Minnesota state parks system celebrates 125 years

Photo by Justine
Afton is one of several state parks near the Twin Cities. Photo by Justine Brown

The cold, clear water gently and quietly slips over an unassuming natural bridge of smoothed rocks. As the water crosses over, it begins to stir and the beginnings of current are barely detectable. The transition from lake to river is an unexpectedly humble one, especially given that this newly birthed river will, on its journey southward, become one of the largest rivers in the world.

Many Minnesotans have made the pilgrimage to the serene heart of Lake Itasca State Park and know it primarily as the birthplace of the “Mighty Mississippi”. But what many may not know is that the park is the starting place of more than just the famous river. 2016 marks the 125th anniversary of the establishment of Lake Itasca as the first state park in Minnesota, which not only preserved the Mississippi headwaters and surrounding forest from corporate logging interests, but started the MN State Parks & Trails system, and a statewide legacy of conservation and outdoor enthusiasm that persists in Minnesota today.

Establishing the park

The conservation and legal establishment of Itasca as a state park has ties to St. Cloud, as it was championed by former St. Cloud resident, Jacob V. Brower. According to the MN State Parks Interpretive Program, the Minnesota Historical Society commissioned Brower in 1889 to complete an official survey of the area surrounding Lake Itasca in the hopes that the area would be established as the Mississippi headwaters in order to seek official protection for the area from logging interests.

Just four years earlier, in 1885, the nation’s first state park was established in New York, Niagara Falls State Park. This action inspired many Minnesotans to call for the protection of Lake Itasca as “a kind of goal for the sentimental pilgrim”, according to the MN State Parks Interpretive Program.

After an arduous battle to pass a bill establishing Lake Itasca as a state park, Brower was established as the park’s first commissioner, a position he held for two terms and in which he fought to acquire half of the park’s current land area from private owners and the federal government. The fight to preserve Lake Itasca helped open the floodgates to an era of legal land conservation in Minnesota, which is now home to 67 state parks.

Looking ahead

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Parks & Trails division is celebrating the 125th birthday with a series of initiatives meant to get more people out on the trails. Amy Barrett, DNR Parks and Trails Division information officer, said a major goal for the department in 2016 is to “introduce more people to the parks and trails system.”

One of the ways the department plans to do this is the “125 Miles by Bike, Boot or Boat” initiative, which challenges state park and trail visitors to track any miles they hike, bike or paddle throughout 2016 to reach a goal of 125 miles.

“Some people are motivated by a challenge like this,” said Barrett. “A lot of people make resolutions this time of year to be more active. What better place than in the scenery of a Minnesota state park or trail?” Those interested in taking on the challenge can download a tracking sheet from the Minnesota DNR’s website.

Barrett said that while Minnesota has a high level of state park attendance compared to many other states, there are still barriers for lots of individuals that keep them from participating in outdoor recreation-barriers, she says the department is trying to address in honor of the 125th year.

“Lack of participation isn’t always because people don’t want to get out; it’s often because people lack information, equipment and don’t think they have time,” said Barrett. One way the DNR is trying to overcome those barriers is with the I Can! program, which educates beginners interested in learning more about a wide variety of outdoor sports, including overnight camping, archery and rock climbing.

With this and other initiatives planned by the DNR, Barrett says the hope of the department is to specifically reach out to the younger generation, particularly those living in urban areas, areas in which many don’t have easy access to information about state parks, or the parks themselves.

“Our focus really is on the next generation, because research shows that what you do as a kid, you do as an adult,” said Barrett. “We feel it’s important to get kids out to these places so they’ll beg their parents to take them back and eventually grow up caring about these special places and supporting them as citizens.”

In an age where the divisions between the natural world and modern society seem to mount higher, it’s hopeful to see a legacy of fighting for the quiet, natural places, and our connection to them, carried on. Here’s to another 125 years.

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