St. Croix riverway marks 50 years
ST. CROIX FALLS, Wis. (AP) — It’s a cool, overcast weekday morning in May, and Greg Seitz is paddling a stretch of the St. Croix River he calls his “milk run.”
The 6.4-mile stretch between the Osceola and Log House landings is where Seitz heads whenever time allows.
“It’s where I was really introduced to the St. Croix back when I was in high school,” he says, dipping his paddle in the river and steering around a spit of land where two men are fishing. “I love it. It’s my go-to stretch. It’s the one I’ve been doing the longest, the one I know best.”
Seitz, founder of the St. Croix 360 website, has paddled nearly every inch of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway — 252 miles of the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers. He plans to check off his last 20 miles this summer to mark the 50th anniversary of the riverway.
In 1968, efforts to protect the St. Croix led to the passage of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. A documentary called “The Wild and Scenic St. Croix” is commemorating that action and to reinvigorate the commitment that led to the river’s protected status, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
The act, co-sponsored by Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale and the late Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, resulted in development restrictions.
The legislation happened “just in the nick of time,” said Seitz, who lives in Marine on St. Croix.
“It was passed right as this area was growing really fast . there was so much development pressure that followed it,” he said. “But being on the river now is like taking a step back in time, back to 1968. The river hasn’t changed much since then. It can be easy to take it for granted, but the fact is, while the rest of the surrounding area — all of the communities, etc. — have grown and population has grown, it hasn’t affected this very much.”
The river looks practically prehistoric as Seitz navigates through a back channel on the Minnesota side of the river, about three miles south of Osceola Landing. His destination: a great blue heron rookery on an island.
“It’s kind of like ‘Jurassic Park’ with these big gangly birds flapping and squawking around way up in the treetops,” he said. “These herons have been coming back here for generations. You go in this little secret entrance here, and it really opens up a whole different world. . The wildlife is amazing and it’s beautiful.”
A chorus of bird songs erupts from the riverbanks. “It’s like listening in stereo,” he jokes.
“We call the first spring paddle ‘The Waterfowl Harassment Tour,’ ” he said. “Every 100 yards or so, there are wood ducks or geese or other ducks bursting up from the banks. They’re trying to court each other and nest and migrate, and we just come along disrupting the whole thing.”
Seitz, a writer and blogger, works for the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, which is the environmental research department of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the St. Croix River Association. He launched StCroix360.com “in the waning days of the Stillwater bridge fight,” he said, referring to the decades-long debate over the new St. Croix River bridge that opened last year in Oak Park Heights.
“When I talked about the St. Croix River, people would say, ‘What’s up with the bridge?’” he said. “I always thought, that’s one mile of the St. Croix River, and there’s so much more to it. I wanted to change the narrative a little bit, so that the first thing people think of isn’t just a bridge.”
Seitz, who is married and has two young children, said he is working to build a stronger appreciation for the river, “so the next time something controversial happens, we don’t get into such a protracted battle.”
“We can start at the point of doing what’s best for the river, kind of get everybody on that page,” he said. “Pretty much everybody does care about the river and realizes it’s special and wants to preserve it, but I want to build a constituency that is well informed about the challenges.”
Julie Galonska was named superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway last year after being interim superintendent for more than a year. She previously served as chief of interpretation, education and cultural resource management.
Galonska, who lives in Osceola, came to the St. Croix 10 years ago from Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.
“We are very fortunate to have such a resource here,” Galonska said during a recent speech at the Lowell Inn Event Center in Stillwater. “We take it for granted, but not all rivers are so well loved or so well protected.”
She said she used to cross the polluted Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., on her way to work. “It was a river you didn’t touch,” she said. “You didn’t get on the water or near the water. I was literally told that it’s where they go to find the dead bodies. It’s that kind of a river. . We never had to fight that fight here on the St. Croix.”
The St. Croix has been known for its scenic qualities ever since explorers and early settlers arrived, she said. George Hazzard, a general agent for railroads and steamboat lines out of St. Paul, organized a movement in 1895 to create a state park out of the Dalles area of the river near Taylors Falls; steamboat excursions to the Interstate State Parks started shortly thereafter.
A writer for the Minneapolis Tribune in 1914 compared the St. Croix to “the Rhine, the Hudson and other famous rivers of the world.”
By the late 1920s, Northern States Power Co. had acquired almost 30,000 acres along the river for power-generating facilities, Galonska said.
NSP allowed the public to use the land for hunting, fishing, camping and river access. “In 1939, NSP — we’re in the midst of the Depression — leased 7,000 acres on the upper St. Croix to the state of Minnesota to become part of St. Croix State Park,” she said. “And they started inviting the public to come to their land.”
Ads at the time declared: “This land is your land. The St. Croix Wild River Recreation Area is yours to enjoy . courtesy of NSP. It is a priceless heritage for us all.”
In the 1960s, NSP announced plans for two power plants, including a 500,000-kilowatt coal-burning, steam-generating plant in Oak Park Heights.
When a joint state-federal task force met in Stillwater in January 1965 to discuss the Oak Park Heights plant, Senator Nelson testified.
“Call the roll of the great American rivers of the past . the mighty Hudson, the thermally polluted Delaware, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and even the Minnesota,” he declared. “The story in each case is the same: they died for their country.”
“That was the tone of this hearing,” Galonska said. “It’s about stopping the power plant, but it’s also about the larger idea of river protection. He argued that saving the St. Croix for recreation would provide more economic development than industry.”
Between 1965 and 1968, bills were introduced in Congress to protect the best of America’s remaining wild and scenic rivers. Nelson asked Mondale, who had just been appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President-elect Hubert Humphrey, to co-sponsor the bill.
When the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed in 1968, NSP was the only corporation named in the act. To create the scenic riverway, the company donated 7,000 acres to the National Park Service, 13,000 acres to Minnesota and 5,000 acres to Wisconsin.
“This park literally would not exist if not for Northern State’s willingness to work in partnership to try and get the land protected,” Galonska said.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale’s deep and abiding love of the St. Croix started 63 years ago during a canoe ride with his future wife.
“I was trying to figure out how to make progress in a decent way,” Mondale said. “We decided to go out on this canoe. She prepared a little lunch in a basket. Oh, God, it was a beautiful day. You have to get married after that.”
Mondale and Joan Adams got engaged after 53 days. “That river did its work,” he said.
The Mondales had a cabin on the St. Croix for many years. Joan Mondale died in 2014. Mondale said last month that he is selling the property.
“That was where Joan and I had our fun,” Mondale said. “I could sit there and watch the river go by whenever I wanted to. Gaylord Nelson and I would talk out there. But the family grew up, and the kids flew away, and there we are.”
The St. Croix is a national treasure that must be protected for future generations, he said.
“The reason why that federal act was passed was to protect the river in its current status from exploitation and development of the kind that ruined the eastern rivers,” he said. “What was different about the law was that it was pretty hard on protecting our assumption that nature was magnificent, leave it alone.
“What we’ve seen here is that tendency to defer to commercial interests, and you saw that dramatically in the (Stillwater) bridge case. We won’t die of one big cannon shot; we will die of nicks and cuts if we’re not careful.”
Lobbyist John Kaul is a documentary filmmaker whose latest project is a film celebrating the 50th anniversary of the riverway.
“The Wild and Scenic St. Croix” debuted June 6 at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul; it also will be shown on TPT. Kaul and Tom Reiter, who also created “Rebirth: The Mississippi’s National Park,” produced the film in partnership with the St. Croix River Association.
Many of the photos and video clips in the documentary were shot by famed nature photographer Craig Blacklock, who recently published “St. Croix & Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift.”
“The river is special because it’s been preserved in a near-pristine state,” Kaul said. “It’s special because it’s a story of resurrection, and that should give us some hope in these kind of dark times.”
Kaul, who lives in Afton, grew up in Bloomington. His first memories of the St. Croix are from family and school trips. “Then I took dates out there,” he said. “The river was like a magnet to me.”
NSP’s decision to donate land to create the scenic riverway was a mixture of self-interest and altruism, Kaul said.
“It’s of great benefit to the state and the nation that the river was preserved,” he said. “There’s a shortage of altruism these days.”
Kaul said threats to the river remain.
“I hope that we just don’t assume that because we’ve got a National Park that we’re on cruise control,” he said.
Among the threats: suburban sprawl, climate change, invasive species and pollution, he said.
A major blow to the river came in 2010, Kaul said, when the Minnesota Supreme Court sided in favor of broadcasting executive Rob Hubbard in his fight with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources over his new house in Lakeland. The Supreme Court ruled that the DNR did not have the authority to overturn Lakeland’s approval of the project.
“That took away the DNR’s authority to regulate shoreline development, and now it’s up to individual municipalities, which are quite subject to local pressures,” Kaul said. “How do you preserve the river in perpetuity when the authority to regulate shoreline development is spread among dozens of local municipalities? You don’t really have one plan or one set of authority.”
The St. Croix River Association, with about 1,200 members, dates to 1911 and is one of the oldest citizen-based resource-conservation organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“My first clear memory of the river is of driving up Highway 95 from Stillwater to Interstate Park with a friend from Washington, D.C.,” said executive director Deb Ryun. “We were playing hooky from a conference in St. Paul on a beautiful July afternoon, and we spent the day walking the trails, watching rock climbers and swimming in the river. From that day on, I looked for a way to live and work in the (St. Croix River) Valley.”
Ryun, who previously served as the executive director for Conservation Districts of Iowa in Chariton, Iowa, became the SCRA’s first director in 2009.
Two years later, Ryun led a three-week, 184-mile paddle of the river to celebrate the association’s 100th anniversary. “I wish everyone could experience spending days — in all weather conditions — floating every mile,” she said. “For those three weeks, we all lived in the moment, enjoyed life to the fullest and had an adventure of a lifetime. Every bend on the river brought surprises. The sights, sounds and smells still come back to me when I visit a stretch of river again.”
The association recently launched a new fund — the St. Croix Watershed Protection Fund — to help ensure that the park “is protected and preserved forever,” Ryun said.
“We want to make sure that the riverway remains an ecological, cultural and community treasure for the next 50 years — and for as long as the river flows.”
The documentary “The Wild and Scenic St. Croix” debuted at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. The film also will be shown at 7 p.m. June 10 on TPT.
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com