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Connecting the past to the future along the Roseau River

Native American families at the Ross Indian Village, Dieter Township, Minnesota, in 1887.
Native American families at the Ross Indian Village, Dieter Township, Minnesota, in 1887. Photo credit: Roseau County Historical Society.

The Roseau River is an international watershed traversing Minnesota and Manitoba, and a travel route used by Ojibwe for generations. Like many rural communities, the area is becoming increasingly diverse with an Ojibwe heritage, strong Scandinavian presence, and a diversity of cultures among newcomers. Community members came to the University of Minnesota Extension Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northwest RSDP) for support in developing recreational sites along the river. Importantly, they wanted the sites to be inclusive of diverse populations and accessible for a range of physical abilities.

“A lot of folks were using the river without good opportunities for access and maps to know where they were going,” said Tracy Halstengard, an administrator with the Roseau River Watershed District. “We were recognizing that people would really like to use the river more, but because of different obstacles weren’t able to.”

One of those obstacles was the river’s history of flooding. The Roseau River is a tributary to the Red River, and like many rivers in the Red River Basin, is subject to flooding. “It’s hard to think about the river as a recreational asset when you’ve been fighting it for a while,” said Linda Kingery, Northwest RSDP Executive Director, “but there’s been a shift in thinking.”

A major rainfall event in the Roseau area in the early 2000s resulted in significant redevelopment and more flood protection in the city of Roseau. Redevelopment efforts fueled a recreational area adjacent to the river, new developments in the city center, and changes upstream and downstream in how the river comes through town. “All of that lessened the threat of floods,” Kingery said. “Now we can see it through new eyes.”

Design team

Group of adults sitting around table with maps of the Roseau River spread out on the table.
Initial project meeting at Roseau River Watershed District offices in June 2018. Far right: Northwest RSDP Executive Director Linda Kingery.

The Northwest RSDP connected the Roseau River Watershed District with a design team at the College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR). Under the leadership of Virajita Singh, CSBR Senior Research Fellow and Assistant Vice Provost in the Office for Equity and Diversity, CSBR and RSDP worked with the watershed district and community partners to develop a community vision for recreational sites along the river.

The core stakeholder group engaged in the project included around 20 local partners, ranging from the watershed district to city and county officials to the rural electric cooperative, Northwest Minnesota Foundation and 4-H representatives. “The stakeholder group is a really important part of the success of this,” Kingery said, “including support from the Hayes Lake State Park.”

Kingery also credited Halstengard with playing an important role in rallying community involvement. “This project is a great example to show the importance of having a community champion. Tracy really took on the role of championing this effort.”

Student behind table full of river maps with community member in front of table looking at the maps.
Community input surveys were administered at a public event celebrating a new kayak launch in June 2018.

University of Minnesota landscape architecture student Miranda Olson also played a core role, working closely with Singh as part of the design team. Not only did Olson help community members uncover their vision for the river, but she enjoyed the area’s offerings herself – camping, biking and swimming in the area while there for community meetings.

Inclusive river access

One early priority was to design sites in ways that were accessible for people with different physical abilities. “[We asked] how can we make the experience varied for people of different abilities when it comes to paddling, etc.,” Halstengard said.

According to Kingery, the group wanted to “make the watershed more accessible location-wise and open it up to people who don’t normally get on the river.” Team members also wanted sites to educate the public on the region’s historical significance to Native American communities.

The design team built upon existing local events to find creative ways of engaging input from community members not already involved in the conversation. For example, team members met with visitors at the Roseau County Fair and administered a survey at a public launch party for a new kayak access point at the city campground. “We engaged the community in a different way,” Singh said.

Virajita Singh and Miranda Olson standing together in a booth full of images of the Roseau River recreation project.
Virajita Singh and Miranda Olson gathered community input at the Roseau County Fair in July 2018.

Working with this stakeholder input, the project team identified priority locations along the river for new or improved access and amenities. According to Halstegard, each site was considered individually for the types of amenities and signage it might offer. “What do we think each site lends itself to?”

Connecting past to future

The design team developed a palette of design elements that could be considered for each site such as wayfinding signs, amenity signs, educational signs, map signs, benches, storage racks, rain garden plants, and different material options such as timber decking or crushed granite. Design recommendations also included integrating the work of local artists at each of the six sites. As written by Singh and Olson, “The selection of the artists can itself be a public event where artists are selected from those who apply and a public exhibition of all entries is offered.”

Image on TV on wall with people around table covered in maps.
Project team members review design recommendations.

The resulting master plan for six recreational sites is now being used to seek designation as a regionally significant water trail by the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission. This designation highlights recreation assets in Greater Minnesota and qualifies the designated sites for funding. Water trails are mapped and managed for recreation, helping both locals and tourists enjoy their offerings.

Ultimately, the stakeholder group hopes to help locals and tourists alike understand the area’s rich history and how it connects to the future. As written by Singh and Olson, “The Roseau River Water Trail design aims to tell the historical and cultural story of the Roseau River and the surrounding area through time, for people to understand how the past has shaped the present and learn from it for the future.”

The project illustrates how RSDP works in partnership with communities to uncover their own visions for sustainable development. If your community would like to work with the University of Minnesota to advance local sustainability efforts, consider filling out an RSDP Idea Brief or reaching out to the executive director in your region.

Caryn Mohr, May 2019

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP).

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