50th Anniversary: Debating the first Wild and Scenic St. Croix legislation in the U.S. Senate

Read what the sponsors said when they tried to pass a St. Croix River bill the first time.




6 minute read

Part of St. Croix 360’s series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, which included the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers.

Paddling the Namekagon River (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

Before the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act was passed by Congress and signed into law 50 years ago in 1968, it went through years of debate. The discussions happened in Washington, D.C. and on the banks of the river in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The bill that became law was actually the second attempt at legislation. On January 29, 1965, Senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Walter Mondale of Minnesota introduced a more narrow bill focused on the St. Croix.

With confusion and controversy about zoning, land acquisition, and other details, as well as parallel efforts to pass a bill that would create a nationwide Wild & Scenic Rivers system and include more rivers, the 1965 bill never made it to the President’s desk.

On September 8, its authors offered speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate extolling the virtues of the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers to convince their colleagues the waterways were worthy of federal protection.

Nelson called the riverway, which he had paddled since boyhood, “magnificent.” Mondale called for collective action: “No one person can be blamed for the death of our rivers, lakes, and natural resources, and so we must all act together.”

The sponsors also described the bill in detail, tried to respond to criticisms, and explained why such legislation was necessary.

The words of praise for these amazing rivers still ring true today, thanks to the legislation Nelson and Mondale ultimately passed three years later. Below are abridged versions of the two speeches. They have been edited to be shorter and focused on the St. Croix and Namekagon and not the political maneuvering.

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin

Gaylord Nelson (University of Wisconsin)

The St. Croix bill presents a magnificent opportunity to preserve forever this river, one of the most beautiful in the Nation.

Its loveliness is made the more valuable by the fact that it runs within an easy half-hour’s drive of the rapidly expanding Twin Cities area. Water-based facilities near large cities are the recreation resource in greatest demand and shortest supply in the Nation.

The need to protect such magnificent resources as the St. Croix demands imaginative legislation.

The St. Croix bill, while it does not include any new or untested techniques, does represent a significant advance in Federal, State, and local cooperation for conservation.

The bill, in effect, will supply a Federal umbrella over this interstate river under which local agencies and authorities can cooperate in the development and preservation of the area.

Nelson also requested that excerpts from a report by the Department of the Interior about the proposal be included in the record:

The upper St. Croix and its Wisconsin tributary, the Namekagon, have been carefully studied by the wild river study team and recommended for inclusion in the National Wild River System. These spectacularly beautiful streams run through mixed conifer-hardwood forests interspersed with small swamps and farm openings.

White-tailed deer abound, bear, game birds, and furbearlng animals are at hand.

Fly fishing for small mouth black bass has given the St. Croix River a national reputation. Trout fishing on the upper Namekagon is considered excellent. Unusual diversity is provided by the occurrence of large muskellunge sturgeon, channel catfish, walleyed pike, northern pike, rock bass, and perch.

Fishing on the upper St. Croix (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

For some 70 mlles above the dam at Taylors Falls, Minn., the Northern States Power Co. has owned the land on both sides of the river for 50 years and has maintained it in a primitive condition.

The lower St. Croix has been described as the last large clean river near a major population center In the Midwest. It runs within an easy half-hour’s drive of the burgeoning 1.7 million population Twin Cities area.

A broad, a beautiful river, its level maintained by lock and dam No. 3 on the Mississippi, the lower St. Croix is already one of the most popular boating waters in the Nation.

Nelson’s concluding remarks:

The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway represents another step forward in our efforts to improve this Nation’s black record in conservation.

It will, if approved, add luster to the already fine record compiled by this Congress in the field of conservation. I wholeheartedly recommend it to the Senators.

Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota

Senator Walter Mondale Minnesota Historical Society)

The St. Croix River is the last major unpolluted river in the United States today. Its beauty is without question. It is a clean, large, swift-fIowing waterway within easy access to thousands of Minnesotans. But if we are to stop the fIood of pollution and destruction of this river, we need the cooperation and assistance of the Federal Government. This is first of all an interstate waterway, lying between Minnesota and Wisconsin. There are dozens of local governmental units along its shores. It would be difficult for all of them, on both sides of the river, to agree on a course of action to follow.

We used to fight our battles against fIoods, destruction of topsoil, and decimation of forests. We still face these threats. Our new challenges are even more serious, involving possible loss of those common resources that are the irreplaceable heritage of tomorrow’s America: the air, the water, and the land itself.

It is up to each one of us to do our part – because only together can we prevent this from happening in Minnesota and in the St. Croix Valley. No one person can be blamed for the death of our rivers, lakes, and natural resources, and so we must all act together.

But, as every person insists upon his economic right to waste a tiny portion of our resources, and cries for conservation elsewhere, the American people are discarding their birthright – committing collective murder of our natural wealth and beauty.

We cannot allow the St. Croix to go the way of our other polluted, detergent foam-filled, sewage-filled rivers in the United States simply because we could not see that we are losing each little skirmish to save the St. Croix, and before long, it will be too late.

Mike Bartz and his canoe companion.
Mike Bartz paddles his restored wood-canvas Old Town canoe on the St. Croix River. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

We have seen the death of rivers by small inches elsewhere. The mighty Hudson River in New York is called an open, running sewer; Lake Erie, fed by the chemical and industrial wastes, of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, is choking and is almost a dead lake, in which vegetation and fish life would be impossible.

If this were only a question of preserving some small portion of the great natural riches this country once had, it would be reason enough. But we are beginning to discover facts explaining the dollar value of green space, trees, and clean rivers and lakes.

In the face of ever-increasing urban sprawl, in the face of the oppressive nature of concrete, steel, and auto exhaust gases in our cities, we need more than ever a place of refuge and natural beauty, removed from the clamor of the towns and cities. We must move now to protect that river.


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If you have any questions, please email greg@stcroix360.com


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50th Anniversary: Debating the first Wild and Scenic St. Croix legislation in the U.S. Senate