Back to the Mighty Miss—Land&People

Stretching more than 2,500 miles from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River is one the nation's best-known natural features. It is also an essential transportation corridor, rich in historic and cultural resources. More than 12 million people live along its banks, and more than 50 cities draw drinking water from the river. Huge barges ply from Minneapolis to the Gulf, moving agricultural products and other commodities through the heartland.

In one way, however, the Mississippi is underutilized: as a recreational resource for the cities along its banks. In recent years, community groups and government agencies from Minneapolis and St. Paul to New Orleans have been working to reconnect residents to the river. They have protected natural areas, established parks, and built museums and trails–often with the help of the Trust for Public Land, which has negotiated for land, raised money, and helped communities plan a vision for riverfront access and conservation.

We're offering a tour of riverfront conservation efforts in the Mississippi's major cities. So pack your valise and board our paddlewheel steamer at the St. Paul, Minnesota, boat landing for our downriver conservation journey.

River Access for the Twin Cities

St. Paul took root in the mid-1800s as a steamboat landing, with bustling levees, warehouses, industry, and later, railroads and barge landings. In Minneapolis flour mills crowded the prime riverfront real estate to generate power from St. Anthony Falls (shown on historic postcard, left). These uses long blocked residents from the river, but as industry has departed, citizens and government have moved to restore riverfront access. In 1988, Congress created the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area along 72 miles of the river through the Twin Cities. More recently, the McKnight Foundation launched the Embrace Open Space campaign, a partnership among nonprofit organizations to protect open space in the Twin Cities area and along the Mississippi. "People get inspired by a connection to water and their environment," says Cordelia Pierson, Twin Cities program manager for TPL. "The river is also a core feature of our history. It brings together people and the land in a very central way."

Bruce Vento Nature Sanctury

Named for the late St. Paul congressman, this 27-acre nature sanctuary will link the river to underserved neighborhoods of St. Paul while forming a vital link in a 300-mile regional trail network. TPL helped the city acquire the land in 2002 with federal funding secured by Representative Martin Sabo. When fully restored, this one-of-a-kind natural area will feature caves, springs, sweeping city and river views from sandstone bluffs, and restored wetland bird habitat on the Mississippi flyway–all close enough to downtown St. Paul that office workers will be able to walk to the river for a picnic lunch.

Pine Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area

Located just 15 minutes south of St. Paul in one of Minnesota's fastest-growing counties, Pine Bend is a little piece of the old Mississippi in an area where most riverfront is crowded with industry. As much as 1,300 undeveloped acres and three miles of riverfront provide critical habitat for wildlife and a unique opportunity to visit the wild river at the city's doorstep. As part of an effort to help the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources protect key parcels, TPL and its partners recently acquired 67 acres in two transaction parcels to help create a 185-acre natural area. The property includes mature oak forest, deep ravines, 660 feet of riverfront, and a bluff-top prairie offering some of the best river views in the Twin Cities region.

Point Douglas Trail

Where the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers meet, south of the Twin Cities, the sandy beach at Point Douglas draws people to boat, play in the sand, and enjoy the views. But it is hard for residents of the nearby cities of Hastings, Minnesota, and Prescott, Wisconsin, to get to the beach except by car. So TPL is working with the owner of a nearby abandoned rail corridor to turn it into a hiking and biking trail that not only will link the cities to the popular beach, but will also carry commuters and create pedestrian and bike access to visitor centers, natural areas, and other attractions.

Building the Confluence Greenway

Two hundred years ago explorers Lewis and Clark left the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers on their famous expedition to the nation's Pacific coast. Today the bistate Confluence Greenway enables the 2.5 million residents of metropolitan St. Louis to make their own explorations where the two rivers meet.

The greenway was first envisioned almost a decade ago as a way to commemorate this year's bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition along with the centennials of both St. Louis's 1904 World's Fair and its beautiful Forest Park. With more than 9,000 acres protected, the greenway incorporates two state parks, four museums, more than a dozen historic sites, 50 miles of hiking and biking trails, and three natural areas–all beginning just north of the Gateway Arch. In 2000 the project advanced dramatically when voters on both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the river created special funding and park districts to support the greenway.

TPL, which helped pass those measures, is one of five nonprofit partners in the greenway and has helped protect 2,400 acres, using funding from six government agencies and foundations. "This is truly one of the nation's most ambitious efforts to create open space near a major metropolitan downtown," says Larry Levin, director of TPL's St. Louis office. "The collaboration among nonprofits, foundations, government agencies, and civic leaders has been nothing short of spectacular."

Chouteau Island

Set off from the Illinois shore by a navigation channel, Chouteau Island stretches from the confluence to just north of downtown St. Louis. Including TPL's acquisition of 2,000 acres for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, about two-thirds of the island's 5,500 acres is now protected. With funding mostly from the Army Corps of Engineers, nonprofits and government agencies have created a master plan that envisions multiple recreational uses, including biking, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and hunting. TPL will work to protect the island's remaining acreage as willing sellers and funding become available.

Columbia Bottom Conservation Area

Located at the junction of the great rivers, this 4,300-acre mosaic of forest, wetlands, and agricultural lands features oaks that were living when Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri. The Missouri Department of Conservation has already committed over $20 million to conserving land in the bottoms and has started to return parts of it to wildlife habitat. Features include eight miles of hiking and biking trails, a boat ramp, fishing pier, new visitor center, and observation platform with a view of the confluence. TPL recently helped the new regional park district protect 160 acres adjacent to Columbia Bottom.

Chain of Rocks Bridge

Motorists traversing historic Route 66 once crossed the Mississippi on this mile-long bridge that spans the river at Chouteau Island. Today the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, named for the navigation-impeding rocks in the river below, is the longest dedicated bike and pedestrian bridge in the world and a key link between the Missouri and Illinois sections of the Confluence Greenway. TPL helped its sister nonprofit, Trailnet, acquire the bridge, which already connects 28 miles of the greenway's nearly 50 miles of trails, including linkage of the Illinois-side Chouteau Island to St. Louis. Ultimately, 200 miles of trail are planned, including a link to the cross-state Katy Trail.

A Riverfront Park for the Big Easy

"People who visit New Orleans really don't have the opportunity to experience the river that made this city happen, and some neighborhoods have no connection to the river," says Larry Schmidt, director of TPL's New Orleans program. Now a bold new plan envisions a mile-long Mississippi Riverfront Park in the Lower Garden District. TPL has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Port of New Orleans to reserve a stretch of abandoned wharves for the park and is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study engineering requirements, environmental issues, and pedestrian access. When the park is finished in about six years, visitors will be able to stroll the riverside and watch oceangoing ships pass on the mile-wide Mississippi. The park will include bike trails and perhaps public performance spaces such as an amphitheater. Several museums are being planned near the park site.