The following interview was originally published in this summer’s edition of Ranger magazine. It was conducted by Chris Stein, superintendent of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, and is used here with permission.
Stein: How did you become involved with the St. Croix River?
Walter Mondale: Many ways: I always loved the river, I had close friends who invited us to enjoy the river. Joan and I floated down the river in a canoe and it led to our marriage. I was a close friend of the wonderful Gaylord Nelson who inspired me to help protect our magnificent river. Now I live alongside of it.
Stein: As one of the sponsors of the Congressional legislation that established the Wild and Scenic River Act (WSRA), what are your wishes for its future?
Mondale: My wish is that the river will be protected to comply with the stated purposes declared by congress upon its adoption and by the terms of the act itself.
We’ve done well, but those goals remain a tough challenge.
Stein: What was the state of America’s rivers when WSRA was passed? Were there any issues that caused legislators to pass this Act?
Mondale: Well, it was mixed: Many of the rivers in highly populated older community’s had become “industrial “ rivers, polluted, over-developed and “uglified”. Meanwhile, many American rivers, like the St. Croix, remained largely undeveloped and un-polluted but most of them were under threat by the same trends that “industrialized” the rivers described above. There was an emergency-type threat to the St Croix-type rivers of the country.
Stein: What are the benefits that have been derived from listing rivers as Wild and Scenic? Do you think that the state of the rivers in the USA has improved because of this Act?
Mondale: I am absolutely certain that the law’s enactment and the listing of protected Rivers has served in a big way to protect these rivers, but these rivers remain under severe challenge from “nicks and cuts”: a little pollution here, a power line here, a big bridge here, an eroded shore bank here, a removed magnificent tree here, a communication tower here that destroys the natural beauty and environmental magnificence we sought to protect. What shocks me is how easily commercial interests can subvert the meaning and even direct provisions of the law, by the pressure they can apply. The amorphous and intangible belief in the beauty of nature , even with the law in its support, seems helpless in the fight against the commercial. This is precisely what the law was intended to change.
Stein: Has the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act done everything you envisioned?
Mondale: It has done everything that could be expected of it, but of course there is a shortage of federal and private funds, often the scope of the legal protection was narrow and fragile, much is dependent upon riparian communities commitment to the protection of the river. Contamination seeps into many rivers from every conceivable source
Stein: Have there been unintended consequences (good or bad) from the Act’s passage?
Mondale: I believe the consequences have been magnificent, but the challenges are greater than I had anticipated. One inspiring aspect of the rivers legislation has been the gifted and even brave role played by the Park Service. These professionals, every day, for all of these years, have applied their high professional stature, their understanding of nature and its protection, the strong traditions of their agency. To enforce and protect these rivers under the law, and by both teaching and example, and by inspiration, to increase public awareness and commitment to these marvelous rivers for generations to come.
Stein: If given the chance, how might you amend the Act?
Depends on the river but I would try to increase funding for the Park Service so they could better do their jobs, I would like to expand the protections of the law along the river by easement and purchase to prevent spoliation, and I would like to add protections against noise and light pollution. I also wish there were ways to strengthen the sanctity of the water course, as the law now provides. In our experience with the big new bridge. It didn’t seem to make much difference.
I don’t know how to do this and perhaps it can’t be done, but it would be very valuable if the Department of Interior, including the Secretary, would be more supportive of the Park Service when the Rangers are fighting to enforce the law and to achieve the purposes of its enactment.
Stein: You recently gave the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway the pen that LBJ used to sign the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for safe keeping and display in our visitor center. First off…let me say thank you, but second…what do you think that pen symbolizes?
Mondale: I hope the Park Service will keep this pen because it helps us remember the passage of the Rivers bill, and of the high purposes, including the support of President Johnson that helped make it possible.
Stein: A fly fishing guide along the St. Croix River has stated that when the Riverway was created, “They weren’t taking our River away from us, they were giving it back. But…I still consider it MY River!” What does it feels like to come back to the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers more than four decades after the signing of WSRA to see these protected rivers still wild being enjoyed by so many people?
Mondale: I love it, my family loves it. My favorite time in life is to sit on my deck in the late afternoon and hear the canoes coming down the river with the kids laughing and obviously having a magnificent time, surrounded by God’s nature, which has been protected for them to enjoy, and, hopefully with their help, protected for their kids to see and enjoy, far into the future.