SNA Nature Notes - Special Issue!

minnesota department of natural resources

Minnesota Scientific and Natural Area


Showy lady's-slipper

SPECIAL ISSUE: May 16, 2019

50 Years of Protecting the Wild Places


The Minnesota Legislature authorized the creation of Scientific and Natural Areas on May 16, 1969.

David Minor, SNA Web and Social Media Specialist


Fifty years ago today, the Minnesota Legislature authorized Scientific and Natural Areas. Now, we celebrate these lands and the people who made them possible half a century ago.

“It is high time we set aside more such areas in Minnesota and had a program for preserving and maintaining them — if the youngsters of tomorrow are to know the living reality — and the richness of experience— which comes from knowing the natural area.”
John B. Moyle, Department of Conservation, Division of Game and Fish, 1966

Scientific and Natural Areas protect Minnesota’s important natural features. The primary goal is to prevent these features from being lost in any ecological region of the state.


That is why in 1966, the department commissioner, Clarence Prout organized a team of 15 citizens, conservationists, and scientists who advised on the creation of natural areas. This group, the Advisory Committee to the Commissioner of Conservation on Scientific and Natural Areas, was the driving force behind the 1969 legislation. It shaped how the program works today.

“Today, you and I are responsible for the preservation of natural habitats and their wise use. We need to meet this responsibility lest future generations charge to us the same overall neglect as surely as the writings of Eckert indict an 1844 generation.”
L.D. Frenzel Jr, founding member of Commissioner’s Advisory Committee (CAC), 1966.


Oak savanna at Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area

Dry barrens oak savanna is one of the rarest native plant communities in Minnesota. Seen here protected at Uncas Dunes SNA. [©Brett Whaley, CC BY-NC]


Scientific and Natural Areas protect some of the state’s best natural features, including geological formations, fossil evidence, undisturbed native plant communities, successional processes, rare species, relict flora or fauna, and seasonal wildlife concentrations.

“Preserving an example of only one of these areas does not preserve examples of others. All types are needed for valid comparisons. We also need the first prop airplane and the first space capsule for future comparison because they represent almost completely different adaptations for vastly different environments.”
Max Partch, founding member of CAC, 1966

The first Scientific and Natural Area was Rush Lake Island, in Chisago County. It was established in 1974 to preserve a heron rookery. There are now 168 Scientific and Natural Areas in Minnesota, with over 192,000 acres of land protected and open to the public.

It is not just about SNAs anymore either! The program has expanded to protect land in other ways. Native Prairie Tax Exemptions exempts qualified lands with native prairie from property taxes. The Natural Areas Registry identifies other public lands with important natural features. Native Prairie Bank conservation easements permanently protect and allow the DNR to help manage prairie on privately owned land.

There are 141 Native Prairie Bank Easements protecting over 12,800 acres. Many prairies are protected by Tax Exemption and nearly 50 sites are listed on the Natural Areas Registry. They influence protection of a further 20,000 acres. All these different protection strategies serve the main mission of the SNA Program.

Map of sites preserved by the Scientific and Natural Areas Program

Sites in Minnesota preserved through the Scientific and Natural Areas Program


“Man's very survival, his ambitions for a richer and more meaningful future, is dependent on a keener sense of stewardship for his environment, as well as the preservation of significant portions of that environment — unchanged”
U.W. Hella, Founding member of CAC, 1966


These areas are also “outdoor labs" where researchers and students can go to study. SNAs are places where people can go to volunteer or attend interpretive events, and anyone may explore on their own to learn more about the natural world around them.

“Natural areas constitute an irreplaceable resource, as important to mankind as the earth's economic products. They are the living museums that exemplify the past for the benefit of the future. These undisturbed areas are requisite to our way of life, for it is to nature that man frequently turns for inspiration; also, these areas provide the only true background against which to measure the changes that civilization has wrought in our environment. They often help us to understand and tolerate such changes.”
John Humke, the Nature Conservancy, 1966


The Scientific and Natural Areas Program is now 50 years old. The mission that started when the legislation passed in 1969 continues today. Every natural area volunteer, advocate, conservationist, scientist, visitor, employee, and you, reading this right now, help that mission.

Some of the founding members of the Citizens Advisory Committee wrote about natural areas in a 1966 issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. Members of the committee Dr. L.B. Frenzel Jr, Dr. Max Partch, and U.W. “Judge” Hella all wrote in support of natural areas, and  Dr. Walter Breckenridge submitted art. Dr. John Moyle from the Division of Game and Fish, and John Humke from the Nature Conservancy contributed as well.

The Commissioner’s Advisory Committee continues its role advising the Scientific and Natural Areas Program today.

1969 timeline graphic

To learn more about the Scientific and Natural Areas 50th Anniversary and to keep up with all events happening across the state, check the 50th anniversary web page.

Check out this history timeline showing significant milestones for the Scientific and Natural Areas Program over the last 50 years.

Nature Notes is the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas quarterly newsletter (archive online). It seeks to increase interest, understanding and support of natural areas while promoting involvement in the protection of these special places. Contact us directly at


Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).