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Critical Area repeal advancing — Vital river protections threatened

Hearings update: Party lines rule

The Critical Area repeal bill was first heard in the Senate Environment and Natural Resource Committee. FMR organized several people to testify against the bill and filled the hearing room with more than 30 supporters donning "Rules Protect Our River” stickers.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources explained the rulemaking process to the committee, highlighting the scientific data that was gathered, outreach to local cities and citizens, meetings with diverse stakeholder groups, and the many, many comments received and considered. The DNR testified that the rules strike a good balance among the many different interests and are very close to complete then asked for an extension of the legislative deadline to publish the draft rules. (Publishing the rules would trigger a public comment period, the next step towards the rules’ adoption.)

National Park Service Superintendent Paul Labovitz gave an excellent and passionate testimony about the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) unit of the National Park Service, which shares a boundary with the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area and relies upon the Critical Area framework to manage, regulate and protect the corridor. Labovitz did not mince words, stating: "Repeal of this law is a direct threat to our National Park on the Mississippi."

Others testifying against the bill included FMR executive director Whitney Clark and FMR board members Peter Gove and Lynn Moratzka, both of whom were members of the MNRRA commission in the early 1990s. Minneapolis Park Board commissioner Liz Wielinski, Grey Cloud Island Township planning commissioner Tom Bell, and longtime activist and former St. Paul city councilmember Tom Dimond all spoke about the importance of new rules for the river in their communities. Several people from the northern part of the river corridor testified in favor of the bill as well.

Committee member Senator Pappas of St. Paul spoke eloquently about the significance of the river, and the importance of rules protect it. However, committee members in favor of the repeal generally remained mum. When Senator Higgins of Minneapolis asked why the repeal bill calls for the deletion of the purpose statement for the critical area, her question went unanswered. Higgins’ motion to allow the purpose statement to remain then quickly failed. Pappas and Higgins also raised questions about the cost of abandoning the rulemaking process — in terms of financial investment, as well as the time committed to the project by state agencies, stakeholder groups, and citizens— especially with the draft rules being so close to completion. Throughout committee Republicans said very little, then won the vote to pass the repeal eight to six.

The second hearing was with the Senate Finance Committee. Although less time-consuming and dramatic, it was similarly frustrating. Testimony was limited to the fiscal aspects of the bill. The bottom line: $349,000 of taxpayer-funded work on behalf of the Mississippi River will be wasted. Senator Goodwin of the Fridley area pointed out that 39 environmental groups are united in their opposition to the proposed repeal. Senators Anderson and Cohen from St. Paul made valiant attempts to allow more testimony and convince their colleagues to reconsider repeal. Once again, testimony was proved irrelevant compared to party lines, with the repeal passing from the committee with all nine Republicans voting for it and all six Democrats against.

Next up in the senate is a floor vote which could come within the next week. In the House the bill has not yet been heard and has not been scheduled. As always, stay tuned and visit our website for more information.

List of supporting organizations:

  • 1000 Friends of Minnesota
  • Alliance for Sustainability
  • Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis
  • Audubon Minnesota
  • Clean Up the River Environment (CURE)
  • Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota
  • Environment Minnesota
  • Fresh Energy
  • Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness
  • Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest
  • Friends of the Mississippi River
  • Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
  • Institute for Local Self-Reliance
  • Izaak Walton League of America — Midwest Office
  • Izaak Walton League, Minnesota Division
  • Land Stewardship Project
  • League of Women Voters of Minnesota Education Fund
  • Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation
  • Mankato Area Environmentalists
  • Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
  • Minnesota Conservation Federation
  • Minnesota Environmental Partnership
  • Minnesota Food Association
  • Minnesota Land Trust
  • Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union
  • Minnesota Public Interest Research Group
  • Minnesota Renewable Energy Society
  • Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter
  • Minnesota Waters
  • Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate
  • Renewing the Countryside
  • Save Lake Superior Association
  • Sierra Club, North Star Chapter
  • Southeastern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection (SEMEP)
  • Voyageurs National Park Association
  • Will Steger Foundation
  • Windustry

An effort is afoot at the Minnesota Legislature to roll back vital environmental protections for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) — a 72-mile protected corridor from Dayton to Hastings. Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to repeal 2009 amendments to Minn. Statutes §116G.15, which directed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to update 35-year-old standards and guidelines for river corridor development through state rules.

Since passage of the new law, the DNR has used most of a $500,000 appropriation to conduct science-based state rulemaking for the corridor, but missed a statutory deadline to publish draft rules by January 3rd of this year.

FMR is joined by 38 other environmental organizations (see list in sidebar) and numerous citizens and stakeholders in the belief that state rulemaking is the best way to modernize standards and guidelines for protection and enhancement of the Critical Area and National Park. Recently several corridor cities have gone on record opposing the repeal bill and supporting moving ahead with the rulemaking process.

Repeal of 116G.15 would end a 35-year tradition of bipartisan support for protecting the Mississippi River Critical Area, and it would send a strong message that the State of Minnesota does not have an interest in protecting the natural and cultural values of our National Park on the Mississippi River.

Making its way through the State Senate, the repeal bill has passed through two committees on a straight party line vote. The hearings this year have been in stark contrast with those of 2009’s, when FMR worked with legislators of both parties to pass the reform law. At that time, not a single senator voted against the reform bill, either in committee or on the floor. Just two years later, some of those same senators are now voting for repeal. (See sidebar for a detailed account of the hearings.)

FMR has sprung into action at the capitol to fight this harmful repeal effort. We urge you to send a brief email to your state legislators asking them to oppose any repeal of the Mississippi River Critical Area – Minn. Statutes §116G.15. To find out who your state representative and senator are, use the Minnesota Legislative district finder. If you would like to help out or get involved, please stay tuned, and feel free to contact Irene Jones at or (651) 222-2193 ext. 11. Read more…