In Rochester, unlikely activists rally to save heron nests

Two people look at nests in a great blue heron rookery
Lynn Cornell and Nathan Clarke look at nests in a great blue heron rookery located at the intersection of three pieces of property at the southwest edge of Rochester, Minn., on March 23, 2022.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Year after year, a group of great blue herons returns to a cluster of nests high in the trees of a forest in southwest Rochester, Minn.

Standing under a grouping of about 25 nests — called a rookery — Lynn Cornell explains that for more than a year she and her neighbors have tried to preserve this spot, part of which is slated for a housing development. 

“This is the place where they stay in Rochester. This is the only rookery in our whole county,” Cornell said. “But if the rookery is destroyed, where are these birds going to go?”

Cornell is board president of Save the Rookery, a nonprofit established to raise awareness about the potential fate of the nesting area, to collect money to help save it and pursue legal action to stop development there. 

But this spring, their efforts didn’t stop Steve Connelly, who owns part of the land where the rookery stands and who is potentially seeking to develop it, from cutting down trees housing about two dozen nests. He told MPR News the trees were dead. 

“I have no interest in harming one single critter and that's what these people need to understand: I have done nothing but played by the rules,” he said. 

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A sign stands at the edge of a forest
A sign promoting a housing development stands at the edge of a forest where a heron rookery is located at the southwest edge of Rochester.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

In a city where new housing is scarce, the blue heron nests are the most recent flash point between local officials who green light new developments and Rochester residents who fear the region — under a massive development plan to bolster Mayo Clinic — is growing unfettered and with environmental costs. 

The effort has produced some unlikely activists, too: from an adjunct community college professor who recently won a local election in a landslide on a platform to protect the nests to a group of high school students who’ve protested the development.

That includes Manal Assoula, 18, who says she and her peers have crowded into Rochester Township Board meetings where key decisions about the land's fate have been made. They protested outside the government center. Some of them have formed a youth baseball team named after the birds. 

"I feel like all of us care enough about the environment to be able to do something about it,” she said at a recent meeting of students in support of preserving the rookery. “We actually want to preserve this for our next generation and the next generation afterwards."

An unusual nesting site

A woman counts nests in a great blue heron rookery
Lynn Cornell counts nests in a great blue heron rookery located at the intersection of three pieces of property at the southwest edge of Rochester. Cornell is the president of the nonprofit Save the Rookery organization.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

The rookery is spread out on three adjoining properties. Local officials have approved construction of 10 homes on one of those properties, while the two other property owners are pursuing legal action to stop the proposed development. 

The great blue herons have been nesting in the forest for decades, said Carrol Henderson, former state Department of Natural Resources non-game wildlife supervisor. 

"That was the only site like this I've ever seen in Minnesota,” said Henderson, who is a blue heron expert who has been advising locals who want to save the rookery.

Since he started counting herons in 1967, the number of great blue herons in Minnesota have declined about 50 percent. And this particular site, high on a hill in Rochester, is worthy of study because it's so unusual, said Henderson. 

Typically, heron nesting sites have a short lifespan. He says heron droppings are acidic and eventually kill the trees where the birds nest.  

“But in the case of the Rochester colony, they have stayed in this one location for what appears to be at least 30 to 40 years because they're in an upland forested site,” he said. 

The droppings are washed away downhill, and the trees are preserved, he said. 

A housing boom

The birds should be back from their winter migration any day, Henderson said. And while they’re there, the herons are covered by a federal law that protects migratory birds. 

But so far there's been no sign of them, said Nathan Clarke, who recently unseated an 18-year incumbent on the Rochester Township Board who supported development in the area.

“It just seems like the current Township Board is very pro-development,” he said while walking around the rookery on a cold, rainy March day, “And so that was a concern for me.”

There are roughly 700 homes in this part of the county, Clarke said. But about 150 more homes have been approved — a roughly 20 percent increase in growth.

Clarke said he hopes to convince fellow board members, who declined comment for this story due to ongoing litigation, to delay further decisions about the land or agree to a compromise. 

“We have a lot of very intelligent, creative people in this community, we ought to be able to figure out a way to have a beautiful resource like this, and have a place to build homes,” he said. 

Waiting for the birds

A man talks outside in the woods.
Nathan Clarke talks about his desire to save a great blue heron rookery located on land slated to be developed at the southwest edge of Rochester on March 23.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Clarke and other members were surprised to see that Connelly had cut down roughly half the rookery some time in early March, a step that Connelly is legally allowed to take as long as the birds aren’t nesting there. 

While a local couple wants to buy Connelly’s land and build a housing development on it, Connelly said he hasn’t decided if he'll sell it. 

“I'll sell it or I'll continue to do what I do: deer hunt and turkey hunt. It's all just maximizing my return on investment,” he said. 

Save the Rookery members said they'd buy the land from Connelly to establish a preserve for the birds that anyone could visit. They’ve already tried to purchase the property once, but they say he didn’t take them up on the offer.

In the meantime, they’re concerned that further disturbances on Connelly’s portion of the land will drive the birds away for good.

“Is Connelly going to mill this wood [he just cut down]?” said Clarke. “I worry the birds will not reorganize as we hope if there's a bunch of commotion going on here.”