A proposal to rename one of five state parks on the St. Croix River after former Vice President Walter Mondale has been abandoned after strong opposition from nearby residents.
Instead, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said he will propose naming a section of the St. Croix connecting those parks the “Walter F. Mondale Scenic Riverway,” including river landings, park pavilions and new interpretive signage. He said he’s working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on the details.
The amendment also calls for renaming existing structures at four of the parks after Mondale, such as the scenic overlook and trail at Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls; the day use center at William O’Brien State Park in Marine on St. Croix; and the visitor centers at the St. Croix and Wild River state parks in Pine and Chisago counties.
Winkler said naming a single park after Mondale would have been simpler, but that he decided to compromise after residents near Interstate and St. Croix parks balked at changing their names.
“I personally think the folks in the area should have been happy for the renaming. The parks are a state asset. It’s not theirs,” Winkler said. Without the work done to conserve the area, he said, there would be “wall-to-wall development. ... It would look nothing like it does today. It would look like Lake Minnetonka.”
Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, last month introduced a bill to re-christen Interstate in honor of Mondale, who helped preserve the St. Croix and other waterways as a Democratic U.S. senator in the 1960s by sponsoring the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Winkler’s bill even found a Republican sponsor, Sen. Karin Housley of St. Marys Point.
‘A natural treasure’
But there was pushback. Former state Rep. Phyllis Kahn pointed out that a 2009 state law forbids naming parks and other entities after a living person, and Taylors Falls Mayor Mike Buchite said Interstate’s name was historic and meaningful.
The park was founded more than 130 years ago when mining operations threatened the river bluffs.
“In 1895, the idea of Interstate Park was radical. It was the first time in history two states worked together to preserve a natural treasure,” said Taylors Falls economic development commission member Wade Vitalis, who testified against the bill with the mayor at a House committee meeting.
Bob Meier, assistant commissioner for the DNR, said at a hearing the agency had concerns about naming places after people and that it preferred names tied to scenic, geologic or cultural features.
Winkler then pivoted to nearby St. Croix State Park, but residents there — including newly elected state Rep. Nathan Nelson, R-Hinckley — said they didn’t want to rename their park either. More than 1,800 signed a petition opposing a name change.
Nelson said residents admire and respect Mondale. Many said they voted for him in his failed presidential bid in 1984.
“They say to me, ‘I would support the guy again today, but I don’t support the name change for the park,’ ” Nelson said. “That’s because it’s been St. Croix State Park since the 1930s. Their grandparents worked at the park, built it, founded it.”
The park was created in 1935 under the direction of the National Park Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.
Many of the buildings and structures at the 34,000-acre park are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tribes such as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have an important connection to the river, and Nelson said that some in the Indian community were not keen about a new name. “The St. Croix River is part of their heritage,” he said.
‘I love the north’
At a committee meeting in March, Winkler said Mondale is “a hero of mine and a person who has made a significant contribution to our state, our country and our natural places.”
Mondale, 91, is one of the best-known political leaders in Minnesota history. He was vice president from 1977 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter, and U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996.
In his 2010 book “The Good Fight,” Mondale writes about the time that a Wisconsin senator approached him to cosponsor the Wild and Scenic Rivers legislation. “What he didn’t know was that the St. Croix is where Joan and I had our first date, an afternoon of canoeing. I loved that river,” Mondale wrote, referring to his late wife, who died in 2014.
Winkler has shown a video about Mondale’s legacy at the State Capitol to promote his renaming campaign. In it, there’s a clip of Mondale explaining why he was drawn to environmental causes.
“I love the outdoors. I love the north. I love the wilderness,” Mondale said. “Every time I am around it I’d like to save it and make certain that my kids, and their kids and your kids would have just as much chance to be thrilled by that beauty as you and I have been.”