The idea of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was born this time of year in 1964. That’s when a contentious debate about a proposed coal-fired power plant on the banks of the river in Bayport — now known as the Allen S. King Generating Plant — rose to flood stage.
It was an exciting time in politics. The landmark Wilderness Act had been passed in September 1964. In July, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
Wisconsin residents and politicians led the fight against the plant, as they would be downwind of its coal piles and smokestack, and it would ruin the view from their side of the river. The experience inspired a freshman U.S. Senator already focused on protecting the planet to seek perpetual protection of two rivers he had known and loved his whole life.
The ultimately unsuccessful opposition to the power plant made it clear to Senator Gaylord Nelson, who had grown up 25 miles across the river in Clear Lake, Wisc. and canoed it and its tributary the Namekagon since he was a boy, that the federal government was powerless to protect such special rivers.
The conflict between Minnesota and Wisconsin over management of the river also brought about the first formal interstate cooperation, an important part of the river’s protection today.
A new joint task force met for the first time on December 9, 1964, to examine the facts of the power plant proposal. It included representatives from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and several federal agencies, and was chaired by Professor William Lord of the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Its analysis eventually led to “important modifications” of the power plant.
The next day, a Senate Subcommittee co-chaired by Nelson convened two days of hearings in Stillwater about the plant. Among the witnesses was wilderness author and advocate Sigurd Olson, of Ely, Minn. Olson’s wife grew up along the river in Seeley, Wisc. and he had explored both the Namekagon and St. Croix. They were buried a stone’s throw from the Namekagon.
That night, the Wild and Scenic St. Croix was breathed to life.
An important meal
After the hearings concluded, Senator Nelson and Wisconsin environmental leader Harold Jordahl, who worked for the Department of the Interior, had dinner together. They discussed “the outline of federal protection of the majority of the Saint Croix-Namekagon system, including the flat water south of Stillwater.”
Less than four years later, it would become law (the same year the power plant started operating).
The St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers were two of the first eight rivers designated as Wild & Scenic when the bill was signed. Today, they are beautiful and beloved, fairly healthy and pretty clean — and still facing development pressure, pollution, and other threats.
As St. Croix 360 joins many others in celebrating the anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, we’re launching a new 50th anniversary series of more stories about the path to Lyndon Johnson’s desk, the official anniversary takes place next October 2. Please follow along!
Source: “Saving the Saint Croix: An Administrative History of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway,” Theodore J. Karamanski, National Park Service – Midwest Region,