First in a four-part series about the proposed North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix National Heritage Area, part of St. Croix 360’s partnership with The Heritage Initiative:
If you ask just about anyone who knows and loves the St. Croix River region, they’ll tell you this is a special place. Everyone can share a little-known story, whether it’s about the rocks that are millions of years old, the fur trade and logging eras, the arrival of European immigrants, adventures on wild rivers, conservation leaders like Gaylord Nelson and Sigurd Olson, or the enduring presence of the Ojibwe and Dakota today.
Nobody has asked what makes this place special quite like the Heritage Initiative has been asking for the past few years. And now it has produced a document that captures our region’s history, culture, and natural splendor.
This month, the Heritage Initiative is asking neighbors, colleagues, and friends throughout the region to weigh in on a Feasibility Study for a National Heritage Area in the 8,000 square miles that are defined by the St. Croix River in northwestern Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The study makes the case that this area is deserving of national recognition for its stories and special places. If successful, Congress could make the North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix National Heritage Area the nation’s fiftieth National Heritage Area.
National Heritage Areas celebrate important parts of American history and culture. They require Congressional designation and can receive technical assistance from the National Park Service, yet they are managed locally and participation is purely voluntary. They encourage collaboration across traditional boundaries and provide opportunities to promote regional heritage tourism, as well as opening the doors for new funding sources. Heritage Areas do not have any regulatory or land use authority that can interfere with private property rights.
The in-depth Feasibility Study describes why the St. Croix region is a great fit for National Heritage Area designation. It’s a finding that reflects more than 600 people who have offered their stories, their ideas, and their support over the past few years. The study also offers the opinions of historians, cultural geographers, researchers, writers, and others who have been consulted throughout the project.
The case for designation includes many common stories with a multitude of heritage assets to interpret those stories. As an example, you can go to the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, celebrating the workers who logged the region, and then visit the Boom Site at Stillwater where the logs ended up before heading to the mills, financing lumber barons mansions which still adorn many of the region’s towns. To visit either location is fascinating, yet to visit both is to get a much fuller picture of a robust industry that fueled America’s western expansion.
Visitors might also come to explore museums dedicated to the experience of European immigrants in the 19th century, to attend an Ojibwe powwow and travel through lands that have been their home for centuries. They might come for a classic northwoods lake resort experience and go canoeing down a beautiful river, where white pines still stand on sandstone and basalt bluffs.
The list goes on. It probably sounds pretty familiar to anyone who lives in east-central Minnesota or northwestern Wisconsin. The similarities are why it makes sense to look at this region as a whole, to share our goals for stewardship and prosperous communities.
National Heritage Area designation for the St. Croix watershed region could show our children and grandchildren how fortunate they are to live in a beautiful, interesting place. It could show the country that this is a destination worth traveling to and spending a couple of weeks exploring. It could provide the foundation for a small business in Minnesota to partner with a historical society in Wisconsin, a municipal government along the Namekagon to collaborate with an arts festival on the Kinnickinnic, a local business organization on the Kettle River to share resources with a tourism group promoting a festival on the Sunrise River, an Ojibwe band to work with nature centers and schools to teach native ways.
The Feasibility Study explains these ideas and more. It will be available next week at www.stcroixheritage.org/feasibility-study or at local libraries around the region. The Heritage Initiative Task Force is interested in feedback from everyone, and has provided a form on the website. Comments and questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers can likely think of a dozen stories and places and projects that could be part of a National Heritage Area. “Imagine the possibilities” has been an informal theme of the Heritage Initiative, and everyone is invited to use their imagination with this opportunity.
Coming next week: The community engagement process that inspired and informed the NHA proposal, with 400 stories and thousands of years of St. Croix River region residency.