Oct. 16, 2006

Dassel resident becomes prominent conservationist

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Remember Gary Nelson of Dassel, a 1968 graduate of Dassel High School?

He became a college biology teacher and award-winning conservationist in Iowa.

Nelson is the brother of Claudette Nelson of Dassel, and the son of the late Alfred and Vivian Nelson.

Nelson retired Aug. 11 from the Des Moines Area Community College. He and his wife, Cindy, and daughter, Sarah, are moving to Linwood Township, Minn. Nelson has accepted a part-time position at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

But first, Nelson received the 2006 Hagie Heritage Award from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation in recognition of his many contributions over the years to nature preservation and conservation.

Nelson also received the honor of having a gazebo built in his name at the college, for the 31 years he was biology and environmental conservation instructor there.

When Nelson began teaching at the college, after he had taught high school two years in Ortonville, the biology classroom was bare. Nelson used his biological expertise in taxidermy to preserve specimens. Now, the classroom is filled with museum- quality deer mounts and drawers of stuffed birds, which Nelson used to teach and entertain his students in his biology and environmental science classes.

Nelson also founded and advised the college’s award-winning Environmental Conservation Club, helped plant a 4-acre tallgrass prairie on campus, and was key in initiating the development of an environmental science degree.

According to college officials, Nelson’s greatest accomplishment was saving Carney Marsh. It is a 40-acre marsh near the campus that was on the verge of being overtaken by urban sprawl. Nelson spent well over 500 hours on nights and weekends at Carney Marsh, putting up signs and benches, writing brochures about the marsh, grooming trails, maintaining nest boxes, managing water level, and removing invasive species.

Nelson used the marsh as a classroom. Wearing knee-high rubber boots, Nelson guided students on hikes through the marsh.

“Students are engaged in learning when they hear it, and touch it, and smell it,” he said. “They remember the details and they feel it’s very important to have these parks and preserves.”

Nelson is worried, he said, that in today’s technological culture, students are often blind to the beauty and complexity of nature. The field trips to nearby prairies and marshes reinforce what he taught in the classroom.

Carney Marsh, which is on the south side of Ankeny, Iowa, includes a diversity of habitats, wetlands, sedge meadows, willow thickets, lowland forests and prairies. The marsh is noted for its muskrats, Canada geese, yellow-headed blackbirds, wood ducks, tree swallows, eastern bluebirds, ring-necked pheasants, and red-tailed hawks. It is a favorite place of the Des Moines Audubon Society.

Nelson also wrote a self-guiding brochure for Margo Frankel Woods State Park, and volunteered to conduct nesting bird surveys for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Like past Hagie award winners, Nelson received $1,000 and a hand-carved acorn sculpture. Nelson donated the $1,000, though, to various organizations, including the Lymphoma Research Foundation and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of America.

Nelson was diagnosed with lymphoma four years ago. He said his outlook on life has changed since his diagnosis. He strives to stay positive and cherishes every day. “Never taking tomorrow for granted,” Nelson said.

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