Support builds for proposed National Loon Center in Minnesota

A loon chick rides on the back of its parent on West Fox Lake.
A loon chick rides on the back of its parent on West Fox Lake in Crow Wing County on June 27, 2017.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2017

Minnesota's beloved state bird, the common loon, could soon get its own national research and education center in the state.

The proposed National Loon Center would be built at Crosslake in north-central Minnesota, at a busy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation area popular with summer campers and boaters.

The center would be dedicated to the survival and protection of the common loon. The proposal includes an interpretive center, freshwater research center, outside demonstration area and shoreline trail.

"We're hoping to place it right by the dam on Cross Lake, overlooking a family of loons that live in one of the busiest bays in Crosslake," said Leah Heggerston, a member of the National Loon Center Foundation's board of directors.

National Loon Center renderings.
An artist's drawings show the proposed National Loon Center in Crosslake. The center would include an educational and research center, outside demonstration area and shoreline trail.
Courtesy Widseth Smith Nolting

Minnesota's loon population is estimated at about 12,000 birds — more than any other U.S. state except Alaska.

Loons face a variety of threats, including lead and mercury poisoning, habitat destruction and boat injuries. Researchers also have found that some of Minnesota's loons were affected by the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Heggerston said the Crosslake site makes sense for a loon center because it's on one of the busiest bays on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes, where loons and humans must coexist. The Army Corps of Engineers campground and recreation area draws about 230,000 visitors each year.

"We just feel like if we can show people how to be respectful of the loons in this busy area, then people can take that anywhere in the United States or in the world," Heggerston said.

National Loon Center renderings.
An artist's drawings show the proposed National Loon Center in Crosslake. The center would include an educational and research center, outside demonstration area and shoreline trail.
Courtesy Widseth Smith Nolting

Bill Gartner, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, led a feasibility study of whether the center could draw enough visitors to support itself.

"Our job was to find out is there sufficient market to support the center in terms of attendance. Are there enough people up there that would be willing to maybe take some time, spend some money and go to the loon center?" Gartner said.

He said the area draws enough visitors to make the center self-sustaining and also likely would draw people from other parts of the state.

The total cost of the project, including shoreline restoration, is estimated at $7 million. Heggerston said the nonprofit foundation is seeking state and federal grants and private donations.

With funding, the center could be open by the spring of 2021, she said.

Several public events are planned for Saturday in Crosslake, including a speaker from the National Audubon Society.

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