Every day, more than 1.2 million cars cross the 26 bridges over the Mississippi River as it winds through the Twin Cities metro area. Lurking just below the railings, briefly visible, but often unseen or unnoticed, is the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, one of six national parks that dot the Minnesota landscape.
From the Ferry Street bridge in Anoka to the new Hastings bridge on Highway 61, the Mississippi River's parkland stretches down 72 miles of riverfront, connecting communities with the water. Established in 1988, it is the youngest of Minnesota's national parks.
Together, these parks are a representation of the breadth of nature, culture and history that define Minnesota, from the Native history of Pipestone to the natural wonder of Voyageurs.
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100 years of service
...there is hereby created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service...
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the National Park Service Organic Act, establishing a Park Service to administer the national park system that had been expanding since 1872 when Yellowstone National Park was founded. For nearly 50 years prior to the act, national parks and monuments had been administered by a patchwork of local organizations, states and even the U.S. Army. The newly formed National Park Service consolidated oversight and protection of the growing numbers of parks, monuments, battlefields and more.
Our urban park isn't the classic square variety with a clear boundary
The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations...
The Mississippi National River is the only park devoted to the river itself. There are other National Park Service units along the river, but none of them tell the story — and protect the resources — of the Mississippi, said the park's superintendent, John Anfinson. It is a thriving park within the large urban area of the Twin Cities, and makes the diverse ecosystems of the Mississippi river available to the public, while preserving them.
In a special case of federal-local partnership, the park was established within the boundaries of the Minnesota-created Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area, an area designated by the state as a resource to be protected. The park works in concert with the municipalities and other agencies throughout the river's corridor.
According to Anfinson, the park has evolved substantially since it was established: It had no public visitors center until 2003, when one was opened inside St. Paul's Science Museum of Minnesota. Since then, through various partnerships, the park has taken over administration of Coldwater Spring, a 29-acre area adjacent to Fort Snelling, and opened the St. Anthony Falls Visitor Center at the recently closed Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam.
"The river changes here more than anywhere along its course"
...purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein...
Anfinson said there are three distinct parts of the park, each offering visitors a very different experience:
• The 'Prairie River': Upstream of St. Anthony Falls, through Coon Rapids and Anoka, the river is in a more natural state than it is inside the city. It's calmer and free flowing — the perfect spot if you live in the city and want to get away from it all.
• The 'Gorge': Downstream from St. Anthony Falls, the park is defined by the the tight narrow canyon where the river drops 110 feet over 8 and a half miles. In this section, the river flows fast and strong amid the densely forested shores and stark limestone bluffs.
• The 'Big River' experience: This is the beginning of the wide floodplain valley "that Mark Twain is known for," Anfinson said. This section starts below Fort Snelling, from the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota rivers and runs to Hastings and farther south.
Trails cover much of the shoreline in each of the three sections. The East and West River Roads flank the water, and provide easy access along much of the park. Outreach programs are active year-round, and range from cycling tours to fishing classes.
New challenges for the next century of service
...to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
When the National Park Service was created, it solidified the framework for preserving and maintaining a system of national resources. The National Park System consisted of 35 federally funded sites in 1916, and over the intervening hundred years it has grown to more than 400.
As the Park Service enters its second century it faces an increasingly urban public. According to Superintendent Anfinson the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and other urban parks are at the vanguard of work to fulfill its mission of stewardship and engagement and no longer the oddities of the park service.
The Park Service is hosting events during the month of August to celebrate their centennial on August 25, 2016. The festivities in Minnesota will culminate in the "National Parks Day at the Minnesota State Fair" on August 29th.