HINCKLEY, Minn. (FOX 9) - Birdsong occasionally broke the silence inside St. Croix State Park on a warm April afternoon this week, while the din of debate over the park’s name intensified outside its borders.
State lawmakers are considering a $50,000 proposal to rename St. Croix, Minnesota’s largest state park, after former Vice President Walter Mondale. Mondale played a key role in getting a federal designation for the St. Croix River, which flows past the park and separates Minnesota from Wisconsin.
People who live near the park, which opened in 1943 and featured dozens of New Deal-era buildings, say history would be lost as a result of renaming. They are circulating petitions seeking to keep the current St. Croix name.
“Yes, (Mondale) did some wonderful things for our waterways,” said Maria Nichols, who lives one mile from the park. “But I have been to the point where I’ve almost thought of calling him and saying, ‘Help us!’”
Mondale did not return a phone call from FOX 9 seeking comment. An aide said the former vice president did not know much about the debate surrounding the proposal.
As a senator in 1968, Mondale pushed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act through Congress and into law. It protects 12,700 miles of waterways across the country, including 250 miles in the St. Croix valley.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said it’s time Minnesota formally recognizes Mondale’s work.
“I think it’s important to honor his legacy in the St. Croix, and also to remember that we don’t just have wilderness because it happens that way,” said Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “It’s because of decisions that are made by people like Mr. Mondale.”
A search for a park
Winkler first sought to rename Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, which also sits on the St. Croix River. But that idea faced local pushback and stalled in the Legislature.
House Democrats instead inserted the $50,000 into a budget bill to replace signage at St. Croix State Park with Mondale’s name. It has passed a House committee but not yet the full House or Senate.
Tim Williams, executive director of the Hinckley Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it could cost five times as much -- $250,000 – to replace all the signage. Williams wrote to lawmakers earlier this month to voice opposition to the plan and to suggest renaming the nearby St. Croix State Forest instead.
“There are far fewer signs, markers, maps and marketing materials,” he wrote. “Additionally, the resulting compromise would allow St. Croix State Park to maintain its current identity, while providing Mr. Mondale’s legacy the consideration it is rightly due.”
Several alternatives have been floated.
Winkler said he was open to renaming a scenic byway after Mondale, but said a section of highway would be a “pretty low level of recognition.” Frequent visitors to St. Croix State Park suggested renaming the park’s observation tower.
Named for the living?
A 2009 Minnesota law prohibits the state from renaming things after living people, but lawmakers from both parties said that was an easy issue to fix by simply passing a new law. Winkler said there was good reason to do so.
“Why would we want to wait until someone is gone to recognize their legacy? What a wonderful gift I think it is to show we appreciate the work he has done while he can still enjoy it,” Winkler said.
Pine County residents have taken up a petition process to stop the name change. FOX 9 saw several petition forms with names at the nearby Bear Creek Tavern, a bar in Cloverdale. State Rep. Nathan Nelson, R-Hinckley, said he had heard from about 150 people and all but one opposed the name change.
St. Croix State Park took shape through two New Deal-era programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.
Bruce Andersen, who owns a nearby farm and did maintenance work at St. Croix State Park for 33 years, said his two grandfathers helped build the stone signage at the park’s entrance.
“I bet you everyone from here to Hinckley has some history here with relatives working here,” Andersen said, standing in front of the entrance signs. “I haven’t talked to one person who’s been in favor of (the change).”
Winkler said he was open to alternatives, but renaming the park was his goal.
“There are many people that have received the benefit of this legislation that Mr. Mondale pursued back in the 1960s,” he said. “I think the conversation has to be beyond the 150 people who care most about it locally and consider the interest of the whole river valley.”