A decade after he was hired by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Courtland Nelson, 63, will retire April 21 from his position as director of the Parks and Trails Division.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve significantly expanded the number of outdoor recreation opportunities available in Minnesota; we’ve protected, preserved and restored lands and waters across the state; and we’ve dramatically increased the number of people who are getting outdoors,” Nelson said.
Nelson began his career as a seasonal ranger at Wasatch Mountain State Park in Utah in 1976, and served in various parks jobs in Utah and Arizona until becoming director of the Utah State Division of Parks and Recreation in 1993. He served in that role until February 2004, when he joined the Minnesota DNR.
Under Nelson’s leadership the Parks and Trails Division:
- Added new units, to include Lake Vermilion State Park, La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, Brown’s Creek State Trail, and a 25-mile single-track mountain bike trail system at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.
- Built new visitor centers at Grand Portage, Itasca and Tettegouche state parks.
- Tripled the number of cabin cabins at state parks.
- Increased sales of state park daily vehicle permits by 33 percent and year-round permits by 22 percent.
- Launched an innovative series of skill-building programs — I Can Camp!, I Can Climb!, I Can Paddle!, I Can Fish! and Archery in the Parks — which have connected new people to the outdoors, an important pillar of the DNR’s mission.
In 2008, Nelson oversaw the integration of the Parks and Recreation Division with the Trails and Waterways Division, where outdoor recreation opportunities have also been expanding. In the last 10 years, for example, six state water trails, 200 paved state trail miles, and a multitude of public water accesses and fishing piers have been added statewide.
“Minnesota already had one of the best parks and trails systems in the country when I arrived, but the passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008 has allowed us to make it even better,” Nelson said. “Although funding challenges remain, the future looks bright for state parks and trails.”
According to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, “Courtland has brought national recognition to Minnesota state parks. His experience in leading state park organizations in Arizona and Utah prior to joining us in Minnesota brought us critical insight into other recreation systems. We will miss his steady presence and leadership.”
Following his retirement, Nelson plans to spend more time with his wife and their daughter. They plan to divide their time between Utah and Minnesota, where park and trail users in both states can expect to see them out hiking, biking and cross-country skiing on a regular basis.