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Northland Arboretum bounces back after rocky COVID-19 year

“Our vision, ultimately, is to be a place where the community respects and connects with nature,” Executive Director Candice Zimmermann told the Brainerd City Council Monday, Nov. 15, during her annual update.


The Northland Arboretum is on the up and up financially after the previous fiscal year saw a deficit in the nonprofit’s budget.

Armed with COVID-19 relief funds, several donations and about $56,000 from this year’s Haunted Trail event, the Arboretum is in a better financial position in 2021 and continues to educate the community and offer various conservation and recreation opportunities.

“Our vision, ultimately, is to be a place where the community respects and connects with nature,” said Candice Zimmermann, Arboretum executive director, during her annual update to the Brainerd City Council Monday, Nov. 15.

The conservation nonprofit in Brainerd and Baxter stands on three pillars — education, recreation and conservation.


Area students attend spring field trips at the Arboretum, and a newly developed kids’ corner offers various activities, contributing to an uptick in youths coming and making use of the facilities.


Thanks to a new Green Corps member who will be at the nonprofit through August 2022, the Arboretum is ready to offer free nature classes to elementary schools in the area in an effort to get more youths involved in outdoor activities.

A Monarch butterfly exhibit brought more young families into the visitors center this year, and Zimmermann hopes to continue reaching more and more community members.

She also wants to add spontaneous educational opportunities. For instance, if people are walking on the trails and notice an interesting flower or tree that they’d like to identify, virtual maps and other signage along the trail could be available to help with that identification.

“Ultimately what we want to do is connect youth, reach young families and really expand our educational programming,” Zimmermann said.

Candice Zimmermann, executive director of the Northland Arboretum in Brainerd and Baxter, updates the Brainerd City Council Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, about the nonprofit's past year. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch


The Northland Arboretum boasts nearly 12 miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails and more than 2 miles of snowshoe trails, open to the public and free for members.

Recently improved trail lighting aims to make the grounds safer and more usable during the darker hours in the winter months.


“In the cold weather months, when people tend to want to get hunkered down, we want to get them outside,” Zimmermann said.

She also hopes to get the Arboretum designated under the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission, which would open up access to state funds for infrastructure improvements; wants to create an event revolving around physical activity; and plans to make improvements to the fitness trail.


Along with being a wildlife preserve, the Arboretum is also home to unique environments like one of only five jack pine savannas in the state and houses pink lady slipper plants. A partnership with the Nature Conservancy ensures the Northland Arboretum follows best practices when it comes to conservation efforts.

A compost site is open to all community members for dropping off and picking up.

Zimmermann hopes to restore some of the Arboretum’s natural habitats — like the prairie — that have gotten put on the backburner and is using state grants to control invasive species on the property. She also plans to work with local and state agencies to improve the water quality of Whiskey Creek, which flows through the Arboretum land and into the Mississippi River.

Financial uptick

The Northland Arboretum brought in $360,970.15 in revenue for the fiscal year of Oct. 1, 2020 - Sept. 30, 2021, exceeding its expenditures by nearly $40,000. When Zimmermann presented to the council late last year, the nonprofit was looking at a $54,000 deficit.

The increase in revenue over the past fiscal year’s $246,629.82 can be attributed, in part, to increased membership, more grants and increased event revenue, including the 2021 Haunted Trail, which brought in about $2,000 more than last year.


People on the arboretum trail get a fright walking through the creepy doll section Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at the Northland Arboretum Haunted Trail. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The largest portion (25.5%) of the Arboretum’s annual funding comes from the city of Brainerd, followed by events (18.8%), grants (17.4%), member and gate fees (15.8%), donations (8%) facility rentals (7%), the first shop (5.2%), educational revenue (1.3%) and the last 0.5% coming from “other” sources, which include the city of Baxter.

When City Council President Kelly Bevans asked about Brainerd’s yearly contribution to the Arboretum compared to other municipalities — like Baxter or Crow Wing County — Zimmermann noted that about 40% of those who use the Arboretum are Brainerd residents, while those in Baxter make up about 14% of those using it.

Grants came in this year from the Brainerd Rotary Club, Gould Foundation, Brainerd Noon Sertoma, Option Roundup, Sourcewell and Conservation Legacy Partners.

COVID-19 funds helped as well, with the Arboretum seeing $67,395 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, $12,266.69 in county relief funds and a $5,000 grant from the Brainerd Community Foundation.

Looking ahead

Zimmermann has three operational goals for the Arboretum moving forward.

The first is to get the word out about the nonprofit’s offerings through improved marketing strategies via the website, social media and other platforms. A marketing committee will help provide consistent messaging to the community, members and potential donors.

Next is sustainability, which means a clear plan for the future to ensure the Arboretum continues to thrive for future generations. This goal includes being financially responsible, creating impactful experiences for guests and members, and being good stewards of the environment.

Lastly is building the nonprofit’s capacity, which comes in many forms. Zimmermann hopes to build upon the volunteer base, the finances and the board in order to create a healthier working environment for staff. Investing in technology will help achieve this goal.

“I want to wrap up tonight with a quote by Frank Lloyd Wright,” Zimmermann concluded Monday, paraphrasing the acclaimed architect. “We want to study nature, we want to love nature and stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .
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