Report spells trouble for the Mississippi River Critical Area

New rules for the Critical Area need to protect scenic views of treasured places, like the Mississippi River Gorge between Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Photo: FMR

The Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) was established almost 40 years ago to protect and preserve the unique scenic, natural, and cultural features of the 72-mile section of the Mississippi River flowing through the Twin Cities from Dayton to Hastings. A decade later, the corridor was designated a National Park – the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA).

In 2009, the State Legislature decided that the MRCCA program needed to be updated through a state rulemaking process—in part because the outdated standards and guidelines needed to be consistent with the corridor’s national status. When the draft rules were not completed within 18 months, the State Legislature extended the rulemaking authority and required the DNR to submit a report on their progress by January 15, 2014.

While the DNR report to the legislature provides some suggestions for actions that are positive for the river, the majority of the report describes how some of the rules from the 2010 draft will be rolled back or even eliminated in response to local government concerns. These changes put numerous public resources at risk, including the scenic integrity of the corridor.

A number of changes were made to the law in 2013, including the requirement that the DNR consult with local governments before resuming the rulemaking process. The report focuses on this and other minor changes that were made to the Critical Area law in 2013, but in doing so, it fails to address some of the core purposes and components of the statute that were unchanged. The most troublesome part of the report is the DNR’s stated goal to limit regulations that protect scenic views and vistas because they do not fit within the DNR’s core mission to protect natural resources. This approach is not in keeping with the law’s purpose statement, which requires the MRCCA be managed to “conserve the scenic, environmental, recreational, mineral, economic, cultural and historic resources and functions of the river corridor” (§116G.15, subd. 2).

Specifically, the report states: “The rules will focus more on measures to protect shore and bluff impact zones and other primary conservation areas within the MRCCA, because these measures best protect and enhance water quality and aquatic and terrestrial habitat and can be administered cost-effectively. The rules will focus less on land use, building height, lot size, and visibility of structures; while these measures are still important, they are not as important from a resource protection standpoint and are better left to the expertise in each local government, particularly in areas that are already intensively developed.” (MRCCA 2014 Report, p. 6).

In other words, the DNR states that it will focus only on those resources that fit its mission. Yet John Anfinson, of the National Park Service, points out that State law requires the DNR to write rules to protect all the unique and significant resources of the river corridor, including scenic views as well as cultural and historic features. “The DNR cannot unilaterally abdicate responsibility for some and keep others because they don’t fit the agency’s mission. State law says they must write rules to protect all the unique and significant resources of the river corridor, including scenic views” says Anfinson.

Other concerns about the report include the DNR’s intent to change district boundaries, reduce structure setbacks, simplify vegetation management standards and reduce open space dedication requirements. On a positive note, the report suggests changing Metropolitan Council policy to include local critical area plans among the required components of comprehensive plans for corridor municipalities.

“We believe the remaining scenic resources of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities are worth protecting and we think that’s what Minnesotans want too” said Whitney Clark, FMR executive director.

The report provides a glimpse of the changes being made to the draft rules, which are still on track to be released to the public with an official call for comments in March. It will be extremely important for citizens and other stakeholders to weigh in when the rules are released, to ensure that the public values of the river are given the protection they deserve.

Stay tuned to FMR’s website to learn how and when to get involved, or contact FMR’s policy staff Irene Jones or Alicia Uzarek.