Camp Ripley has tremendous impact as community partner, steward of history and the environment
National military reputation and economic influence also contribute
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Camp Ripley was recently visited by producers of a National Geographic feature on the Mississippi River. “One of the producers told us that they believe the 18-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that runs through Camp Ripley could be the longest full stretch of the entire river that is undeveloped,” said Maj. John Donovan, Camp Ripley Visitors Bureau chief.
Camp Ripley is a unique installation which is 99 percent federally funded, but which belongs to the state of Minnesota.
“There are three main missions for Camp Ripley,” said Post Commander Col. Scott St. Sauver. “The first mission is to the federal government in time of emergency; the second is to the state for protection of property and the citizenry and the coordination with inter-agency partners; and the third is to the local community.”
Comprising 53,000 acres in an area 19 miles long and five miles wide, Camp Ripley is about 7 percent of the total area of Morrison County.
But Camp Ripley isn’t just two-dimensional. A huge portion of Camp Ripley’s area also includes the 27,000 feet (about five and one half miles) of airspace above the camp. It is restricted airspace and “belongs” to Camp Ripley.
“Any time we’re not flying, we give that airspace back to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use,” said St. Sauver. “And sometimes weather conditions closer to the Twin Cities dictate the need to have an approach to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport come through our airspace, and the FAA will call us to ask.”
For all its size, Camp Ripley has a very real and active presence in the life of its surrounding communities. The role of steward is something St. Sauver takes very seriously.
“Interacting with the communities around us is critical to our success,” he said.
“We try to ensure that those communities know what we are doing, how we’re doing it and when it’s being done so they can support the soldiers,” he said.
As part of being involved in area communities, many soldiers and airmen from Camp Ripley participated in the second annual Day of Caring in Little Falls, Wednesday.
Community outreach is accomplished in a number of other ways, too. Camp Ripley offers environmental field tours, job shadowing, National Public Lands Day events, youth archery deer hunts and Disabled American Veterans hunts.
Every year, dozens of downed oak trees from all over Camp Ripley are brought to the deployed soldier wood pile where they are chopped and split to make firewood for the families of deployed soldiers.
“‘Minnesota nice’ still means something,” said St. Sauver. “Our work ethic, values and the way we were brought up make us unique as Central Minnesota people.”
Camp Ripley also employs 1,000 people from the area in full-time positions. The only employee who actually lives on the installation is St. Sauver. Everyone else drives in from surrounding communities like Randall, Baxter, Zimmerman, St. Cloud and of course, Little Falls.
Given Camp Ripley’s size and wild nature, the environmental impact of all that happens there is something that is closely monitored. Camp Ripley is a state game refuge.
There are compliance environmentalists working at Camp Ripley checking for contamination of any resources such as air quality, water quality, soil, flora and fauna.
“Currently, there are studies being conducted on Blanding’s turtles, black bears, fishers, various birds and invasive species such as spotted knapweed,” said St. Sauver.
“Very selective wood cuts are made every year to maintain the mature forests. Bluestem grass is harvested annually and the seed is sold,” said St. Sauver.
The National Audubon Society is investigating sharing two birding events with Camp Ripley.
Brian Armstrong, president of Red Rock Films and one of the producers working for National Geographic, said, “Camp Ripley is pretty unique for the length of time that it has been protected on all levels, and almost by accident.”
“It wasn’t set up as a nature reserve — it was put aside for military reasons — but it has the side benefit of preserving the land for creatures as well,” Armstrong said.
“We have to train soldiers 24/7, but we have to do it properly as a good steward of the environment,” said St. Sauver.
There are also historical stewardship considerations. “Anytime ground is broken anywhere on Camp Ripley, that ground must be researched to rule out anything of possible historical significance such as buried sites. Sometimes a full-blown archeological dig is called for,” said St. Sauver.
“There is a site now being excavated which is more than thousands of years old, and could possibly pre-date native settlements,” he said.
There are many old settler cemetery sites that are maintained on Camp Ripley, and the site of an old cavalry fort on the bank of the Mississippi where a ferry once operated.
“By federal law, we must consult with tribal historical preservation officers once a year,” said St. Sauver. “The research for sites is done through a contract with a tribal cultural research firm from Leech Lake.”
Camp Ripley is one of 11 heavy training centers throughout the United States. “Across the northern tier of the U.S., it is a ‘main player’ in the military, with a lot of multi-service training,” said St. Sauver.
Units from all over the country will be training in Morrison County this summer, including 11,500 soldiers from Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota, Ohio and Georgia.
“The unit from Georgia was given a choice of where to conduct their training, and they chose us,” St. Sauver said.
Another way to steward Camp Ripley’s presence in the area is to notify residents of upcoming training. Noise levels are closely monitored and mapped, noting climatic conditions, time of year and location.
When residents in the area near St. Matthias notified Camp Ripley about noise from training fire, it was discovered that noise wasn’t actually the problem.
“The impact was being transferred underground, under the Mississippi, to that area, and people were actually feeling the impact and not hearing the noise,” said St. Sauver. “But the range was moved to a point further north and the problem was solved.”
Many agencies outside the military also train at Camp Ripley. “All Minnesota State Patrol rookies train here, and all patrolmen take their yearly inservice here,” St. Sauver said.
The Department of Natural Resources is a tenant on Camp Ripley. All game wardens are trained there, as well as park rangers and foresters.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation began training all snowplow drivers in the state at Camp Ripley last September.
“That is a high value for the state, with the drivers being trained right here at low cost,” said St. Sauver.
There are many large projects already begun and several scheduled over the next few years which are guaranteed to be completed, no matter what cuts may be made to federal funding for the military.
They include: an emergency vehicle operations course, an unmanned aerial systems facility, a secure information handling facility, a multi-purpose machine gun and heavy sniper range, a digital training and scout reconnaissance range, a qualification range and a squad defense range.
The state emergency management training center will open in 2012.
These facilities will strengthen Camp Ripley’s already solid position as a training facility of high reputation.
As a National Guard installation, Camp Ripley is in a good position for the future also because the National Guard Bureau Chief was recently made a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Guard Bureau is now its own service like the Army or the Navy.
“We have been getting our budget from the Department of the Army, but that could likely change with this transition,” St. Sauver said.
“Camp Ripley has a tremendous impact on Morrison County,” said County Commissioner Rich Collins. “It is the ‘Star of the North’ and it is very rewarding that we have this bond in our community.”
“Camp Ripley is a place for community,” St. Sauver said. “We have an open post and invite everyone to stop out and visit us.”
For more information, contact Maj. John Donovan at (320) 616-2726.