Nine months ago, one of Minnesota's most historic sites was littered with glass, trashed buildings, invasive buckthorn trees and crumbling asphalt roads.

This week, as Coldwater Spring in south Minneapolis reopens to the public, the 29-acre site between Fort Snelling and Minnehaha Park has been transformed to a natural park with oak trees and open vistas.

So far the $2.2 million makeover -- directed by the National Park Service, which owns the land -- is getting mixed reviews.

To Susu Jeffrey, an author and advocate of preserving the area, the Park Service has devastated the land.

"It's been toxified and clear-cut and then leveled," she said, adding that it now looks like a corporate, suburban "McPark."

To Kate Havelin, coordinator for the Mississippi River Fund, a nonprofit that supports the Park Service, the new park is a perfect blend of nature and history.

"This really helps people make a connection between Coldwater Spring and the Mississippi River which is down below," she said. "You never saw that before."

The biggest change is the removal of 12 buildings that once were part of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, where scientists conducted world-class research from 1959 to 1996.

The limestone and brick buildings with blue facing were coated with graffiti inside and out, and had been ransacked in recent years by vandals and thieves for copper wiring and piping.

Also missing are thousands of trees, cleared for a 13-acre prairie that's been seeded and mulched with native grasses and flowers.

The huge willow tree that shaded the reservoir below Coldwater Spring is gone. Park officials said it was an "extreme hazard" that needed to be removed for safety reasons.

The spring, in the middle of the property, is considered sacred by some American Indians and is a key feature in the new park. It was also an important source of water and the center of a pioneer settlement when soldiers built nearby Fort Snelling in the early 1800s.

The U.S. Department of the Interior transferred the land to the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, part of the Park Service, in 2010.

A work in progress

Alan Robbins-Fenger, planning and land use specialist with the Park Service, walked the property last week. He said the aim of the project was to restore the landscape to its natural state, an oak savanna dominated by oaks and grasses.

Walking along a handicapped-accessible trail of finely crushed limestone, Robbins-Fenger passed the newly seeded prairie, which looks exposed and barren because no plants have yet emerged.

"We basically had a wholesale mowing operation with a brush cutter and tree remover," he said. "We took all the vegetation off but left stumps for erosion control while the prairie plants get established."

Large bur oaks border the new prairie and are scattered elsewhere on the property, and more will be planted, he said. The Park Service also is restoring a couple of wetlands where buildings once stood.

Robbins-Fenger stood at the edge of Coldwater Spring, which is fed by groundwater and collects in a reservoir. The spring water formerly spilled into a culvert and disappeared under a road, but now the creek has been "daylighted" and re-routed to meander past large, flat limestone slabs.

"We wanted to allow people the ability to sit on the edge of the stones and enjoy the creek and the water and the flow," he said.

Robbins-Fenger said the park is a work in progress and that it will seem less exposed and more intimate in a few years after the prairie plants take hold and new trees begin to provide more shade.

Volunteers will help to plant many of those trees, he said, and about 1,000 individuals, many from companies and civic groups, already have already been removing buckthorn and other unwanted vegetation in the past two years.

Ownership challenged

Sheldon Wolfchild, a Dakota leader from the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation in Morton, Minn., said he feels betrayed by the Park Service.

"They played us along," Wolfchild said. "We let them take the buildings out, and the next thing we know all the trees are gone and it's all barren. It's devastating."

Wolfchild said the Interior Department should give the land back to the Dakota. Spiritually and historically, he said, it has been a place of origin, creation and beginning for Indian people.

Indian ownership would allow the site to be used for indigenous ceremonies, Wolfchild said, and for a cultural center that would draw thousands from around the world.

John Anfinson, chief of resource management for the Park Service, said that he and others consulted with 10 Dakota tribes in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana and Nebraska as they prepared an extensive environmental study of the land and how it should be managed.

Several of the tribes claim the land is important to them, he said. "It would have been difficult to give to all tribes to co-manage it," he said.

Instead, he said, the mission of the Park Service is to "make it accessible to everybody and to protect it for everybody, and that's what we've done."

A few people may dislike the changes, Anfinson said, but he has also heard that some tribes are pleased that the buildings are gone and the prairie is being restored. The Park Service will accommodate tribes who want to use the site for spiritual ceremonies, he said.

Unlike nearby Minnehaha Falls Park, the new Coldwater Spring park will be kept as natural as possible, Robbins-Fenger said, with no restrooms, picnic tables, paved paths or concessionaires.

The old stone springhouse, some concrete steps and a corner of one of the Bureau of Mines buildings were left to hint at the past. A few interpretive signs will be posted to provide additional history.

Essentially the land will be a day-use park for walking and enjoying nature, Robbins-Fenger said.

"We've upped the wildlife quotient on this property from what it was," he said. "In five to 10 years it'll be light-years beyond anything that would have been here had we just walked in and left it alone."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388