What the Park Service doesn’t know about Coldwater Spring might hurt us, and the spring

What does the National Park Service know about Coldwater Spring and what does it not know? Important decisions by public agencies should be made based on complete and accurate information. If the Park Service and the Department of Interior lack basic environmental and historical information about Coldwater Spring and the surrounding area this may well lead to faulty decisions and disastrous results for Coldwater and for those who care about it.

It is now ten days into a comment period for submitting comments on the changes that the Department of Interior will likely make to the Bureau of Mines-Twin Cities campus property, which is the site where Coldwater Spring comes out of the ground. The site is very important to Dakota people and is sometimes called “the birthplace of Minnesota.” At a contentious open house held on February 23 at the VA Hospital complex near Fort Snelling the Park Service announced that it was seeking comment on potential changes to the property, such as the clearing of the buildings, restoration of vegetation, and improvement of the spring basin. 

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process relating to the Bureau of Mines property began 2005, with the local branch of the Park Service, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) taking the lead. In December 2008 the Department of Interior announced that it had determined the “preferred alternative” for the disposition of the property to be that it remain in the ownersip of the government, to be managed by MNRRA:

Lyle Laverty, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) [a Bush administration political appointee who very likely does not still have this job], wrote on November 25, 2008 that the DOI has identified the course of action they recommend for the Bureau of Mines site. It includes the “removal of all existing structures and associated above-ground infrastructure (roads, power lines, ore bins, etc.) at the Center, restoration of the site to natural conditions, restoration of the spring, and retention of the site by the federal government.” DOI also suggests that “…long-term ownership of this property should rest with the National Park Service as part of the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area.”

The open house on February 23 was called to receive comment about the changes in the property, not on the basic issue of ownership. A number of Dakota people appeared at the open house and turned it into an ad hoc public meeting where they announced their opposition to the decision. They requested that the property being given to Dakota people. 

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"We as Dakota people want Cold Water, Mni Sni, Back!" A comment card posted on the wall at the February 23, 2009, Bureau of Mines open house.

There are certainly differences of opinion about these issues which need to be communicated one way or the other. The decision by the Department of Interior was based on the knowledge that the department has about the property. Among other “facts” in the record was the opinion of the local office of MNRRA that Coldwater Spring was not, as Dakota people stated, a sacred  place or a traditional cultural property (in the strict legal sense of those terms). Unfortunately that opinion was based on faulty information which it does not appear that the Park Service will correct. Among other documents relied upon, the inadequate historical study commissioned by the Park Service, lacked basic historical information that could have produced another opinion. Similarly the archaeological study done on the site barely scratched the surface of the fill on top of the Coldwater Spring-related sites.

At this point it does not appear that the Department of Interior intends to correct the record. Instead it is up to the public to present the facts to the DOI again and again, so that it has adequate information to produce a reasonable result for the Bureau of Mines Property. Information, new interpretations, and opinions should be submitted by March 25. As stated on the Park Service’s website:

The [Feb. 23]  meeting opened a 30 day comment period which ends March 25, 2009. While comments were received at the open house, additional comments are welcome by e-mail, fax (651-290-3214), or by mail either letter or comment card and mailing to:

Bureau of Mines/Coldwater Project
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
111 Kellogg Boulevard East, Suite 105
St. Paul, MN 55101

Further information about this process will appear on these pages in the days ahead.


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