Students are often seen sprawled across the lawn at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Mall , but what they may not realize, is that they are also sitting in the middle of a national park.
The vast majority of the University’s Minneapolis campus is located in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a 72 mile stretch of the Mississippi, making it the only university in the nation located in a national park.
The National Park Service and the University are collaborating to create a new program exclusive to University students, called the Gopher Ranger program .
The program aims to spark student interest in the Mississippi River, as well as to acquaint students with the river and encourage environmental stewardship.
“We use that water every day,” said Rebecca Lofgren , an environmental education graduate student at the University. “Almost a hundred percent of Minneapolis residents drink the Mississippi River … you’re drinking what you put in that river.”
The work done by the group won’t stop at stewardship, though, said David Wiggins, supervisory park ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and one of the key players in developing the program.
Loosely based on the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program , the Gopher Ranger program does essentially the same thing, but in a more age-appropriate way, Wiggins said.
Ultimately the program is meant to connect students to the Mississippi River, and in a broader sense, national parks.
“For the University to be on the river now, with so many dimensions to it, right in your own backyard,” Wiggins said, “you’ve got a lot of opportunity to connect … to the things that are not just subjects, but sort of the nature of the world.”
Students involved in the program, he explained, will have ample opportunity to volunteer with kids by helping out with some of the youth programs already established by the National Park Service.
The program’s first project involved what Wiggins called “buckthorn busting.” Students spent Sunday getting rid of buckthorn, an invasive plant species, on the East River Flats
Planners also hope the program will inform students that there actually is a national park in their backyard, said Lofgren, who is also a park ranger and one of the program’s coordinators.
“You introduce yourself to your classmates at the beginning of every class, and when I told them who I worked for and what I did,” she said, in every class someone always asked the question: “’Oh, there’s a national park here?’”
The program is still in its infancy, and the specific activities that will take place are still being discussed, which gives students a unique opportunity to shape what the Gopher Ranger program will look like, Wiggins said.
The program will probably be as big as student demand makes it, said Pat Nunnally, coordinator for the Institute on the Environment’s River Life Program , and another of the Gopher Ranger program’s coordinators.
Hopefully, Nunnally said, the group will serve as a networking tool for students interested in getting jobs or internships with the National Park Service.
“It’ll look good on a resume; it will give you great experience with the park service team,” he said.