and miles of trails, there are less-structured open areas available for recreation. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maintains a modified wildlife management area in Empire Township that offers opportunities for hunting, fishing and trapping. The land also includes the 10-mile Lone Rock Trail, which is available for hiking, skiing and horseback riding.

Then there's that new county park. Dakota County is currently going through a master-planning process for the land that is expected to run through 2011. Along the way there will be open houses and draft plans. Sullivan hopes to bring some concepts for the park to the county board in March.

Typical amenities at Dakota County parks include trails for hiking, biking and skiing; lakes for boating; and areas for camping.

The Empire property features rolling terrain and a lake.

Combined with the DNR land, which is located right next door, there will be nearly 4,000 acres of land open for public recreation.

There could be more green space coming, too. The county is working on an ambitious project to link cities and its own parks with parklike greenways that will provide natural space, bike trails and habitat for wildlife along with a system to help people get from place to place by bike or on foot.

The county has received more than $10 million in federal funding for building trails and greenways.

"The idea of multi-modal transportation is important, so people can use (trails) to travel to church, to work, or even just between recreational opportunities," Sullivan said.

Healthy environment

Preserving green space is one thing. Keeping those natural resources healthy is a challenge all its own. The county recently finished work on a plan to protect the Vermillion River -- and to improve public access -- but there are other signs in the indicators report of civilization intruding on nature. A 2006 list of impaired waters in Dakota County had 25 bodies of water listed. A draft list for 2010 had 36. Another survey found that half of the county's wetlands are improving as habitat for invertibrates, but only a quarter are improving as a habitat for vegetation. The 2009 survey found 28 percent were stable for vegetation and invertibrates, but that 44 percent were declining for vegetation and 11 percent were declining for invertibrates.