Close-to-home national park is under threat

  • Updated: May 16, 2011 - 9:19 PM

Bipartisan support for the Mississippi River Critical Area is on the wane.

It may come as a surprise to some Minnesotans that we have a National Park running through the heart of the Twin Cities metropolitan region.

In 1988, Congress established the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), a 72-mile corridor from Dayton to Hastings, to protect and enhance the unique natural and cultural resources of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities. A decade earlier, the same corridor was recognized by Minnesota when it was designated as a State Critical Area in order to protect and manage a resource of statewide significance.

Unfortunately, important state protections put in place in 2009 are now threatened with repeal by the Legislature.

The MNRRA is an unusual national park, because the Park Service owns very little land in the corridor. It operates as a "partnership park," with the Park Service working collaboratively with more than 30 state and local government units to implement goals.

One of the essential promises of this partnership has never been fulfilled. The state promised to revise the standards and guidelines for the Mississippi River Critical Area, a framework that has not been updated since it was established more than three decades ago. With 30 local units of government with land-use authority along the river, some over-arching minimum guidelines are necessary to avoid death by a thousand cuts -- the gradual degradation of the very qualities that make the Mississippi such a treasure.

In 2009, the Legislature took steps to fulfill the promise to MNRRA, passing legislation authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to establish new standards for the Critical Area through state rulemaking. Rulemaking was rightly selected as the best way to modernize guidelines. Minnesota has a strong tradition of robust, science-based rulemaking that also assures public and stakeholder input. Before rules are finally adopted, they must also undergo judicial review to make sure they are both needed and reasonable.

The 2009 law passed with bipartisan support, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's signature and a $500,000 appropriation. Most of the appropriation has been spent on developing the draft rules, which are very near completion.

But earlier this legislative session, two bills passed the state Senate that would repeal the 2009 law, stripping the DNR of its authority to adopt these rules. Some members of the majority in the House of Representatives were reluctant to take this drastic measure. But unfortunately, House members recently agreed to accept the Senate's position in their conference report.

Repeal would roll back vital environmental protections for a unique state and national resource and end a longstanding tradition of bipartisan support for protecting the Mississippi River Critical Area. This is the wrong direction for Minnesota. We strongly urge the Legislature to resist, and for Gov. Mark Dayton to veto, any bills that would repeal or suspend the DNR's ability to complete and adopt new rules for the Mississippi River Critical Area.

A lot of false and unconstructive arguments are being made to justify the repeal. Statements about loss of local control and government takeovers of land are simply untrue, and are intended to frighten riverfront property owners. The DNR's authority will be unchanged with new rules, and local governments will continue to be responsible for implementing them as they have been.

The Mississippi River is certainly one of our state's most important natural assets. The river supports hundreds of species of birds, fish and wildlife, provides a multitude of recreational opportunities for our citizens, attracts millions of visitors each year, and is a critical source of drinking water for our region and for millions of Americans living downstream from us.

Our community benefits greatly from a healthy Mississippi River. It is our responsibility to ensure that those benefits are maintained and even enhanced for our grandchildren and theirs.

Walter Mondale is former vice president of the United States. David Durenberger is a former U.S. senator from Minnesota.

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