The St. Croix River has taught Julie Galonska a lot of lessons. One of them helped her rise to the top job at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
The lesson was resilience.
The river’s persistence is its greatest strength — it never stops flowing toward the sea. We can learn a lot from that example.
“It’s had good days and bad days and it has survived,” Galonska says. “This river was here before we came, it’s going to be here hopefully after we go, if we do our jobs right.”
Last month, Galonska was named Superintendent of the National Park unit that includes the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers, after more than 18 months serving as Acting Superintendent. She is the first woman to serve as superintendent of the riverway, bringing 10 years experience working here, and another 15 years before that at other National Parks.
Letting the river run
Galonksa’s job is to help the river do what the river does naturally, available for all to experience, and for all to protect. Her goal, and the mission of the National Park Service, is two-fold: preserve it for today and for future generations.
That makes for difficult choices sometimes.
“As a decision-maker, weighing what’s best now versus what’s in the interest of future generations is something I take very seriously,” Galonska says. “It’s something you have to be really thoughtful about.”
Those decisions involve everything from invasive carp to clean water to maintaining campsites and landings.
Galonska will also oversee a major event starting in just a few weeks: the 50th anniversary of the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, which initially included the St. Croix and Namekagon with seven other rivers around the country.
Without the landmark law, Galonska believes the St. Croix and Namekagon would not be nearly as loved. There would be a lot more houses, for one thing.
“We hear from visitors after their trip, you take it for granted, if you go down the riverway, that you’re surrounded by trees and you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “You often can’t put your finger on it until you float into a town or you come into somewhere that there are a lot more houses. That sense of really being out there in nature, being surrounded by wild natural space is at the heart of this.”
Yet the riverway is only what Galonska calls a “long skinny corridor of protection.” The wild experience is fragile, and easily affected by distant forces.
The narrow corridor is surrounded by a huge area that drains into it.
At 7,800 square miles, this land of prairies, forests, wetlands, farms, and towns has a huge impact on the river.
The National Park Service only has jurisdiction over the long skinny corridor, about a quarter-mile on either bank, often only to the top of the bluffs.
That can be frustrating, because so much of what affects the river is out of the Park Service’s control, but Galonska points out that it is the river itself that inspires people to be good stewards across the watershed.
“The fact that this is a place people want to come, there’s more interest in keeping the water healthy and clean,” she says.
And the people do come — about 700,000 visitors last year through National Park facilities, not counting state parks and other access points. The park has an annual budget of under $3.5 million, and must use it wisely to fund law enforcement, resource management, visitor facilities, and interpretive rangers along 200 miles of river.
The large watershed and narrow ribbon managed by the Park Service also means working with other people and organizations is essential to protect the St. Croix.
Almost everything the agency does involves partnering with communities, individuals, local organizations, and other government agencies from local to federal levels.
In 2011, the riverway signed an agreement with the St. Croix River Association designating the St. Croix Falls-based nonprofit the official National Park “Friends Group” status. It lets the two organizations work together almost seamlessly.
“It has been a privilege to work with Julie on many different projects over the past eight years,” said SCRA Executive Director, Deb Ryun. “She is very forward thinking and has a strong commitment to partnering for the benefit of the river. The appointment is very good for the riverway and for the people that live, work, and play here.”
Efforts on one of the most critical threats facing the St. Croix, invasive carp, has already benefitted from the formal partnership.
According to Galonska, SCRA’s aquatic invasive species coordinator Angelique Dahlberg works “hand-in-hand” with National Park Service biologist Byron Karns to prevent the spread of non-native species.
They have organized volunteer invasive monitors through Project RED, hired four interns each summer to do everything from education to eradication, and more.
“The heart of it is we can’t do it alone,” Galonska says. “It’s about the park and the riverway, it’s not about the National Park Service. Our job is to work with others to find ways to take care of this river and provide people with experiences on it.”
Sharing the wonders of water
Galonska previously served at the riverway as the Chief of Interpretation, Education, and Cultural Resources. Highlights in that role included several groundbreaking initiatives that got people out enjoying and learning about the rivers.
Vets on the River, which began in 2012, provides boat rides, fishing trips, and paddling experiences for military veterans, from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The outings have received rave reviews from participants, who talk about a sense of camaraderie, and a sense of peace.
“It’s finding a way to both honor and enrich lives of people who have served this country, and strengthening their connections to National Parks,” Galonska says.
The In A New Light project also started on the riverway, when staff from Northwest Passage, a residential therapy program based in Webster, Wis. started taking troubled kids to the river with cameras in hand to focus on nature and create beautiful images.
To get more young kids out in nature, the Rivers Are Alive elementary-age education program has also recently been expanded in partnership with the St. Croix River Association.
According to Galonska, the experiential education has a profound impact, simply because the St. Croix is literally awesome.
“When we take kids out there, and especially get them in the water, they’re so excited about the sense of discovery. What’s new or exciting? A rock, a dragonfly, a fish jumping. It’s a sense of wonder and amazement. And just fun, you just see kids play out there, which is really important,” she says. “Kids aren’t going to remember if we give a test after Rivers Are Alive (which we don’t), but they are going to remember the great time they had with a dip net in the St. Croix and what they found.”
Those children will grow up healthier and happier with the river in their lives, and they will be the St. Croix defenders of tomorrow.
Galonska says getting on and in the water opens the door to future conservation.
“That’s how all of us start as stewards of this place,” she says. “You start with a connection, whether you want to call it love or respect or appreciation for this resource and for what’s out there today and in the past. That’s where it starts, that’s why it’s so important.”
A call for conservation
River advocates are needed now and in the future, with global warming and invasive species already affecting the health of the river and the watershed.
Galonska points to a massive flood last summer as the kind of thing the Park Service must prepare for more of in the future.
On July 11, 2016, up to 10 inches of rain, primarily in northern Wisconsin, sent a wall of water downstream that took weeks to recede. It caused the third-highest flows measured in a century at the St. Croix Falls dam.
Roads and bridges were washed out, landings and campsites were damaged, and public safety was seriously threatened.
At Howell Landing on the Namekagon River, the flood tore out portions of retaining walls and steps. The Park Service chose to repair the site by bringing back the original vegetated shoreline, to help prevent future erosion. A ramp that replaced the steps was made with material that lets vegetation grow up through it, and lets water go down through, helping the shoreline stay in place naturally.
Because warmer air holds more moisture, extreme rainfall events are expected to be more common as global temperatures continue to rise. Resiliency is important to consider when making decisions in the face of climate change.
Meanwhile, in the water and on the banks, invasive species disrupt wildlife habitat, drive away native species, and create unnatural monoculture, where one organism dominates at the expense of most others.
Buckthorn and bighead carp both do that, so do Eurasian watermilfoil, curly-leaf pondweed, zebra mussels, yellow iris, garlic mustard, purple loosestrife, and oriental bittersweet.
As the world’s human population grows, the St. Croix’s wildness becomes more rare and valuable, and more people come seeking out its serenity. While more people might mean more stewards, it will also put a strain on the river’s resilience.
Reducing user impacts
“When you have a lot of visitors utilizing campsites, with a lot of people going up and down shorelines, steps, dragging canoes, it naturally leads to erosion issues, soil compaction, maintenance issues,” Galonska says.
St. Croix and Namekagon visitors tend to concentrate on a few favored stretches of the rivers, often over just a few of the nicest weekends of a northern summer. This intensive use magnifies impacts.
But the concentrated use also means there are ways to escape the crowds, if you wish.
“Visitors come to the park wanting all sorts of experiences,” Galonska says. “Some people don’t want to see another soul, other people want to see lots of people, that’s their idea of a good park experience.”
It’s up to the Park Service to manage these issues — for both current and future generations. Addressing visitor use starts with educating people about where to find the experience they are seeking. The Park Service is also working with the University of Minnesota on visitor use analysis.
The job of superintendent requires a long view.
All for the river, the river for all
Galonska lives in Osceola with her husband and two children. Her family loves living in a river town, and enjoy paddling, hiking, and camping at state parks all along the riverway.
She says she treasures memories of early mornings or evenings when camping, quietly walking down to the water with her children to soak in the silence and wildness.
Not every child who lives along the riverway has those experiences, and Galonska wants to address that, planning to make youth programs a priority in her time as superintendent.
Getting kids on the river starts a relationship that will last their whole life.
Of all Galonska’s fond memories on the river, an annual paddle from Interstate Park to Osceola, one of the busiest stretches on the St. Croix, is always important. Despite the crowded conditions, there is something new to see every time, and that means a deepening relationship with the river.
Such long-lasting relationships with the St. Croix are perhaps its greatest hope.
“It belongs to the American people, and people really care about it, people who live here are really passionate, and they want to do the right thing for it,” Galonska says. “Helping them find a way to do that is great.”