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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Field station of dreams

November 5, 2009

Crumbling cabin foundation.

This crumbling cabin foundation is one reason the Itasca station needs attention.

The Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories needs a facelift

By Deane Morrison

A short walk from their summer cabins, students can wade across a narrow stream where the headwaters of the Mississippi, having mingled in Lake Itasca, flow out to form our great national river.

As incoming freshmen in the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences (CBS), the students have a lot in common with the river. Here in Minnesota's great North Woods they, too, experience a birth of sorts, as their lives as biologists start to come together and take form.  

They get their feet (and sometimes more) wet through CBS' Nature of Life program at the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories, on the north arm of the three-armed lake. Set amid a paradise of lakes, bogs, springs, and forests, all teeming with life, the station could not be better situated for its purpose. 

Wealth of learning

Besides Nature of Life, the Itasca station is home to other ongoing programs. Among them: an intensive introduction to molecular, cellular, and systems neuroscience for incoming neuroscience graduate students and a range of field biology courses.

Watch a video about the station.

"In the upper Midwest, it's as close to a tropical rain forest as we get in terms of biodiversity," says David Biesboer, director of the Itasca station and a plant biology professor in CBS.

The station is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. But while it still draws field researchers and students, its deteriorating cabins and laboratories and outdated energy systems will hobble it if nothing is done. In 2010 the University will ask the Legislature for $3.7 million for the first phase of a two-phase renovation and construction project that would bring the station into 21st-century form.

"I think of the Itasca field station as part of a family of field stations that includes Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, and Friday Harbor Laboratories on Puget Sound," says Robert Elde, dean of CBS. "They are magnets that draw biologists from all over the world to do science and to wrestle with deep problems across biology. That's really my vision, [to] bring Itasca into that league."

Tranquil setting, top-notch work

The University created the Itasca station as a summer training camp for forestry students. It enjoys an idyllic setting close to an ecological crossroads.

"Itasca sits almost at the dividing line between hardwood forest and northern mixed forest," says former Itasca director John Tester, author of Minnesota's Natural Heritage. "If you go just a little bit to the west, you break out into the prairie. So Itasca sits right in this prime location where three major ecological biomes come together. As a teaching tool that's just fabulous."


"I think that the Nature of Life is considered to be one of the most successful programs of its type in the United States. It wouldn't be possible without the Itasca field station."

"Itasca is essentially the canary in the coal mine," Elde adds. "Its location at the border of these three ecosystems makes it possible to observe the effects of climate and climate change on the behavior of these ecosystems and how one migrates into the other."

One by one, students fall in love with the place because there they can become part of important work. For example, undergraduate Anne Kellerman took part in a study of how earthworms affect aquatic systems.

"The significance of this project is to better understand how our world is changing," she says.

"Earthworms bring up organic matter to the soil surface, and much of it runs off into the lakes and ends up in the sediments," explains Jim Cotner, a University professor of ecology, evolution and behavior. "Small lakes like these may play a huge role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it out of commission for a long time." 

"The variety of habitats in the lakes makes Itasca a perfect place to do research," says Sehoya Cotner, a faculty member in the CBS Biology Program. "You have different size lakes, different depths, you have lakes that freeze solid in the winter and lakes that don't, you have lakes with fish and without them. It's a dream."

Itasca is also home base for an ambitious new study of how agriculture and other human activities affect the diversity of bacteria along all 2,300 miles of the Mississippi. Conceived by Elde and called the Minnesota Mississippi Metagenome Project (M3P), it brings students and faculty together to collect microorganisms from the headwaters and build "libraries" of their genes inside E. coli cells.

The gene libraries will constitute a DNA database to help researchers determine how microbial diversity changes as the river moves south, collecting inputs from regions of the country where land is used for farming, industry, and other activities. 

"Microorganisms really are the driving force, the engine, that runs our planet because they recycle materials like carbon and nutrients," says soil, water and climate professor Michael Sadowsky, who directs M3P. "The Itasca field station will play a prominent role in this project."

The need

Most of the Itasca station's 70 buildings date from a 10-year period following World War II. In 2006 Tester led an effort to restore the director's cabin, now the station's only log building, but rustic charm keeps giving way to the ravages of age.

"When the University's consultants came here three years ago and evaluated 47 of our nearly 70 buildings, it was their conclusion that 24 of those 47 should be replaced immediately," says Elde.

"The variety of habitats in the lakes makes Itasca a perfect place to do research. You have different size lakes, different depths, you have lakes that freeze solid in the winter and lakes that don't, you have lakes with fish and without them. It's a dream."

"Some of the buildings are deteriorating so rapidly we can't repair them fast enough," Biesboer says. "The foundation under the faculty offices is crumbling," and at least one faculty cabin has been condemned. "We are beginning to lose our edge as a research center because of the condition of our facilities."

In 2007 the University drew up a Master Plan for upgrading Itasca that would respect its historic and environmental character and set it on the road to becoming a net-zero-energy, self-sustaining campus community. In 2009 the University revised the plan, with two initial phases paving the way.

Phase 1 would revolve around a new 10,900-square-foot building with classrooms/laboratories, a computer room/library, an auditorium, and workstations. Estimated cost of Phase 1: $5.5 million.

In Phase 2, two more classrooms/laboratories, year-round housing for 48 students, and three new faculty cabins would be added. Estimated cost: $3 million.

Phases 1 and 2, if completed, would address the programmatic needs of the station for the next 10 to 15 years. Ideally, they would lead to steps toward energy self-sufficiency through means such as demolishing unsafe, inadequate buildings, renovating existing year-round buildings to improve energy efficiency (including future renovation or replacement of the dining hall), and adding renewable energy to the station campus.

It's a goal worth achieving, says alumnus Denny Dvergsten, an award-winning high school biology teacher and CBS scholarship donor.

"I think that the Nature of Life is considered to be one of the most successful programs of its type in the United States. It wouldn't be possible without the Itasca field station," he says. "Some of the buildings that I see here now are the same buildings that were here 50 years ago, when I first visited Itasca. It needs to be upgraded. It should be supported."

Ultimately, Elde hopes to add a retreat center and cabins for scientists and scholars to use when working on long-term projects.

"This is a turning point in Itasca's history," he says. "If we don't improve our facilities, we can't do research or provide educational programs here. That would be an enormous loss. I know these are difficult economic times, but now is the time to act."

To join the University of Minnesota's Legislative Network, visit Support the U.

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