Maria Lee + Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

This piece is part of Sages new interview series, Sages Speak, where we talk with public lands people about the places they love.

Contributed by Will Rice

Maria Lee loves the Mississippi River. But, to be clear, her affections lie on a very special 72 mile corridor running through the Twin Cities of Minnesota. For Maria, now a youth outreach specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, public lands weren’t always a passion. Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, she admits, “I didn’t have the language.” She isn’t the child of mountaineers or river rats. She wasn’t a Junior Ranger. Her family didn’t vacation in the Boundary Waters or the Tetons. And that is exactly why her story and insight into our public lands is so incredibly important.

Will: Who has most influenced your life to this point, with concern to public lands?

Maria: I think there are two rangers I met on the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Mary Blizter being one of them.

She created the internship program that got me into my first outdoor education role ever. She was one of these people who was like, “Yo, we can do things! We can make it interesting and we can make it fun!” She was the first people who I think trusted me as someone who had energy and insight in what it means to connect people to the outdoors and connect people to the land.

In the Twin Cities, a big piece of the mission is how do we tell one story of genocide, of the Dakota and the native population, and then how do you connect with communities of color and immigrant groups in the Twin Cities, as a growing demographic in these areas. And Mary Blizter is one of those people who really got it, and was really good about thinking of new ideas of how the National Park Service is relevant in the 21st century.

Would it be fair to say that the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) is the piece of public land which you feel deepest connected?

Yeah, without a doubt, that is true…the MNRRA will always be the most meaningful for me because out of all the pristine and really mountainous and— our park is extremely beautiful— but of the classically, extremely beautiful national parks, it has been such a personal backdrop to so many of my memories growing up over the last five years. So yeah, 100% my favorite national park unit!

Minneapolis, the Mississippi, and three bridges (Mac H (media601)/Flickr).

What keeps bringing you back to the river?

I mean, if you talk to river people, there is such an incredible community of people that I’ve met through guiding and working with the park doing outdoor ed work. There is something with moving water and rivers in general that is really attractive over lakes and oceans, for me. It’s like rivers get me, like that’s the scenic water for me…

Like I remember my partner and I we were going to go on a backpacking trip in Yosemite and we hadn’t hiked in a while. So we loaded up our packs and took a twelve mile hike around the river, and it was just so fun to see so many people out like walking their dog…There are these great long paths that you can walk that are wooded along the river, right in the city, and you can just feel so many people out enjoying this resource. Which I think is a really cool thing, and a really unique part of having this public land in the middle of your city, because you can see these people out enjoying it.

When signing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, LBJ quoted Stewart Udall saying “every individual and every family should get to know at least one river.” How do we make that happen?

Ooh, I don’t know but I like that! Man!

So I took my parents canoeing for the first time in their lives this past October and they we so scared, Will. I mean I had them in life jackets. I’ve been doing this for a while now— at least four years now. Like I know what I’m doing; people trust me to take their kids out on water.

They were so nervous.

I also don’t classify myself as a very strong swimmer, and my parents don’t swim. So I think fear of water [is often a problem]. Like I have an intergenerational fear of water because my parents don’t swim, and my parents’ parents don’t swim. So we haven’t swam, in a recreational sense, in a very long time.

Working with young people in the Twin Cities…when canoeing was on the agenda, I had to call parents and tell them why their kids would be safe.

I think there is definitely a cultural fear of water in some communities….because their families haven’t been comfortable around water in a very long time. So that is one thing that comes to mind as far as a barrier to getting to know rivers, but that being said, I don’t think you need to get on the water to get to know a river.

Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Congresswoman Betty McCollum, U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Outdoor Afro Founder Rue Mapp and local officials on a tour of Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (Department of Interior).

Before you mentioned, in terms of public lands we tend to think of beautiful mountains and big vistas. So sticking with the quotations, TLC told the world, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls, keep it to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”

In a public lands context, I think that our generation has disregarded this sound advice and seems to be gravitating towards parks that seem to have a certain “instagramability” to them, that perhaps our local parks don’t have. And they seem to overlook and discount them. In your experience, how do we get younger folks into local parks?

I mean national parks are so trendy right now. Like you can buy national park Chacos.

Oh, I know! My mom bought me a national park hammock for Christmas!

So yeah, how do get our generation excited about local parks or public lands that don’t have the “arrowhead” on them?

Yeah, that’s a great question. So what my brain is immediately going to right now— before I took my current job with the DNR,  I was working with a boarding school in northern Wisconsin… All the students who came there had a demonstrated interest in the environment, so they were these very shiny apples, like bright young people. They all had this love of pristine wilderness. They were exploring wilderness in all their classes. Even their English class was called “Finding Your Wilderness Voice”.

So I’m teaching there, and I’m thinking about “The Trouble with Wilderness”, like the Cronon essay, and thinking about how I talk to these people about how do we engage new users and how do we increase visitation while managing the resource.

I remember hosting the workshop and posing the question, “If you went up to the Boundary Waters every summer, would you ever not go and maybe go spend a long day at your regional park throwing a Frisbee with a friend, so that someone who had never gone before could get your permit?” So they are thinking about it and they are saying, “It’s not the same. A small state park experience isn’t the same as a wilderness experience.” But I asked, “Could you see the benefit of enjoying both spaces?” Trying to que up conversations about elitism in wilderness spaces. And a lot of them were like “out”, like they didn’t like it and were challenged by it.

But we kept on talking about it, and by the end of the semester, some of the students we like, “Maria, I really do feel why these experiences are important and why staying close to home for my outdoor experiences can be a really valuable thing, and limiting my use of wilderness spaces is also an important thing for me to do when I’m growing my stewardship ethics.”

I think that maybe, more and more as outdoor educators are working with young people who are like, “Yes, I really like wilderness trips,” I think that is the message to instill— that of “How does this impact your overall stewardship?” And if you love these national parks, what can you do to preserve them? And maybe for you it could be not visiting them and encouraging other people to visit. Or when you are planning your trip, think like, “Who of my friends hasn’t been to a big national park yet, and can I bring them with me?” Just planning out what makes your trip meaningful this time.

And like I know the statistics about how outdoor recreation participation is dropping in younger audiences. So that’s probably not the advice to include in policy and practice in parks, but I think there is something to be said for growing the value of our regional parks as a substitute for national parks in an effort to not love our parks to death.

In a word what do you want your legacy to be for your beloved Mississippi? Or three words?

Telling all stories.

Gloves or Mittens?

Ooh, Mittens! Always.

Spoken like a true North Country gal.

Maria can be reached at

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