A parcel of land that's one of Minnesota's most historic sites and considered sacred to some American Indians sits littered with glass, rusting debris and trashed buildings covered with graffiti and paintball splatters.

But beginning next month, excavators and other heavy equipment will level all 12 buildings on the land between Fort Snelling and Minnehaha Park, the first step in restoring the area to create a new national park addition.

The federal property, 27 acres formerly owned by the U.S. Bureau of Mines, contains the Coldwater Spring area that was part of one of the longest protests in state history in the late 1990s. Its transfer to the National Park Service in January 2010 and planned restoration is a turning point in what has been a long and sorry decline for the property, which has been vacant, neglected and ransacked during the past 15 years.

"It's terrific that such a potentially complicated and controversial situation has resolved itself very nicely," said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, which advocates for the river and its shoreline.

Once the $2.2 million project is completed next fall, visitors will be able to walk and bike in the area, which sits in the midst of other park land. Indians who want to perform ceremonies at Coldwater Spring, in the middle of the property, will be welcome to do so as long as they obtain special-use permits.

Reaching a low point

Walking the property last week, Alan Robbins-Fenger pointed to the buildings that will be demolished and removed this winter, beginning in mid-November.

They once housed the U.S. Bureau of Mines, where scientists conducted world-class research on taconite, mineral extraction and mine safety issues from 1959 to 1996.

The limestone and brick buildings with blue facing are coated with graffiti, inside and out, and all windows have been smashed.

Robbins-Fenger, planning and land use specialist with the Park Service, said that thievery and vandalism started in 2008 and reached a peak in early 2010. He estimates that copper wiring and piping worth $10,000 to $20,000 have been looted. He has boarded windows and picked up trash, including air conditioners pushed off rooftops and about 300 golf balls and clubs. "People were firing golf balls into the side of buildings through the windows," he said.

It has been a "nonstop revolving door" trying to protect the property, said Robbins-Fenger, with 16 arrests and two prosecutions in the past few years.

For most of the past decade, the site was managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Park Service received the land in January of last year, with a mandate to remove the buildings and restore the land to its natural condition.

Respecting the land

When soldiers built nearby Fort Snelling in the early 19th century, Coldwater Spring was an important source of water and the center of a pioneer settlement. The Dakota have long considered the spring and surrounding area of spiritual importance, because it's near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.

For some Indians, the restoration is long overdue.

"We'd like them to clean up that land. They destroyed it, they poisoned it, they contaminated it," said Chris Mato Nunpa, retired professor of Indian Affairs at Southwest Minnesota State University, referring to the federal government.

Mato Nunpa, now teaching Dakota history and culture at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, said he was unhappy that federal agencies have decided to continue owning the land. "We'd like it back," he said, adding that there may be future legal efforts to reclaim it.

John Anfinson, chief of resource management for the Park Service, said 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.

"The tribes said it's a very important place and that we should respect it and do the right thing by it, so that's what we're trying to do," he said.

The area was the site of a lengthy public dispute in the late 1990s over the shifting of Hwy. 55 from its former route along old Hiawatha Avenue to a new route closer to the Mississippi River. The new routing was opposed by people who feared its impact on the park, those who wanted the area's oaks spared, Indian activists who regarded some affected spaces as sacred and those who feared the new route would dry up Coldwater Spring.

Opening up the space

Restoration will include removing many trees other than oaks, planting prairie grasses and plants, converting crumbling asphalt roads to trails, and regrading areas prone to erosion, said Robbins-Fenger.

Coldwater Spring flows into a reservoir and then under a road through a culvert, he said, but the road and culvert will be removed so that the creek can be "daylighted" and routed along a more natural flow path.

"It'll be more of an open space with trails in it, as opposed to the traditional park with shelters, picnic tables and rest rooms," he said.

Anfinson said the Park Service will interpret the site's rich history for visitors, from Indian ownership and use of the site, to the military period of Fort Snelling and early white settlement, to the Bureau of Mines period, to present-day restoration "and what it takes to bring a site like this back to what Mother Nature intended it to be."

The park also will give the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area more of an identity. It now owns nine islands totalling 35 acres in the Mississippi River, but it has no mainland base, as do most national parks. The entrance to the 27 acres will be marked with a standard national park sign, said Anfinson, identifying it as the Coldwater Unit of the Recreation Area.

Linking public land

Anfinson said the Veteran's Administration owns a 22-acre parcel immediately north of the site and has agreed to let the Park Service restore its landscape to more natural conditions, and possibly to acquire it in the future.

Linking up public lands and improving them is happening more and more across the country, said Bruce Chamberlain, assistant superintendent for planning at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The connections "knit together" land into larger chunks or corridors that can improve wildlife habitat, flyways, water quality, wetlands and other features. "Individual projects are important in their own right, no question, but the real power can be seen once they are all together," he said.

Park Service officials said the demolition around Coldwater Spring is the first step, and grading and landscaping will occur next spring and summer.

Once the park is reopened in about a year, they said, its hours are likely to coincide with nearby Minnehaha Park and Fort Snelling State Park.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388