HASTINGS — The late Tecla Karpen's estate — known for her deep passion of the environment and preserving it — is ensuring her environmental mission continues in the form of almost 54 acres of donated land to the Hastings Public School District.

The land known as Marshall Ponds and located along 180th Street East will be used as an educational space for the district's students, while the district will continue to environmentally preserve it in conjunction with county workers. The donation is a fitting flourish from the afterlife for Karpen, who started the Hastings Environmental Protectors in 2003 and was heavily invested in local conservation, including having her own land preserved from development. She died in 2017 at 90 years old.

"To really understand this land and the donation of it to the school system, you would want to know about her," said Joe Beattie, a Hastings High School biology teacher. "She was a great, great protector of the environment and was very concerned about it."

The land donation was expected to be approved at Wednesday's school board meeting, pending final lawyer review. Superintendent Tim Collins expects that the land will start to be used for educational purposes by next spring.

"She was a great, great protector of the environment..."

Beattie and his wife would be invited to Karpen's home for tea and the conversation would usually shift to the environment, he said. She was concerned and passionate about it.

After Karpen died in 2017, she set provisions to ensure that her estate and properties would play a role in conservation, said Al Singer, a land conservation manager with Dakota County. Singer knew Karpen since about 2005 and came up with the idea to have her estate acquire land from Greg Stoffel and donate it to the district.

The Stoffel family had owned the property for five generations, said Barb Bauer, Greg Stoffel's sister. Unusable for farming, it had sat unused for the most part, she said.

Now sold, Bauer said it fits Stoffel's values — he's been honored for his conservation efforts in farming and had the property preserved in a county program in 2016 — and that they're happy to see it go for a use that won't lead to development.

"I don't really know if it's buildable, but I think Greg was hoping ... whoever bought it would leave it the way it is," she said. "This piece is just beautiful."

Singer says the land being donated to the district is a "fitting tribute" to Karpen and that she would be pleased with the decision.

"I think that both the environment and education were two of the most important values that she lived her life about," Singer said. "What's really gratifying is that this is a way to honor both of those interests ... I think she would just be thrilled."

The daughter of German immigrants and a former theatre associate professor at Mankato State University she lived out her environmental values and was dismayed by development in local environmental spaces, according to a Star Gazette article from 2007.

So she entered her 5.5-acre property and home along the Mississippi River in a Dakota County conservation program, barring it from future development. That was driven by the lack of old trees in other parts surrounding the property, that her family had once owned but sold.

Karpen also allowed Beattie's classes to come in and assist in the rehabilitation of that property, knowing she wouldn't get to see it improve in her lifetime.

"It's nothing we'll see," Karpen told the Star Gazette in the 2007 article. "But they're planting the seeds for the future."

The educational opportunity

When the proposal first came to Collins, he said he was surprised and unfamiliar with the land.

"It is not very often in the educational world where somebody comes up to you and says 'hey we'd like to give you 54 acres of land,'" he said. "Your first reaction is 'OK, what's the catch here?'"

Soon any doubt was washed away, and as it became a serious proposal and progressed, he shared it with some staff. They instantly knew the property and recognized the educational opportunity, Collin said.

Beattie said the land particularly fits into the district's efforts to revise its science curriculum and focused on "learn by doing." The land offers a wealth of opportunity with its differing landscapes — it features restored prairie, wetland, ponds, cattail marshes and more.

He envisioned several student-driven biological surveys of the land that gauge the health and diversity of the environment.

Pinecrest Elementary School Principal Paul Bakker said it could be used for elementary students too. He proposed things like having them learn about the life cycle at the site or participate in conserving it.

As a bird photographer, he was familiar with the land already and said it's known as a hot spot for the diverse bird species that reside there. Bakker compared the donated land to a family donating huge sums of money to help fund a new sporting initiative.

"I would liken it to a sports comparison ... in the science world this [donation] is comparable to that."