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Kafka takes helm at Afton's Belwin Conservancy

Belwin Conservancy celebrated its fifth bison release Saturday. A herd of roughly 30 bison were released out into the conservancy's prairies. Close to a hundred people turned out for the event. Bulletin photo by Amber Kispert-Smith

A new director has taken the helm at Afton's Belwin Conservancy.

Nancy Kafka, of Red Wing, started as the new executive director on June 4.

Kafka is replacing former director Steve Hobbs, who worked as director since 2007.

Hobbs took a job as the Minnesota director for the Conservation Fund.

"I'm here to give people an experience of nature," Kafka said.

Belwin Conservancy, located in Afton, comprises more than 600 acres of preserved land that the nonprofit organization uses for preservation, restoration and conservation.

Also housed at Belwin Conservancy is an education building, used by St. Paul Public Schools, and an observatory.

Finding the beauty

Kafka said she began working in conservation really by accident.

She graduated with a degree in housing from the University of Minnesota after which she moved to Boston, Mass.

"I started out doing any job I could get," she said.

After working her way through various jobs, in both the private and public sector, Kafka found herself living the community of South End in Boston.

"There was a burgeoning effort to create a land trust to develop a community garden," she said.

Kafka took a lead role to help develop the land trust before going to work for the Trust for Public Land with its urban programs.

She said she was drawn to the work with the land trust because she was struck by how little open space there was for families.

"I grew up in St. Paul on Como Lake and I felt that should be the child's experience of nature," she said. "So I was really struck by what it's like not to have 600 acres to roam around in on your own, on your bike, climbing trees and fishing.

"I really thought people should have beauty - beauty is really the driving force in my connection to nature."

Kafka spent nearly 30 years in Boston before coming back to Minnesota and going to work for the Minnesota Land Trust four years ago.

Bridging the gap at Belwin

Kafka was recruited by the Belwin Board of Directors for the open executive director position and she said she jumped at the opportunity.

"The nature of the people that work in the field are extraordinarily soulful people who know why nature is important in their lives and they talk about it and experience it," she said. "I love the idea that it's the unknown since it's uncharted territory in many ways."

Over the last two weeks, Kafka has been working to acquaint herself with the mission and vision of Belwin.

"You have to adjust by immersion and experience," she said.

Kafka said she is excited about identifying ways to continue to enhance people's experiences with the environment.

"The board of Belwin is very interested in broadening people's experiences with the environment," she said. "None of us know exactly how to do this, but we can't continue to only talk to people who care about the environment.

"How do you create bridges so more people can understand and experience nature in a different way and as a result change the way they impact the environment?"

One idea that has been in the works for some time, that Kafka is very interested in, is finding the relationship between nature and art.

"What does our environment look like from an artist's perspective," she said.

Even though Kafka has a few ideas for Belwin, she said she has no intention of changing things too much.

"The people here certainly don't need me to direct them in their work, they know what they're doing," she said. "My job is to help guide the bigger vision along and help give it shape."

Kafka said she is excited about her new venture at Belwin.

"I think this is an extraordinary opportunity to create something special here in Afton that is unique," she said.

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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