Public input process gets underway for replacing Upper Sioux Agency State Park recreation

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — The process to identify possible recreational opportunities for the replacement of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park got underway with the first public outreach meeting on Aug. 30 in Granite Falls.

“It’s a community effort,” Jeremy Losinski, regional parks and trails director for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said as he opened the first of two outreach sessions held that day.

Legislation authored by State Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, and State Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, calls for the state to transfer the roughly 1,300-acre park to the Upper Sioux Community. The DNR must submit a report to legislators on the barriers to the transfer in January 2024.

The legislation allocated $5 million for the transfer process as well as for developing recreational opportunities to replace the park. Since the parklands were originally acquired with federal Lands, Waters and Conservation Lands funding, the state must provide a replacement “recreational value” for the removal of federal requirements on the existing parklands.

Not surprisingly, most of the public comments on identifying replacement opportunities focus on many of the activities and opportunities being lost. Ninety percent of those offering input on a DNR online page for them came from park visitors, according to information provided at the session.

Darin Newman, principal planner with the DNR, told the afternoon gathering that the DNR has received 140 public submissions since a June 29 meeting during which the plans for the public input process were announced.

Camping and lodging, hiking, bicycling and equestrian trails, access to the Minnesota River, shoreline fishing, paddling, and replacement sites for historical interpretation were among the activities frequently cited.

Where to offer them is the challenge ahead. One clear pattern has emerged, Newman said. The public comments have focused on providing opportunities in the Minnesota River Valley, and most would like to keep them within an area from the Lac qui Parle State Park to Fort Ridgely State Park.

Dan Moravetz, assistant engineer for Yellow Medicine County, and Jesse Diehn, parks director for Renville County, told the gathering about opportunities to enhance their respective county parks. Diehn pointed out that Renville County’s Skalbekken Park, which borders the Upper Sioux Agency State Park, “shares a lot of the same users with the Upper Sioux State Park.”

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski offered a range of enhancements the city would like to see — from expanding the 141-acre Memorial Park and adding trails, to developing a long-sought bicycle trail to reach the tiny community of Wegdahl and connect to an existing trail to Montevideo.

“We’re on the map,” Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski said as he held up a state highway map with a listing of state parks. The loss of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park, southeast of Granite Falls, Minn., will result in the loss of visitors to the area and the exposure that the state park provides, as well as roughly $1.1 million in annual economic activity, he told representatives of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and attendees at a public input session in the community on Aug. 30, 2023. (Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service)

The mayor also noted the city’s concerns about the economic activity and ability to attract visitors. By the state’s own measure, the park represents roughly $1.1 million in economic impact for the area, he explained.

“We’re on the map,” he said, pointing to a state map and explaining how it lists all the state parks.

Regional Parks Director Losinski told the audience at the onset that Scott Roemhildt, regional director for the DNR, has advocated for finding replacement recreational opportunities in the Minnesota River Valley area.

The focus has been on finding a variety of recreational opportunities, as most acknowledge the virtual impossibility of acquiring a 2-mile square block of Minnesota River Valley land to replace the land itself. DNR officials have indicated that citizens in the affected area would benefit from seeking other funding sources in addition to the $5 million state allocation to achieve their goals.

The proposed Granite Falls to Wegdahl bicycle trail, for example, carried an estimated price well above $5 million when the project was initially pursued about 10 years ago.

Losinski said the DNR is tentatively planning to host a second public input session on Oct. 5 in Granite Falls. He also encouraged people to use the DNR website created for the transfer to offer input.

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