“I didn’t do it!”–Explanations for MNRRA’s incompetent Coldwater history

John Anfinson, historian with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area or MNRRA, the branch of the National Park Service that recently completed the Environmental Impact Statement for the Bureau of Mines Twin Cities Campus property in Hennepin County, Minnesota, wants to make sure you understand that he did not write the historical sections of the EIS.

If a historian familiar with the history of the Minnesota region had written this portion of the EIS or the historical study included with the EIS, perhaps he or she would have done it more competently. In 2005 Anfinson had thought he might be involved with writing the historical portions of the EIS, but, in an email to me, he wrote:

Thanks for your thorough comments for the scoping process. I wanted to get back to you on something. I had told you that I would be writing the Affected Environment and Environmental Effects sections of the EIS. I talked to Kim [Berns] about this, and she let me know that the EIS contractor will be doing this. I told her that I wanted significant input to how these sections were handled and would be reviewing them carefully. I will be meeting with the historian who is going to write them and will let him know what I expect.

Shortly after that Anfinson gave me the name of Chris Baker as the particular historian with the government contractor E2M whom he had been informed would be writing those sections of the report. Baker is currently said to be an expert in land use and management and Pueblo and Southwestern U.S. history. While he is listed in the final EIS as one of its preparers and contributers, he is only one of many names listed in a one-and-a-half page list that also includes the name of John Anfinson (See FEIS, vol 1, pages 325-26).

In September 2006, after the release of the draft EIS for the property, Anfinson, in a conversation with me, defended the historical portions of the EIS, not because they were good or complete or accurate, but because whatever they lacked was unnecessary. He admitted that they were not very good, but asked the rhetorical question: “If they were any better would it make any difference?”

Subsequently, MNRRA fended off all changes to the historical portions of the EIS. The agency or a contractor working for it, responded to criticisms of the adequacy of historical information contained in the EIS, stating, for example on page 377 of the FEIS: “The information gathered for the EIS and Section 106 process is substantive enough.” The statement echoed that of Anfinson in 2006, which suggests that Anfinson himself may have been involved in the crafting of these responses, if not of the flawed historical narrative in the report.

Since the completion of the final EIS and the announcement of the decision by the National Park Service that the Bureau of Mines property will remain under the management of MNRRA, Anfinson has declined to respond to many requests for comment on the adequacy of the EIS. In December and January when I asked for explanations about how little the historical sections of the EIS had changed in the final EIS, despite many comments submitted in 2006, Anfinson declined the opportunity to respond at all.

Anfinson has indicated that he will answer the questions of some people, just not those of other historians. Recently he did respond to an email from an Coldwater supporter: “There has been much written on the web about us and this process that is simply untrue and misleading.  If you would like to talk about any of it, please call.” More recently, in an in-person  conversation with Anfinson, a member of a Coldwater preservation group reported to other members that the MNRRA historian said he did not write the history section of the final EIS “and thinks it’s inadequate. But he said that particular narrative is not necessary for the NPS to take care of the area. The NPS recognizes the importance of Coldwater and will treat it accordingly.”

This report is consistent with those made by Anfinson in the past. And the statement again raises questions about what purposes the historical sections of an EIS serve. An EIS is designed to provide a basis for decision-making. It is intended to show that the decisions reached by an agency are based on an adequate factual record of information.

In what sense can an inadequate record of historical information be said to be substantive enough for the decision the agency reaches? In the case of the Bureau of Mines property, the decision the agency was seeking to gather information about, had to do, in part, with the proper treatment of the historical and cultural resources present there. A key point that had been raised about those resources had to do with their historical and cultural importance to Native people, particularly the Dakota. The EIS said very little about the Native history of the site and rejected the conclusion of the Park Service’s own contractor that the site was a TCP or traditional cultural property for the Dakota or anyone else.

In what sense could this historical record be said to be “substantive enough” for decision-making by the Park Service? The fact that the Bureau of Mines site is important historically and culturally to the Dakota–as the site of creation for the people–is an important aspect of the site. Acknowledging and documenting this nature of the site is an important first step to dealing with the cultural and environmental nature of the Bureau of Mines property. Yet the agency that refuses to recognize the Dakota importance of the site has now been given the property. And agency officials believe that this refusal to recognize the Dakota importance of the site will have no effect on their management of the property.  In January Steven P. Johnson, another MNRRA official  stated

However, there are no environmental effects associated with the actual ownership; the eventual owner would have to agree to manage the property in terms of the selected alternative, especially if the government will go to some expense to prepare the property for that transfer.

What Johnson and other MNRRA officials fail to understand is that their own ownership of the property is the issue. Their ownership has the potential to have profound environmental effects.  Given that the agency has refused to accept the historic and cultural character of the property for Dakota people, how can MNRRA’s ownership–or the ownership of any other agency that does not accept the character of the site for the Dakota–be said to be a neutral effect on the property?

Although there were proposals for the property by specific Dakota tribal groups, it appears from the public record assembled by MNRRA, this was not an option the agency explored. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that because Dakota ownership of the property was not explored by MNRRA, the decision was made by the agency not to include the information about the importance of the site to the Dakota.

In his recent conversation with a Coldwater preservation supporter, Anfinson appears to have discussed the topic of Dakota ownership of the property. According to the report I received from the preservation group, Anfinson noted that the decision of the Park Service about who should get the BOM property was affected by the fact that the JoAnn Kyral, superintendent of MNRRA until 2006 did not want MNRRA to receive the property, while the current superintendent Paul Labovitz did. According to the report of the conversation with Anfinson this week:

Interestingly he also mentioned that the former superintendant didn’t want Coldwater, but the current one does. It makes sense to me as to why nothing happened for a long time in this process.the old superintendent didn’t want Coldwater in the NPS, and they didn’t know which tribe would take it without pissing off the other tribes, it left the Dept of the interior in an odd position.

The explanation appears to be an accurate interpretation of the change in approach of MNRRA toward the property. Coldwater supporters remember clearly that until 2006 the agency stated that it did not and, could not, manage the property for the long term. But the account also gives self-serving explanation for what occurred in the EIS process in relation to Dakota ownership of the property. It appears disingenuous to claim that the rejection of Dakota proposals for the property was based purely on the conclusion that giving the property to one Dakota group would “piss off” the others Dakota communities. Labovitz’s desire for the property appears to be the more significant factor in the decision-making and in giving the Dakota history and culture short shrift in the EIS.

Now, however, after the announcement of the decision to keep the property under MNRRA, John Anfinson would like people to know that the agency does know the history of the site and will “treat it accordingly.” The degree of confidence one has in MNRRA on this point will depend on how much one is willing to trust an agency which has refused to record or acknowledge in public the Native history and cultural meaning of the site. Second-hand reports of vaguely reassuring off-hand comments in private meetings are no real basis for confidence.


“I didn’t do it!”–Explanations for MNRRA’s incompetent Coldwater history — 4 Comments

  1. I just have to point out that the use of my statements and interpretations from one casual conversation with one person, as an announcement to reflect the National Park Service’s positions is very poor form.

    If your interested in accuracy, and actual record, you really need to get information directly from the NPS, not third hand information as you have done here. As has become a frequent occurrence in your writings, there are poor interpretations, and misleading conclusions.

    • Interesting point. As noted in my comment Anfinson has refused to comment on the points raised in the article despite my requests. I trusted the accuracy of your report. Was that a mistake? Are you calling into question your own statements?

  2. There are two points in my article where I relied on what I got from the report you gave to Preserve Camp Coldwater about your meeting with John Anfinson. Your report was longer but I will not use it all unless you would like me to do so. According to the report:

    1. John Anfinson says he did not write the historical sections of the EIS. He s ays that they are inadequate, but that MNRRA knows the history and will treat the site accordingly.

    2. The previous MNRRA superintendent did not want the site and the current one does and that “they didn’t know which tribe would take it without pissing off the other tribes, it left the Dept of the interior in an odd position.”

    On these two areas this information was consistent with other information I received and it came from a reliable source, namely you. These pieces of information and other information I have gathered over the years provided me with the basis for reaching my conclusions.

    I would not be surprised if you disagreed with my conclusions, but I fail to see why I should treat the information that you gave to Preserve Camp Coldwater as unreliable.

    MNRRA is free to comment at any time on these questions but I do not think they are willing to do so, which is in fact the problem with this process. MNRRA people make statements to individuals that they are unwilling to make on a more public record. Since they are unwilling to do so, members of the public have to make do with the dribs and drabs of information that come out in odd ways.

    An EIS is intended to be a public record so that the public can understand how the agency reaches its decisions. Over the years I have done my best to try to convince MNRRA to be more public about its decision-making process, with little effect. Despite my lack of success I will continue to encourage openness about this process.

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