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Mdote Minisota

A Public EIS

Part 7


"A truthful, open, and ongoing environmental review process carried out by the public for the public, is needed to examine, document, and review all actions planned or undertaken by public agencies and private entities within the area of Mdote Minisota. Without such a process in place, this sacred and historic space may continue to be destroyed, bit by bit, historic property by historic property."Mdote Minisota, A Public EIS, Part 1

-October 6, 2006-

A Vision for Coldwater, Seven Years Later


Bruce White

[email protected]

The Bureau of Mines property at Coldwater Spring, near Fort Snelling in Hennepin County, Minnesota, presents a tremendous opportunity and challenge for today's decision makers, who are just the latest in a series of public officials and concerned citizens who have discussed the site's uses over the years. What should happen to the property and what plan would best achieve that outcome? Should it be office space for a school or a state or federal agency, or should it be parkland? Should it remain under federal ownership or become property of a state or local institution? How can the Native American historical, cultural, and sacred connection to the property best be accommodated? And how can the other historical, cultural, and environmental resources of the property best be preserved?

The current NEPA process for the former Bureau of Mines-Twin Cities research facility has as its goal the gathering of information to inform a decision by the Department of Interior as to what will happen to the property. While it is important for the public to comment on the adequacy of the information the National Park Service and its consultants have gathered for its draft EIS, it is also important to think about solutions and practical ways through which they can be achieved.

Guidance as to what should happen to the property can be found in its recorded history. During the last 200 years, Coldwater has been an encampment and ceremonial place for Indian people, an early home for soldiers, and a trading post and settlement. Throughout the 19th century Coldwater Spring was the water supply for Fort. During part of that time it appears to have been a public park. Photographs show recreational boaters floating in the spring basin in the late 19th century. Maps from the 1920s and early 1930s list the area as "Coldwater Park." In the 1950s Minnesota Historical Society director Russell Fridley, who was instrumental in saving Historic Fort Snelling from highway construction, envisioned that all of Camp Coldwater would be completely preserved as a park. Unfortunately Coldwater suffered a different fate. The Bureau of Mines was allowed to build its Twin Cities research facility there, which was in operation until the 1990s. During that period, public use of the spring was limited.

Since the Bureau of Mines went out of business, the idea that the Coldwater area might be preserved as open space, with its historical, cultural, and sacred qualities protected, has often been raised. One detailed proposal along these lines was in a report written for federal and state agencies in early 1999. Acknowledging the possible significance of the spring as traditional place of importance for Indian people and as a sacred place, the report proposed managing the property with these factors in mind, through the removal of buildings and replanting with prairie vegetation and oaks. The entire Bureau of Mines property, it noted, would make a welcome if added to nearby park land in a "historically rich area," a step that would "protect the site of Camp Coldwater and Coldwater spring for the future."

This vision for Coldwater is still a vital one and may be a good starting point for present-day discussion of what should happen to the Bureau of Mines property.


Early in 1999, The Cultural Resource Group of Louis Berger and Associates, Inc. (as the company was then called) was hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the Highway 55 reroute project, funded in part by the Federal Highway Administration, to do a cultural and historical research report on the Highway 55 corridor in the area of Coldwater Spring. The report was written by archaeologists John Hotopp and Randall Withrow during a time of great controversy, when highway opponents were questioning the adequacy of an earlier EIS (environmental impact statement) done in the 1980s. Highway opponents had pointed out that there was little or nothing in that EIS about the historical and cultural resources of the Coldwater area. 

Hotopp and Withrow conducted research to deal with one major question at issue: Were four oak trees located in the middle of the highway corridor near 54th Street a place of traditional cultural importance to the Dakota? The writers stated that they found no evidence to support this status. At the same time the authors stated that they did find evidence that Coldwater Spring, the source of which would pass through the highway corridor, could very well be a traditional cultural property (TCP). They suggested that full TCP study should be done, including consultation with Dakota and other Indian people to examine the question.

Because of what they said about the four oak trees, Hotopp and Withrow were criticized, rightly or wrongly, by highway opponents. They were also questioned by some historians, including me, for ignoring important documentary evidence about the historic Coldwater settlement. But now that a new TCP study, done for the National Park Service by the firms Summit Envirosolutions and Two Pines Resource Group, has supported Hotopp and Withrow's conclusion about the TCP status of Coldwater Spring, it is worthwhile to look back at the Berger report, not only for its discussion of the culture and history of the spring, but also for the vision it suggests for the area.

As it happens, this vision is not contained in the public Berger report, but rather in a draft submitted to government officials in May 1999 for comment. As a result of that consultation, part of the statement was removed from the final report. A section the unedited draft report, made available by one of the agencies involved as a result of a request for information, contains a segment titled "Recommendations." Read today, the statement has great resonance:

On the original manuscript containing these comments, a longhand notation suggests deleting this entire passage, which is what happened. It is unclear why this comment was marked for removal. Perhaps it was felt that the Bureau of Mines and Highway 55 were separate federal projects and therefore one had nothing to do with the other. However, one reasons the statement appears so farseeing is that the Berger consultants clearly understood the connectedness of places in the Mdote area. After the publication of the Berger report, Coldwater supporters were able to make the case that Highway 55 would in fact affect the flow of water to the spring, and they won a measure of protection for that flow. One of the reasons that the whole Mdote area is pock-marked with development and criss-crossed with highway construction is that few officials in the past understood or defended the integrity of the entire area. Present-day officials, including the National Park Service and the Department of Interior could do far worse than embrace the Berger's vision for Coldwater and look for ways of achieving it.