Anderson: Champion of Mississippi River access is moving on

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2014 - 12:14 AM

Paul Labovitz, who is leaving for another job, was devoted to keeping the Mississippi relevant and accessible.

Paul Labovitz of the National Park Service has been superintendent of the Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area, headquartered in St Paul, since 2007.

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Risk taking and government service generally aren’t mentioned in the same breath. But they are here in honor of Paul Labovitz, a National Park Service superintendent who has overseen the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), headquartered in St Paul, since 2007, and who soon will take a similar job managing the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

In his time in Minnesota, Labovitz has improved not only the Mississippi River, but the lives of many people who live near it, especially kids who might not otherwise have had a chance to see it up close.

Additionally — this is the risk-taking part — Labovitz has spoken out forcefully in defense of the Mississippi and all Minnesota waters, regarding the coming invasion of Asian carp, when it would have been more bureaucratically expedient to lie low and say little. Or nothing.

Yet you are forgiven if you’re unfamiliar with Labovitz or his responsibilities, because unlike national parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite or even our own Voyageurs on the Minnesota-Ontario border, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area lacks well-defined boundaries, entrances and exits.

The MNRRA instead consists of 72 miles of the Mississippi River between the Twin Cities’ northernmost and southernmost suburbs. The area was federally designated by Congress in 1988, and was championed by the late U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento, a Democrat, and Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Republican, both from Minnesota.

“Our charge is to help protect and interpret a long list of resources and values associated with the Mississippi River, ranging from cultural to economic,’’ Labovitz said Thursday. “This is our one national park about the Mississippi River.’’

Aided by a staff that has been ever-shrinking because of federal budget cuts, Labovitz has focused his efforts on:

• Getting people to and on the river. “When I came here we were doing no canoeing, kayaking or fishing programs,’’ Labovitz said. “I’m proud now to say that with the help of our partners, including Wilderness Inquiry and the Mississippi River Fund, we’ve gotten about 60,000 kids onto the river.’’

• Stressing the importance of water quality. “Sediment entering the Mississippi from the Minnesota River and bacteria associated with development both affect the river,’’ he said.

• Working cooperatively with developers to have a positive influence on land-use decisions affecting the river.

• Helping people to understand the vital role the Mississippi has played in the state’s history — and will play in the future, assuming its continued relative health.

• Including the Mississippi in conservation discussions about the world’s great rivers, a list that includes the Nile, Amazon and Danube. “The Mississippi is among these, and its proponents need to be at the table when the future of these rivers is discussed,’’ Labovitz said.

The challenge for Labovitz and his staff has been to influence decisions affecting the river, absent specific regulatory authority.

“That’s where the partnership style that we’ve adopted has been a giant benefit,’’ he said. “It turns out that you don’t have to own and regulate land to effect positive change.’’

That Labovitz’s life is so centered on natural resource stewardship might seem unlikely, given that he grew up in Philadelphia. His dad was a cook and his mother a homemaker, and aside from an occasional jaunt to New Jersey, his family stayed pretty close to home.

Born in 1959, Labovitz hadn’t left the eastern time zone until 1988, when he joined the park service and was sent to Chicago for training.

Yet from early childhood, Labovitz has been fascinated by frogs, lizards, birds — anything outdoors. And when he told his parents he wanted to attend college to study forestry, they encouraged him.

Since then, he’s added an MBA to his résumé and managed various National Park Service properties around the country.

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