Paradise backfilled: Making a mountain out of a river bed at Minnehaha Park

As originally published in the Minnesota Monitor Fri May 09, 2008 at 4:07:39 PM

by: Chris Steller

Minnesota law is supposed to protect the state’s natural and historical resources, but enforcing those protections often falls to local units of government that have other priorities. Case in point: Since last year, an immense pile of dirt has obscured part of Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, one of the state’s most popular parks, and neighbors are persisting in asking why. This is a story of local government embarking on an unauthorized side project while skirting public review to make what a residents’ environmental committee calls “a major and unexpected change” to “a unique and significant geological feature” at Minnehaha Falls.

Minnehaha Park annually attracts three-quarters of a million visits from people who gaze at the falls, hike along Minnehaha Creek or picnic in the park’s many glens and glades. Not far from the falls, a bronze plaque directs visitors, intriguingly, to an “abandoned waterfall,” a separate site from Minnehaha’s famous falls. It’s at the end of a grassy cul-de-sac known as the Deer Pen, a gentle valley that meets Minnehaha Creek on its way to the Mississippi River. The Deer Pen is really a long-gone western channel of the Mississippi where the river fell and flowed for eons before abandoning that channel in a course change 9,000 years ago. (The same waterfall still exists today, having receded upstream until finally being fixed 120 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at its current site: St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis.)

Many park visitors seek out the abandoned waterfall and riverbed, but fewer are finding it these days because it’s been buried under tons of fill dirt from a nearby construction project. The new earthen slope stretches over about a third of the 340-yard length of the Deer Pen, and in places nearly fills its 70-yard width. “It’s a geological feature,” says Irene Jones, a member of the Longfellow Community Council’s River Gorge Committee, of the falls site and old river channel. “You don’t just fill it up, at least not without talking to people.”

Jones and others from the neighborhood say the idea of dumping dirt into the Deer Pen wasn’t mentioned last year when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board presented plans for building new shelters and roads in the adjacent Wabun picnic area — the project that turned out to be the source of the dirt.

The fall and winter passed with simmering consternation. To many the new slope looked like the makings of a road, while the park board’s Minnehaha District newsletter asserted that “the design of the slope was actually revised to accommodate sledding.” Last month, the gorge committee sent a formal letter to Park Board President Tom Nordyke complaining about the dirt pile and demanding an explanation.

This week, park planner Andy Lesch responded by e-mail, conceding that park staff had authorized the pile without board review or even a drawn-up plan. But dumping dirt excavated from the Wabun picnic area into the nearest depression was the more “sustainable” option, Lesch argued, “rather than truck this material off-site.” (Cheaper, too, for the contractor or the Park Board.) The actual lip of the former falls had already been covered years ago by earlier fill, he says, though without explaining the logic of extending that by a factor of three. He said the project had “all applicable permits issued by the city, local and state agencies,” allowing for disposal of excess dirt within a project area that included the Deer Pen, and he denied that the Park Board was building a road into the Deer Pen, saying that the Wabun topsoil is of no use as roadbed material anyway.

Residents remain suspicious of a stealth road-building project because of what they recall park planners saying last summer regarding “creation of a hard surface access road for vehicles from the north end of the Deer Pen down toward the creek, primarily for police use, although the possibility was raised that this would be a route to perhaps also be used by people with disabilities; some form of vehicular access for large picnic events to take place within the Deer Pen area; and a new park building/structure for picnicking in the Deer Pen area.”

One government agency that didn’t sign off was the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission. Minnehaha Park is both a local and nationally designated historic district (the state’s first), and the HPC is charged with evaluating proposed changes to the natural and historic landscape there. But the Park Board didn’t ask for HPC approval until the Wabun project was well underway, and then only for a single building. (The park board says the city didn’t say the project needed HPC approval.) In November, then-HPC Chairman Phil Koski said he was “distraught that the project has proceeded to a point where we are really only reviewing one structure and I think there are several elements, pathways, view sheds, entrances, materials, ground surfaces, that need to be considered as part of this landmark. The entire landscape is the landmark.”

On Wednesday evening, several people wandering through the Deer Pen said they were looking for a landmark in the landscape. The old falls site shown on the bronze plaque was the goal for Charlotte Eastin and her husband, Michael, who said, upon learning that their intended destination lay under tons of new dirt, “Boy, talk about abandoned falls!”

Joni Lager, who works just across the river as a fitness specialist at the Ford plant, said she’d been looking for the abandoned falls for weeks. This time she had help from a friend, Jessica Vossen, who brought along her brother Justin and his fiancee, Kelly Garrett. They, too, took their cue from the bronze plaque and were confused about where to look by what Justin called “manmade dirt.”

Brian Johnston, out for a run with his son, Jack, 3, said, “I love this little stretch,” adding that it looked as if the dirt pile area had been clear-cut of trees and bushes. “This part was really secluded,” he remembered.

If Minneapolis park commissioners were to look at the bronze plaque installed 39 years ago, they would see this message from their predecessors: “A great deal of effort has been put forth to retain the natural beauty of the glen so please leave everything as you found it.”