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Who We Are

The Friends of Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks, Inc. was founded in 1990 by a small group of dedicated local citizens who saw an opportunity to promote stewardship of the natural resources present in abundance in these parks. This members-based group, led by volunteers, gathers periodically for organizational meetings in order to work together with the park manager to organize and fund supplemental park programs, projects and events. The Friends group is part of a statewide network of citizen groups who have “adopted” state parks in order to support facility improvement, expand programs, and stay informed about important natural resources topics within the state.

The Friends of Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation organized for the purpose of supporting, assisting, and promoting the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources with nature interpretive, scientific, historical, recreational, educational and related visitor services at its Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks.


Board of Directors

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Rita Thofern, President

Rita is retired from the St. Paul Public Schools where her final assignment was as principal of Battle Creek Environmental Magnet School, a fine fit with her longstanding engagement with the environment and all things out of doors. At the parks Rita became involved in ski trail grooming many years ago, and her involvement with the Friends has expanded to a wide range of other volunteer activities. These include hiring and supervising the paid staff members, grant writing, overseeing nature center operation, assuring winter offerings for the public, including snowshoeing sessions and the annual candlelight ski, and serving on the committee that coordinates the Willow River Trail Challenge, the Friends’ primary fundraising event.

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Dave Thofern, Treasurer

Dave's first experiences at Willow River State Park began before it was a state park. When the park was still owned by Northern States Power, now Excel Energy, his Boy Scout troop would camp on the property in the late 1950s. After moving to the area in 1975, Dave and his wife, Rita, have become avid park users, skiing, snowshoeing, and ski-trail grooming in the winter, hiking in the summer. Dave is a retired St. Paul Public Schools elementary teacher. When not spending time at Willow or Kinni, he enjoys hiking, bicycling, and travelling. As a Friends board member for over ten years, he hopes to introduce our beautiful parks to people who are not traditional park users.

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Colleen O'Brien, Secretary

Colleen grew up visiting state and national parks with her family. Since moving  to North Hudson in 1990, she has been enjoying Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks with her husband, Jon. Their kids grew up hiking and cross country skiing at Willow River. They had fun in the kids’ programs and ski club. After years of volunteering in the Nature Center for programs and events, Colleen joined the Friends board in 2014. She is on the grants committee, finding ways to fund park improvements and programs.  Her interests include the development of the new Nature Center with “hands on” educational exhibits and activities, mountain bike trails, and encouraging kids and adults in year round activities.

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John Begin

John and his family moved to Hudson from Williston, Vermont in 1994. His 3 children attended Hudson schools and live in the area. His wife is recently deceased. John is retired from his career in aerospace and aviation and has volunteered on the WRSP buckthorn brigade in 2019. He is an active outdoor person enjoying hiking, kayaking and hunting.

John has extensive experience with environmental regulatory activities, environmental clean-up and remediation and activities to promote environmental awareness. He has led corporate environmental compliance programs for over 30 years, not only in the US but in countries around the world. He also has extensive experience on the topic of climate change and has participated in rule-making activities at the international level.

John views the Willow River and Kinnikinick state parks as outstanding public resources that merit constant care and conservation and is committed to do his part.


John Collins

John has lived with his wife Anne on the Western edge of the park since 1976. He's wandered through most of it over the years on foot, snowshoes, or skis. He knows a lot of cool off-trail spots. His two children also enjoyed the park growing up, sometimes spending whole days off in the woods with their friends. John served on the Hudson School Board in the 1980s, and worked as an engineer at 3M for many years before moving to the University of Minnesota where he taught Computer Science for 13 years. At home he enjoys gardening and woodworking. His focus is on education for children and for all park visitors, and he is always looking for better ways to get the buckthorn invasion under control.

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Joe Folsom

Joe's family enjoys a number of outdoor activities, including camping, hiking, cross country skiing, boating, and canoeing.  Joe has extensive nonprofit experience on the Boards of the Mid Iowa Council for the Boy Scouts of America, Woodbury figure Skating club, Sauk Rapids Youth Hockey Association, St. Cloud Figure Skating Club and Sauk Rapid Ice Arena Association. Joe continues his involvement with nonprofits as the Executive Director of Pierce County Economic Development Corporation and as a SCORE mentor. Joe has experience in community and economic development, and working with federal and state agencies and local units of government in a diverse array of projects and roles such as financing, construction community visioning and planning and environment assessment processes.

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Theresa Gibson

Theresa joined the board in 2017. She has lived in North Hudson with her husband and 9 year old son since 2002. She volunteered at the parks maintaining trails and working with the "Buckthorn Brigade" from 2014-2016. Her main goal for the two parks is to ensure that they are protected for future generations. She is interested in increasing outdoor recreation, fundraising, and educational opportunities at the parks, long into the future.


Dan Marchand

Dan’s early introduction to the beauty of Wisconsin’s outdoors came through summers at the family cottage near the headwaters of the St. Croix River and numerous Boy Scout camping trips, including many at the Fred C. Anderson Scout camp in Somerset. A highlight was a two-day jamboree near the Kinnickinnic River in 1972, the year the state park was established. Dan is an avid cross-country skier, hiker, and canoeist. He volunteers as a leader of the Willow River Youth Ski club during the winter months. Prior to returning to the Midwest, Dan resided for 15 years in the Oregon Coast Range, just south of Portland. Dan is chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin -River Falls, where he has taught for the past 19 years. He and his family reside in Hudson.

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Tim Nixon

Tim lives on the northern edge of the park with his wife Susan, two teenage sons Will and Charlie, and Patrick (Paddy) their chocolate lab.  All the boys spend countless hours exploring the park, and the family has nurtured a three acre native prairie and oak savannah parcel which serves as a seed-bank for native forbes and grasses.  Tim is also a member of the MN Audubon board, and writes professionally for Thomson Reuters about sustainability and the global environment.

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Tim Sass

Tim Sass is the branch manager of the Royal Credit Union in New Richmond, WI. Tim grew up in Hudson and graduated from Hudson High School. His family has always felt at home in the outdoors and grew up camping in Willow River, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and many National Parks such as Glacier and Banff. Tim learned how to set up a tent in Willow River and his family would come down to the beach every week and swim, hike and bike the trails. Tim’s family enjoys going to Willow River to cross country ski and snow shoe in the winter and true tent camping in the warmer months. Tim has served on several non-profit boards in MN and ND. If you can’t find him in the woods or on the water, you can find him year-round at a hockey rink with his son.

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Nick Schmit

Nick Schmit joined the Friends board in 2015 and serves on the Facilities Committee.  He and his wife Karen have lived in the community overlooking Little Falls Lake since 1980.  He retired from 3M (Health Care sales and marketing management) and he and Karen have been volunteering with the Friends group activities including the nature center for the past few years.

Interested in getting involved?