Tilting at Highways

War against the planned Hiawatha Avenue extension is being waged on several fronts--but it's an uphill battle.

In 1985--after 10 years of meetings, drawings, and revisions--a citizens' task force endorsed a scaled-down plan for the new Hiawatha Avenue. The road would run along the same route MNDoT had originally proposed, but it would have four lanes instead of ten, and a speed limit of 35 miles per hour.

"I told people, 'No one is going to be totally happy with this,' including me," says Dennis Schulstad, who represented the area around Hiawatha on the City Council for 22 years until his retirement last year. "I personally would have been happier if they'd left the road where it is today. But those people held countless meetings, and they said, 'This is the plan that we want to build.' What I want to know is: The people who are complaining now, where were they in 1985?"

Schulstad hasn't been the only official who's hearing complaints he thought had subsided long ago. In the past two years a Stop the Reroute coalition has formed, including just about every major Twin Cities environmental group, along with substantial numbers of neighborhood residents and businesses. Some 7,000 people have signed a petition asking MNDoT to kill the project, and last fall 700 showed up at Roosevelt High School for a public meeting. "Put it this way," says MNDoT's Spielmann. "I have 32 projects including Hiawatha. But this one takes the majority of my time."

Dina Kantor

Among the people responsible for tying up Spielmann's time is Jill Walker, one of the co-organizers of Stop the Reroute. Walker was barely out of high school when the 1985 task force gave its nod to the highway; by the time she moved into the neighborhood in 1993, she'd become an ardent fan of the hiking trails near Minnehaha. Walker says she was stunned two years ago when she found out about the highway plan. Even as a professional environmentalist, she'd had no idea what MNDoT had in mind. "It was, 'What? They're going to put the road down there?'"

Within a few months Walker had switched from fighting motorboats in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to challenging Hiawatha Avenue. "We spend a lot of time in northern Minnesota telling people how to manage their lands," she reasons. "So we owe it to ourselves to manage our own land very well. And this area [around Minnehaha Park] is a gem worth protecting."

Actually, the fight over Hiawatha is beginning to sound eerily similar to the northwoods battles of Walker's past. Opponents of the road often talk about their love for the area's "unspoiled" nature, about preserving its "sacred glens" for hiking, mountain-biking, and romps with their dogs. (Letting a dog run off-leash is illegal in Minneapolis, but authorities have long looked the other way at Minnehaha.) Some of the locals, in turn, complain about meddling tourists: "An elite, uninformed cadre of extreme sport enthusiasts is selfishly trying to keep a very small parcel of land to themselves, so they can ride their off-road bicycles in the brush," area resident Ken Stone wrote in a letter to the Star Tribune last November.

Beneath the strident tones, however, is an earnest debate about whether the Hiawatha plan is simply outdated. Back in 1985, for example, very little was known about Camp Coldwater, according to Mary Jo Iverson, an amateur historian who has studied the area. The site, sacred to the Dakota and home to the first known white settlement in the state, has been called "Minnesota's Plymouth Rock." Its name comes from a remarkable artesian spring that keeps its 42-degree temperature year-round. Iverson says Coldwater researchers are worried that a highway a mere 400 feet away will "rob this place of its dignity." They also fear that construction blasting could ruin the spring: A 1997 MNDoT memo warned that "any type of disturbance [could reduce] the amount of [water] flow, either slightly or dramatically."

Dennis Gimmestad, the Minnesota Historical Society's compliance officer, says the society signed off on the Hiawatha project more than 10 years ago. "But that's a long time," he acknowledges, "and additional issues have come forward. We're trying to work with MNDoT to make sure they preserve the feel and the atmosphere of that site." Should the spring indeed dry up, Gimmestad says, the society would ask MNDoT to pipe in water from elsewhere.

Just as the historians have yet to fully explore Coldwater, says Dan Keiser, botanists are only now beginning to value the area's "biological treasures." A tree inspector and oak grower who has been advocating preservation of the Minnehaha oak savannah as one of the few remnants of a landscape that once dominated the Twin Cities area, Keiser has identified dozens of century-old bur oaks in the Hiawatha right-of-way, and several that are more than 200 years old. "These trees have survived the coldest winters, the driest summers, the oak wilt epidemics, and the stresses of encroaching civilization for the past 250 years," Keiser notes in an affidavit filed in connection with the current anti-highway litigation. "This means that [their] genetic information is of a superior stock. Each acorn of this locally adaptive native species is a precious gene bank for future oak [forests]."

All fine and good, counters MNDoT's Spielmann, but the questions Keiser, Iverson, and other reroute opponents raise were looked into and dealt with long ago, when MNDoT compiled the federally required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for its Hiawatha project. "The environmental process on this project was as good as any I've ever seen," he maintains. "It followed not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law. I feel sure that if it was revisited, the results would be pretty much the same."

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