John Anfinson has spent much of his career documenting the history of the Mississippi River. As the new head of the only national park dedicated to the river, he now has the chance to contribute to it.

And in the next couple years, he wants to make more people aware of what's offered by the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the 72-mile federally protected string of parks and public land that follows the river through the metro area from Dayton to Hastings.

"Our biggest challenge is that people don't know we exist here, and they don't know why it matters," he said. "We hope to change that."

Then there are the challenges facing the river itself: invasive Asian carp and zebra mussels, climate change and flooding cycles, runoff from farms, the strain on fresh water as groundwater is depleted, the growing popularity of riverfront development.

This spring, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will propose new land-use rules for the area covered by Anfinson's agency, which have drawn some heat from environmental and business interests alike.

As for keeping Asian carp at bay downstream, Anfinson fears that battle may be lost below the Ford Dam. "We can minimize the impact, but stopping them might already be too late."

On all of these issues, he believes that a federally designated park offers an important perspective — the value of preserving and interpreting one of the world's great rivers, which Minnesotans cross every day with nary a thought.

"We're the only national park unit that's about the Mississippi River, so how do we think about that and protect the whole?" he said. "We want to get communities to think beyond their interests and beyond the border."

Katie Nyberg, founding director of the Mississippi River Fund, a nonprofit that promotes the park and raises money for it, said Anfinson is the right person to lead the park into the future.

"What he sees, first of all, is a great opportunity to raise the profile of our national park, but also to get the public re-engaged with the river on a bigger scale," she said.

Partnership park

After 14 years as the chief historian and planner for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Anfinson, 60, was named superintendent of the park in August. In some ways, it seems like he has spent his entire career working toward this post.

Raised in Benson, Minn., in a public-spirited family — his brothers include a newspaper publisher, a First Amendment attorney and the state archaeologist — Anfinson earned a Ph.D. in American Indian history at the University of Minnesota and went to work researching Mississippi River projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While with the corps, he began work on "The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi," a book published by the U in 2003. By then he had moved to the National Park Service, becoming the river park's cultural head in 2000 and chief of resource management in 2010.

The park he now heads was established in 1988 as a "partnership park," one in which the federal government works with private groups, nonprofits, and local governments to maintain public and private land within park lines.

While the park corridor contains 54,000 acres, only 64 are owned by the National Park Service — on river islands and at Coldwater Spring in south Minneapolis. But it offers a wide range of activities, including cycling, bird-watching, fishing, hiking, camping, boating and canoeing.

Anfinson said the park was created in part because of its Minnesota backers in Congress — such as former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger and the late Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento — and because the stretch of the Mississippi that winds through the Twin Cities area has special cultural and scientific significance.

"The Mississippi changes more here than at any other place along its course," Anfinson said. "It's a prairie river, with banks and not bluffs, until it drops ... at St. Anthony Falls and becomes a tight canyon. Then at the mouth of the Minnesota [River], it opens up into a large flood-plain river."

Since the park's inception, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have devised master plans to encourage development that makes the riverfront an amenity rather than a wasteland.

Although the proposed DNR rules won't please everyone, Anfinson said that "they're not a huge imposition" or radically different from zoning codes already in place.

'A unique corridor'

Dan Petrik, a land-use specialist overseeing the rule-making process for the DNR, said the rules break the river corridor into six districts with different regulations based on whether they're rural, industrial, residential or urban. For instance, building heights in rural zones would be limited to 35 feet; in the urban downtown areas, the sky's the limit.

Petrik said the proposed rules will be forwarded to an administrative law judge, with time for public hearing and comment, before they're sent to Gov. Mark Dayton and the DNR commissioner for final adoption later this year.

The Mississippi forms "a unique corridor that's very iconic, and it's important to balance all of our interests and needs," whether they be commercial, scenic or as natural habitat, Petrik said.

In the meantime, Anfinson has plans for the river park. The National Park Service will mark its 2016 centennial with a national campaign promoting the parks, and he hopes to capitalize on the hoopla to get the visitor center renovated — a project estimated at $600,000 — and develop more ways to connect people with the river.

The park also recently commissioned a study, the first of its kind, to determine the dangers posed to birds by bridges within the river corridor.

Anfinson said the park has taken no position on the Vikings' new stadium in downtown Minneapolis, a glass structure that some environmentalists say will mean death for thousands of migrating birds.

Nyberg of the Mississippi River Fund said she has noticed network TV using a view of the Stone Arch Bridge over the river during Vikings games, which she takes as a good sign.

"The river is becoming one of those iconic images for Minneapolis and St. Paul," she said, "and the more we can make it a destination for people who live and visit here, the more and more people will care about it."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035