Where the Mississippi River Wanders

Native prairie plants in bloom at Schaar’s Bluff in Spring Lake Park

I arrived at Schaar’s Bluff a full two hours early to ensure that I would have adequate time to explore Spring Lake Park Reserve and the surrounding area before the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rulemaking meeting was scheduled to begin. Dozens of times I’ve crossed the Hastings bridge thinking, “One of these days, I’m going to check out that downtown,” but I’d yet to follow through on my intentions to explore the “other side” of the river.

A view from high on the bluff above Lock and Dam #2

I started on bike down a trail that delivered me straight into town, past antique stores, cafes, and thrift shops, and then followed a road into the Mississippi River backwaters until the pavement disappeared. Circling back through Hastings, I took a scenic detour down to Lock and Dam No. 2, where I was delighted to find another trail segment that looped me back up to Spring Lake Park. Trains rumbled along the tracks on the Cottage Grove side of the river and rock cliffs rose majestically along both sides of the water.

Back in the park, with half an hour to spare, I threw on my running shoes and took to the woods. A young deer leaped away as I loped down a dirt path that wound and curved around trees with knobby roots poking out of the earth. Around another bend I began to see enticing glimpses of the river valley down below. Then, at last, a small break in the trees appeared at the edge of a dramatic rock bluff. “If only I had brought rappelling gear,” I thought with a grin, as I snapped a selfie from the top of the ledge.

Sheer rock cliffs line the Mississippi in Spring Lake Park Reserve

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has spent nearly seven years attempting to update the rules that govern development along the Mississippi River in the seven county metro. Established in the mid 1970’s, the rules are intended to protect habitat along the river corridor, preserve bluffs and other special features, and reduce erosion and runoff pollution to the river. In 2007 and then 2009, the Minnesota Legislature directed the DNR to prepare a report on the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area and then develop new updated rules that would better protect vegetation, habitat and soil resources; reduce administration costs for state and local governments due to vague language and complex administrative procedures; and make it easier for communities and private landowners to re-develop and invest in areas suitable for development. After a long process, temporarily abandoned in 2011, the DNR has now resumed the rule update effort. The agency has spent the past year working with local units of government to develop draft rules and they are now seeking additional input from citizens who live on and love the Mississippi.

The public meeting at Schaar’s Bluff on Aug. 24 was one of three held along the river. At the meeting, people living on the Mississippi River in Dakota and Washington Counties came to learn more about the rules update process and share their opinions about proposed changes. I sat in the back of the room listening to people give heartfelt testimonies about living on, fishing on, and growing up exploring along the river and it was clear that everyone in the crowd cared deeply about protecting the Mississippi, whether or not they agreed on the rules.

Sunset over the Mississippi from Schaar’s Bluff

Though there are no more public meetings scheduled for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rule revision process, the DNR is still accepting comments from the public until 4:30pm on Friday, Aug. 15. The DNR is interested in hearing from people who recreate on and along the river, as well as those who own land within the corridor and is looking for specific feedback on the draft standards. What doesn’t work and why? What needs clarification? What specific changes do you recommend?

The meeting ended as the sun slid down the sky and into the river. Standing outside the Schaar’s Bluff gathering space, I drank in the view of the Mississippi River Valley below, awash in pink and gold.

To learn more about the draft rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area visit http://dnr.state.mn.us/input/rules/mrcca. Submit comments via email, mail or fax to Daniel Petrik at mrcca.rulemaking@state.mn.us; MRCCA Rulemaking Project, Minnesota DNR, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155-4032; or Fax: 651-296-1811