The long, at times tumultuous saga of the Audubon sanctuary near Warren, Minn., may be coming to an end with news the National Audubon Society has transferred its 40 acres of land to the Middle Snake Tamarac Rivers Watershed District.
That puts the property, which includes a house and several outbuildings, under the umbrella of the watershed district along with an adjacent 440 acres.
“It’s my understanding the deed has been transferred, and that’s all done,” Molly Pederson, executive director of Audubon Minnesota, said Thursday. “And we are very pleased that went smoothly. We know the watershed district is excited, and we look forward to continuing to work with them on other things we’re doing in that region.”
Danny Omdahl, assistant administrator of the Middle Snake Tamarac Rivers Watershed District in Warren, said the district received the deed this past week, and the transfer has been recorded with Polk County.
“As far as I understand, the entire transfer is done,” he said.
The story of the land now owned by the watershed district dates to 1981, when Eldor Omdahl and his wife, Stella, began donating 640 acres for conservation in 40-acre increments to the Agassiz Audubon Society, a local group that later severed ties with National Audubon.
Eldor Omdahl died in 2011 at the age of 101.
Omdahl and the local Audubon chapter frequently squabbled about managing the land, and the two sides ended up in court in 2009 when the benefactor, after a dispute with the local Audubon board, decided to donate the final 40 acres of his land to the National Audubon Society instead.
Agassiz Audubon sued to stop the donation, but the courts ruled in Eldor Omdahl’s favor.
The election of a new local Audubon board in 2010 signaled an apparent end to the dispute and put the 40 acres under control of the National Audubon Society and Audubon Minnesota.
The story took yet another twist when the National Audubon Society ultimately decided the property no longer fit into its mission.
Heidi Hughes, who came from Wisconsin to be the sanctuary’s new manager in 2011, was evicted from the manager’s residence in 2013. After that shakeup, Agassiz Audubon transferred its 440-acre share of Eldor Omdahl’s land to the watershed district.
Until the latest development, the fate of the 40-acre headquarters site was uncertain. I last wrote about the property in November, when some of Eldor Omdahl’s nephews were exploring options for buying the property.
The site was a shambles, and they’d had enough.
National Audubon Society officials at the time said they were hoping to divest the 40 acres and had hired an appraiser to determine the fair market value of the land and buildings.
Transferring the land to the watershed district puts the property on more stable footing, where it belongs.
On the rebound
Hughes, who left northwest Minnesota in 2014 and later took a job as director of a wildlife preserve in Texas, now has returned to the area and has signed a contract to work with Agassiz Audubon on the watershed district land.
As outlined in the minutes of its Aug. 1 meeting, the watershed district board has approved Agassiz Audubon’s request for Hughes to live in the house on the 40-acre site for the next year while doing contract conservation work. According to the minutes, the board after a year will evaluate her performance and decide whether to extend the agreement.
Pederson of Audubon Minnesota said a trust fund Eldor Omdahl set up to pay for upkeep on the property also will be transferred to the watershed district. She didn’t know the dollar amount, but Pederson said Audubon’s legal team was working up a gift agreement for the two parties to sign.
Hughes didn’t reply to a request for comment, but Agassiz Audubon on its Facebook page said plans are in the works for a fall “reopening.” The group also is looking for volunteers to weed and mow trails near a pollinator garden on the property.
The Agassiz Valley Impoundment across the road already is stop on the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, and the area has tremendous ecotourism potential.
For more information, call (218) 745-5663 or check out the Agassiz Audubon Facebook page at facebook.com/agassizaudubon.