Connecting the Twin Cities to the River that Runs Through Them

Madeleine Bien & Joan Wisner-CarlsonPark Partner Stories
Some yellows and oranges of fall foliage in a green forest lining the banks of the Mississippi River with a bridge in the horizon

For Mississippi Park Connection (MPC) staff, the core values guiding their day-to-day work in partnership with the Mississippi National River Recreation Area (MNRRA) come down to a few simple tenets: keeping focus on the community, cultivating inspiration and resiliency, partnering for constructive change, and embracing the joy the river can bring. It is this commitment to the Mississippi River and the positive experiences visitors have on its waters every year that motivates MPC to continue to develop innovative stewardship opportunities in support of the park.

MPC began in 2003 as the local fund of the National Park Foundation, under the name Mississippi River Fund. In the nearly 15 years since, the St. Paul-based philanthropic partner has been dedicated to connecting Twin Cities residents to this natural treasure that provides drinking water and recreation for millions. The partnership has secured more than $3 million in support for park programming, from wildlife monitoring, to shoreline restoration, to youth education.

Woman holding a bucket wearing work gloves at the Mississippi National River Recreation Area
Mississippi Park Connection

Today, MPC works to strengthen “the enduring connection between people and the Mississippi River by enriching the life of the river and the lives of all who experience our national park.” The programming support provided by MPC has coincided with an exponential growth in the number of visitors to the park annually – more than double – in just a few years’ time. In 2015, Mississippi National River counted over 112,000 visitors, placing it 25th among the National Park Service Midwest Region’s 60 parks. In 2017, the national recreation area is on track to surpass 300,000 visitors and to become the region’s 14th most visited park.

To meet the needs of the increased number of visitors to the park, MPC Executive Director Katie Nyberg knew that new funders would need to join the organization’s growing cadre of supporters, such as the McKnight Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. This was particularly important given their Plant for the Future Campaign, which is working to build a strong and resilient urban forest along the Mississippi River for generations to come. Working closely the National Park Foundation, two proposals were developed and submitted to a national foundation for priority projects that grew from national initiatives and would contribute to the campaign: Every Kid in a Park and the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.

The MPC-NPF collaboration paid off. Nyberg notes, “Our partnership with the National Park Foundation has been a huge shot in the arm for our Plant for the Future Campaign. Grant support will help us jump start a large-scale tree planting effort to mitigate the effects of ash tree mortality due to the emerald ash borer.”

The area’s 21st Century Conservation Service Corps crews will now be able to meet urgent conservation needs in Minnesota’s national parks, including the national recreation area. The grant included funding specifically for Mississippi Park Connection to establish a dedicated crew from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa that will maintain the park’s natural tree canopy, trails, trail amenities, and scenic views. The project is expected to begin in January 2018, with recruitment of crew members starting this fall.

Park Ranger Goodspeed squatting on the shores of the Mississippi National River Recreation Area with kids in a canoe holding paddles
Mississippi Park Connection

The second grant will enable MPC, in partnership with MRNRA, to engage 8,000 fourth graders from Title 1 schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area during the 2017-2018 school year for what may be their first experience on the river.

“The Every Kid on a Park campaign resonated deeply with us. We feel that the Mississippi River ought to be part of every child's experience in our community,” says Nyberg. This will nearly double the number of students served through Every Kid in a Park in the previous school year and establish the Twin Cities as one of 10 focus cities for the coming school year. 

Each ranger-led “journey” includes hands-on activities to learn about the Mississippi River and the ecosystem that provides drinking water for millions. For example, students on the “Big River Journey” will board a riverboat to explore aquatic invertebrates, river birds, geology, and pollution. They will then participate in four land-based activities – archaeology, soldier hike, forest hike, exploration of cultures – at Fort Snelling State Park.

Ultimately, support from sources like the Minnesota Community Foundation allow MPC to develop exciting new ways for visitors to experience the Mississippi River and to find their national park. “We look forward to putting these grants to good use in our community,” Katie said.

To learn more about Mississippi Park Connection’s programs and events or to support their work, visit their site at

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area’s Every Kid in a Park program in the 2017-18 school year and its new dedicated 21CSC crew were made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation through the generous support of the Minnesota Community Foundation.

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