A former federal research site along the Mississippi River that contains a 10,000-year-old natural spring will be opened to the public as parkland, the National Park Service announced Monday.
The former Bureau of Mines site is on 27 acres along the Mississippi River between Minnehaha Park and Fort Snelling State Park. The area includes Coldwater Spring, a resource that many American Indians still consider sacred.
The site has 11 vacant buildings, many of which have fallen into disrepair.
As part of a final Environmental Impact Statement, the National Park Service recommends demolishing the buildings to make way for native prairie, oak trees and trails for people to enjoy nature and learn about the site's history, said Alan Robbins-Fenger, a planning and land use specialist with the park service.
"It allows the public full access to the site," he said of the recommendation.
It isn't yet clear how soon the buildings could be taken down and roads removed.
The environmental study will become official in about 30 days, which is when the National Park Service will announce what agency will manage the site. Then, officials would request federal funding for the demolition of the buildings and restoration of the site, Robbins-Fenger said.
During the planning process, which has taken several years, there were discussions about having the land become part of Minnehaha Park or Fort Snelling State Park. But the city and state weren't interested in taking on the additional expense, so the site will likely continue to be managed by the federal government.
Robbins-Fenger said Congress directed the park service to find a way to keep the area free from development, so the task became trying to figure out what option would cause the least environmental damage to the area.
Several groups, including Friends of Coldwater and the Sierra Club, had endorsed plans to make the site public open space. The plan will preserve Coldwater Spring and finally get rid of buildings that have been attracted drug users and vandals, said Susu Jeffrey, founder of Friends of Coldwater.
"Coldwater is the last major natural spring left in all of Hennepin County, so it belongs to the people," Jeffrey said. "This will be urban wilderness, a place where the land is honored for its own history."
Jeffrey said she hopes the space will become a sort of "green museum" where people can learn about the spring's history, the Mississippi River gorge and the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.
The spring was used by Indian tribes before the U.S. Army built Fort Snelling nearby. In the 1820s, soldiers used the spring as a resource. In the late 1800s, a spring house and reservoir were built.
The Bureau of Mines buildings were built in the 1940s and '50s to research mining techniques and safety. Research being done at the center was transferred to universities and other government centers in 1996 during a series of budget cuts.
The National Park Service hopes to at least have signs in the park that educate people about the Bureau of Mines site and the work that was once done there. For example, a taconite mining process that's still used today on Minnesota's Iron Range was refined in one of the now-vacant buildings, Robbins-Fenger said.
However, park officials expect most visitors to the site will be interested foremost in Coldwater Spring.
"The spring itself is very unique and has a lot of history connected to it," Robbins-Fenger said, adding that the land will provide a connection between other historic sites like Minnehaha Falls and Fort Snelling. "This is just another piece that fills in kind of a gap in the middle that will remain public land."