Deb Ryun is the Executive Director of the St. Croix River Association. This article originally appeared in the Osceola Sun.
How many people do you suppose crossed the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota today and realized, as they did so, that they had just crossed a national park? If you were to step into a travel office in Hudson or Stillwater and ask about an excursion to a national park, where do you suppose they might send you – to Yellowstone, or Glacier? I have to confess I’ve crossed the river on vacation in the past, but until I moved here I didn’t know the St. Croix River was a national park.
The St. Croix is one of the first rivers in the world to be protected along almost its entire length. In the late 1960s and 1970s, it was given special status by Congress and both state legislatures. As a Wild and Scenic River, the National Park is one of the premiere vacation destinations for both states. It contains both world-class native freshwater mussel resources and a world class fishery. It provides recreational opportunities second to none in the Midwest. All this and it’s easily accessed with many entry points over its hundreds of river miles.
What does it mean to have a national park in your back yard? People who have lived here their whole lives have differing opinions on what it means. Some are irritated that ground once privately held is now public land. For some, it’s inconvenient that there are scenic easements and restrictions on how and where one can build. In my two years here, though, many of the people I’ve encountered are thankful, at least now, for the Wild and Scenic designation and the National Park Service presence.
Think about what the park has done. An obvious advantage is that it protects wild places, wild plants and animals. Our three unique ecoregions support a diversity of bird species, many of them rare and endangered. The same can be said for plants. As I drive through the back roads and highways of our watershed, or float along on our rivers and lakes, I am continually amazed at the rich vegetation covering the landscape. As a hunter and angler in Wisconsin, I treasure the 200,000-plus acres of public land. I think of that land as nature’s nursery, a place for wild things to live in concert with humans. Sightings of wild turkey, bear, deer, trout, cranes, and other wildlife that are now common were rare when I was a child. Clearly the Wild and Scenic designation has served us well.
I researched the economic impacts of our national park. I hesitate to throw numbers at you, but these are impressive. Recreational boaters alone spend more than $15 million each summer in the St. Croix Valley. The impact of the National Park Service payroll on our local economy was estimated to be $4,713,000 in 2010. In the federal zone from Stillwater north, there were 5,660,000 visitors, with 4,990,000 being non-resident. Our river may be the biggest reason small towns near the river are still alive and vibrant, unlike many other small Midwestern towns without this unique tourism draw.
It will take diligence to protect what we have. Our St. Croix is no less important than the Great Smokey Mountains or the Everglades. I understand you may not agree with every stance the St. Croix River Association takes on issues, but I believe most of us living here place a high value on the river. Together we can ensure that our children, and their children, can swim, paddle, fish, and play in the St. Croix River.