In 1949, a local forester named Fay Harrington was taking an inventory of tax-forfeited land in Cass County and came through the area that would eventually become Deep Portage. He was impressed by its ruggedly beautiful glacial hills, lakes, bogs, and its ecological diversity. Harrington recognized the land's unique qualities and became convinced that it had "greater potential and more significance than ordinary forest land."
In the following two decades, Harrington and others with an interest in conservation began to discuss how the land could be used. In 1973 they proposed that 6,307 acres set aside for public use, education, and responsible forestry. That May, the Cass County Commissioners unanimously endorsed Fay Harrington’s proposal, calling the land the “Deep-Portage Conservation Reserve”.
Deep Portage Steering Committe on Bass Pond, Spring 1973
The Deep Portage Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was established in 1975 to raise funds and develop education and recreation programs. With the construction of Nature Center Drive, visitors had easy access to the heart of the Conservation Reserve. Children and families started to pour in. The Interpretive Center opened in 1979, complete with informative exhibits and classroom spaces. Volunteers cleared eleven miles of hiking and skiing trails and built a firing range and sporting clay course. From workshops on forestry management to birdwatching tours, Deep Portage was a hub of activity.
Looking to expand its educational programming to include overnight groups, Deep Portage added the Resources Heritage Center in 1987. The new building included additional classroom space, dining facilities, and lodging for a hundred students. (A 2002 expansion included lodging for another hundred visitors as well as a state-of-the-art climbing wall.) Now that longer trips were possible, schools from all over the state started to visit Deep Portage. In 2003, the Foundation created the Deep Portage Learning Center to operate our school programs and summer camps. Today, Deep Portage welcomes nearly 10,000 students from over 100 schools each year. Our day visitors come from all over the world.
Nearly fifty years after Deep Portage Conservation Reserve was founded, the importance of conservation and environmental education is clearer than ever. We continue to provide extraordinary educational experiences to students and campers. Our trails, woodlands, and waters continue to inspire generations of curious visitors. And as we look ahead, we recognize the role of renewable energy in creating a sustainable future.
With this in mind, Deep Portage has made renewable energy a major focus of its educational programming, campus additions, and public workshops. Building and lighting retrofits, biomass furnaces, a wind turbine, a variety of solar arrays and a small fleet of electric vehicles not only reduce the Center’s operating expenses, but also educate the public about many green energy applications. From innovative solar arrays to classes in which students design and test wind turbines, we are a resource for anybody interested in the future of energy.
A lot has changed in the past five decades, but some things remain true. The fruitful cooperation between the County and the Learning Center, first manifested in the Commissioners’ endorsement of Fay Harrington’s vision in 1973, continues to this day. And thanks to the support of countless individuals and organizations, Deep Portage remains a home to all who love and celebrate the natural world.