Urban national park celebrates Mississippi River.

Last year, about 4,000 Twin Cities students climbed into Voyager canoes and set off down the Mississippi River. On about 70 occasions, groups of the youngsters paddled past downtown Minneapolis, through the lock at the Ford dam and on to Fort Snelling State Park or Harriett Island.

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Ranger Dan Dressler leads a
Saturday-morning bike tour at the
Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park

Rangers with the National Park Service joined the trips to teach the kids about science and the history of the river, and to introduce the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area to a group of kids who otherwise might never have known the park was there.

Park rangers also lead bike trips and hiking excursions along the river. Every Monday morning, rangers host a river-themed story time for pre-school kids at the park’s visitor center in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The Mississippi River and Recreation Area — a 72-mile stretch on both sides of the Mississippi River from Ramsey in Anoka County to south of Hastings in Dakota County — is one of only a handful of urban national parks. Few people realize that the park, which is within a short drive or  bus ride for 2.8 million Twin Cities residents, is part of the National Park system, just like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Voyageurs.

“We joke that we’re probably one of the most visited parks in the country. Yet 90 percent of the people who come through here have no idea they’ve been here,” said MNRRA Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz.

In 1988, Congress established the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area as part of the National Park Service. The legislation was sponsored by the late U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento.

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Photo: Wilderness Inquiry
Twin Cities youngsters paddle
Wildnerness Inquiry canoes into a lock
on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis

The strips of land along both sides of the river that make up the park add up to 54,000 acres. Of that, the Park Service owns only 35 acres on nine islands. In 2009, the park operated on a budget of $2.1 million and has 30 full-time and 10 seasonal employees.

While many big cities have national historic sites owned by the National Park Service, only a few in the country are big recreation-based parks.

“The National Park Service is famous for having the most spectacular landscapes,” said National Park Service Ranger Dan Dressler. “We are the one unit that is dedicated to the Mississippi River, one of the greatest natural resource in the United States. They are here to see the Mississippi.”

During the spring and summer, Dressler and other rangers lead “Bike with a Ranger” tours along the river, making frequent stops to talk about the historical and natural significance of the site. One-hour “Hike with a Ranger” excursions were added in 2009.

The park offers some of the best bird watching in the country as many species of birds migrate along the river.

In 2009, the MNRRA began a partnership with Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit group, to offer canoe trips down the Mississippi for students.

Because most of the park territory is owned by the cities bordering the river, MNRRA officials works with the cities to protect and preserve river and to offer educational opportunities for Twin Cities residents and visitors.

Currently the MNRRA has begun to focus on acquiring the former Bureau of Mines property, located on the west side of the river between Minnehaha Falls and Fort Snelling State Park. Labovitz said the plan is to demolish some of the buildings on the land and restore it to a prairie-type setting, adding 27 acres of land to the MNRRA.


Park Superintendent
Paul Labovitz, near
the Stone Arch Bridge
in Minneapolis
Photo: National Park Service
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Beyond adding to the park land, Labovitz said his goal is to bring more public awareness to the Mississippi River and Recreation Area, and to make it a source of pride for people in the Twin Cities.

“If you want to go and see some world-class bird watching, or fish, or canoe, or paddleboat, or walk or bike along the river, you come to the Twin Cities and you can get on the Mississippi River and enjoy it and learn all about it. That it’s a must-do thing when you come to the Twin Cities,” Labovitz said. “Our job is to give people that entre’ to the river and talk about the whole Mississippi River.”

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