Twin Cities’ biggest cattle ranch to become a park, wildlife management area

22 July 2023

Park planners have had their eyes on the Kelley Land and Cattle Co. property in northern Washington County for decades.

The cattle ranch, which has been owned by the same family since 1958, is considered one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The 2,600-acre property is located in Hugo and May Township and includes woods, wetlands and small lakes.

The owners of the Kelley land are in the process of selling the land for preservation. The majority of the land, 1,840 acres, is slated to become a wildlife management area, and the remainder of the land will be added to Washington County’s Big Marine Park Reserve.

“It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of land,” said Alex McKinney, Washington County’s parks director. “It’s a legacy piece for the park system. It will really complete the vast majority of acquisitions needed for Big Marine. …. It’s setting this land aside for future generations to enjoy.”

The Trust for Public Land plans to purchase 1,840 acres of land in May Township from the Kelley Land and Cattle Company and transfer the property to the Minnesota DNR. (Courtesy of Washington County)

The new state wildlife management area, which will be called Keystone Woods, will be the largest wildlife management area in the metro area. It will be owned and operated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“To have such a large piece of quality habitat so close to the Twin Cities metro is really incredible,” said Bob McGillivray, land protection director for St. Paul-based Trust for Public Land, which is acting as an intermediary for the sale.

Because of its proximity, people who otherwise may not have had access or experienced wildlife management areas will be now able to access one fairly easily, McGillivray said.

“It will be a great resource for people who are new to wildlife management areas to experience them without having to drive several hours out into the countryside,” he said. “It furthers our mission because we’re trying to connect everybody to the outdoors both for the experience and the benefits that that provides.”

The Trust intends to purchase the future Keystone Woods wildlife manage area property, which is located on both sides of Washington County Road 15/Manning Trail, in two phases. The first phase will take place this summer, using previously awarded funds from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, created in 2008 by voters’ enactment of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the state constitution, to help pay for the property.

The second phase will occur later this fall with an additional $22 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund that was approved by the Minnesota Legislature earlier this year, McGillivray said. It’s one of largest-ever purchases using money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, he said.

The land is part of a larger Carnelian Creek habitat corridor linking to the St. Croix River.

The wildlife management area will be open for hunting, fishing, hiking and perhaps even dog training. There are several entire lakes on the property, including Barker Lake, which is an excellent fishing lake, McGillivray said.

McGillivray said the Kelley family should be commended for taking such good care of the land through the generations. Cattle and sheep have been grazed rotationally, leaving the property’s grassland virtually in their natural state, he said.

The land has “high biodiversity significance” and is one of Washington County’s top 10 priority conservation areas. It also is recognized as a conservation priority by the DNR under its statewide wildlife action plan.

The Trust for Public Lands plans to purchase 1,840 acres in May Township from the Kelley Land and Cattle Company and transfer the property to the Minnesota DNR. At the same time, Washington County plans to purchase 760 acres of Kelley Land and Cattle Company property north of 155th St and east of Manning Avenue in May Township to add to Big Marine Regional Park. (Courtesy of Trust for Public Land)

Washington County on June 24 purchased 80 acres from Kelley Land and Cattle Co. north of Washington County Highway 4 for $1,268,900; 75 percent of that cost was reimbursed by the Metropolitan Council, and the remaining 25 percent came from Washington County’s Land and Water Legacy Fund, a voter-approved bond referendum passed in 2008 to preserve high-quality natural resource areas.

County officials are waiting for appraisals back for the remaining 685 acres left to be purchased south of County Highway 4, and expect that the land may need to be purchased in several phases. Officials hope that all the parcels would be under county ownership by 2026.

“It will be a mix of active recreation, passive recreation and natural-resource preservation,” McKinney said.

The Kelley land has been in the master park plan for the Big Marine Park Reserve for 40 years, and the sale was initiated by the property owner.

Hiking, horseback and mountain-biking trails are planned for the park, as well as an archery course and multiple types of camping areas. Plans also include a separate trail crossing to connect either over, under or across Washington County Highway 4. No hunting will be allowed within the park.

James Kelley, a prominent Twin Cities attorney and businessman, bought the farm in 1958. According to an article published in the Pioneer Press in 1997, Kelley once had the biggest registered Hereford herd in Minnesota, about 600 head, which were sold and shipped to Wyoming. When he died in 1989, the farm was taken over by members of his family.

Related Articles

Local News |

Missing Forest Lake girl found safe two months after disappearance

Local News |

Water restrictions on tap with St. Croix Watershed in drought warning

Local News |

Mahtomedi man pleads guilty to third-degree murder charge in teen’s drug overdose

Local News |

Washington County commissioner to undergo open-heart surgery

Local News |

Musician to perform on storied pipe organ at Mahtomedi Church

Need help?

If you need support, please send an email to [email protected]

Thank you.