50th Anniversary: Read Senator Gaylord Nelson’s fiery 1965 speech calling for St. Croix River conservation

Nelson urged Minnesota officials to protect the St. Croix before it suffered the same abuses as America’s other great rivers.




13 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.

Sen. Gaylord Nelson

The movement to permanently protect the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers got serious in the winter of 1965. Freshman Senator Gaylord Nelson led the charge.

Faced with the construction of a new power plant on the banks of the river in Bayport, which Nelson and other advocates believed would degrade the scenery and abuse the water, they believed a federal system to protect such special rivers was necessary.

No authority existed that could stop the power plant, despite the risks it presented to the river. Nelson had decided federal protection was essential. The previous year, the Wilderness Act had been passed, creating such a system for preserving some of the most untouched areas of America.

In January, officials gathered for hearings about the power plant in Stillwater, and Nelson took the opportunity to lay out his vision. He said he understood the state had little ability to stop the proposal, but urged the commissioners to support efforts in Congress.

Three years later, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson passed the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, which included the St. Croix and Namekagon as a new National Park, with broad public support.

Read an abridged version of his speech below to understand where the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway sprouted. I’ve included some favorite photos to remember what he was fighting for. Thank you to Peter Gove for bringing this speech to my attention!

Statement by Senator Gaylord Nelson before a joint hearing by the Minnesota Conservation Commissioner, Wayne Olson, and the Minnesota Water Pollution Control Commission in Stillwater, Minn., January 14, 1965

The St. Croix River at Stillwater (Photo: Dave Gingrich, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Though I grew up in a fine little village not far from the banks of the St. Croix, my prime concern over this river is neither parochial nor nostalgic. It is the same broad concern that all conservationists have — about these matters whether it be the wilderness of the West, the Redwoods of California, the Indiana dunes, or the Appalachian Trail of the East.

This morning I want to speak briefly about conservation as an issue in American life, and about why it has been for so long an uphill fight and why, I believe, the tide must turn now or the cause be irretrievably lost.

I hope to outline the compelling reasons why the St. Croix River ought to be reserved for recreation development, and why this would be in the best interests not only of the Nation and the metropolitan area, but even of Washington County, Minn.

America’s natural heritage

Scandia valley vista (Greg Seitz)

Let me quote for a moment from the state of the Union message: “For over three centuries,” the President said, “the beauty of America has sustained our spirit and enlarged our vision. We must act now to protect this heritage.” This statement reflects both wisdom and hard political sense.

It may be hard to realize for those who have lived their lives in the St. Croix Valley, but Minnesota and this entire region have a priceless recreation resource in this river — a clean, large, spectacularly beautiful river within a half hour’s drive of a major population center.

I am appearing here today to express the hope that you preserve this river in its present state for yourselves and as a heritage for those who come after you.

The President said: “For 300 years the beauty of America has sustained our spirit.” Under industrious cultivation our rich and beautiful land not only sustained our spirit but has made us rich beyond our greatest dreams.

Walking the talk

We have always been grateful, but I fear we have too often forgotten the need to conserve as much as possible of this rich inheritance we have received. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is in favor of conservation — in principle. But in fight after fight, the general public interest in conservation has lost out to the specific local interest in commercial development.

Perhaps the conflict goes back to the day when the white man first faced the original American. The white man brought from Europe ideas of land management very different from the Indian’s. The Indian had great reverence for the land. He knew he depended upon it for life itself. The fruit of the earth confirmed the generosity of the gods. The land belonged not to the individual, but to all his people.

The white man, of course, thought in terms of individual exploitation-too often for private gain at public expense. It is only gradually that we are coming to see that there is much truth for us in the original American’s idea.

Thoreau and Muir, and our other early conservationists, had a good deal of the Indian about them. But the fight they waged was little more successful than the Indian’s.

In most conservation contests-whether over the use of the Indiana dunes, of the Redwoods of California, or the St. Croix, there is usually a sizeable group of local people willing to grant the validity of the conservationist’s arguments, but bowing in this specific instance to the strong local economic interest in the development of a specific forest, river, or bit of lakeshore.

In this way, most of the great rivers of America have been systematically destroyed, in the name of progress.

‘Call the roll of the great American rivers’

St. Croix River seen from Carpenter Nature Center
View from Carpenter Nature Center (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

George Washington dreamed of the Nation’s capital on the beautiful Potomac, the river praised by early travelers for its exceptionally sweet water. But since Washington left us with his dream, tons of silt from exhausted tobacco plantations, acids leeching into the river from abandoned mines, industrial wastes and half treated sewage have fouled this once sweet river and turned it into a national disgrace.

Stand on the lawn in front of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home today, gaze across the broad expanse of the Potomac, and your view will be scarred by a sign proclaiming: “Danger, polluted water.”

Call the roll of the great American rivers of the past, and you will have a list of the pollution problems of today — the Androscoggin in Maine; the Connecticut, that boundary water between the Green Mountain and the Granite States; the mighty Hudson; the thermally polluted Delaware; the Ohio; the Mississippi; the Missouri; and even your Minnesota, covered from time to time by flotillas of sugarbeet chips.

The story in each case is the same: they died for their country.

They died in the name of economic development. And now we must spend vast amounts of money if our people are not to become sick from their dying.

The story of America’s commercial development, which is in large part the story of her rivers, is a glorious one. We all benefit. But we are only beginning to reckon the price we must pay for the foolish squandering of our limited supply of clean water.

The story of America’s rivers warns us against that American spirit of optimism that presumes there is always more to be had and more to be carelessly wasted. The vision of the frontier, with its promise of untapped land and fresh opportunity has always been part of our dream. It has not, however, been part of our reality for some 70 years. We are only now coming to realize this fact.

Time for action

Autumn backwater bluff
Autumn backwater bluff

We must act now to plan, and to husband this heritage of land and water carefully. Our long tradition of private land ownership and management makes these things very difficult for us, but we are learning.

It seems logical to me that some rivers ought to be working rivers, kept as clean as possible, but recognized and designated as industrial and commercial arteries. The Mississippi is a most obvious candidate for classification. Others ought to be classified as wild rivers, and still others as recreation rivers.

Your favorite trout stream most certainly ought to be protected in a wild state. Rivers like the lower St. Croix, that offer unusual potential for recreational development, ought to be set aside for wise recreational development, especially when there are working rivers nearby.

The St. Croix is the last large clean river near a major metropolitan area in all of the Midwest. If we don’t halt commercial exploitation here, where shall we stop?

The upper St. Croix is a river that got a second chance. By 1903 the stripping of the valley’s forests had left it nearly bare and made the river towns rich. But 60 years of quiet have reclothed its banks with trees and stabilized its soil with grass.

Now it has been studied as a wild river, part of a new Federal program for the preservation of our dwindling supply of undeveloped streams. It looks like the upper St. Croix is going to be preserved. We can all be grateful.

Looking from the past to the future

Kayaking St. Croix River backwaters
Paddling by a great blue heron rookery on a bird-focused foray with National Park Service rangers in 2012 (Photo by Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

The towns of the lower St. Croix thrived on timber fortunes and related industrial development while the upper valley was being stripped. The magnificent period architecture in Stillwater is a tribute to those prosperous, highhanded old days.

But since World War I, the lower St. Croix valley has been industrially becalmed. Local citizens have kept up their hopes for a rebirth of industry, but without any luck.

In 1938, as Mr. Chester Wilson so eloquently explained at our Senate subcommittee hearings in December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a 9-foot barge channel 23 miles up the river to Stillwater in hopes of attracting industry.

Washington County is already part of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Even in 1960, according to the census, 50 percent of the county’s wage earners worked outside its borders — in the Twin Cities, of course. The pressure on the schools of Free School District 834 comes from the children of Twin Cities’ workers who are making their homes in this beautiful county.

By the year 2000 — only 35 years away (those of you who remember 1930 will realize what a short time 35 years is) — the Twin Cities area population will hit the 2 million mark, according to a report by your metropolitan planning commission, and Stillwater will be practically downtown.

“In our urban areas,” President Johnson said in his state of the Union message, “the central problem today is to protect and restore man’s satisfaction in belonging to a community.

“The first step is to break old patterns-to begin to think, work, and plan for the development of entire metropolitan areas.”

Growing demand for outdoor recreation

Kayakers and canoeists paddle downstream from St. Croix State Park’s boat landing on the St. Croix River Association’s annual six-day paddle.

Now, but even more in the years immediately ahead, this great and growing metropolitan area will need the St. Croix as a recreational resource, not as an industrial site.

Despite its sparkling array of lakes and woods the Twin Cities area, again according to the metropolitan planning commission report, is even today short of outdoor recreational facilities. In fact it has only 30 percent of what is considered desirable (10 acres for every 1,000 residents).

The Upper Midwest Research and Development Council reports that in the next 15 years the Twin Cities area will bear the brunt of the continuing migration — from the small towns and farms of the north central region. With incomes going steadily up (the gross national product is predicted to jump 95 percent in the next 15 years) and more and more leisure time available, the need for and demand for outdoor recreation in the beautiful lower St. Croix Valley will be enormous.

Those who fear that without heavy industry Stillwater is doomed to be just another dying river town are looking to the past, not to the future. Recreation development offers more in the long run than the development of industry on the St. Croix.

Power plant problems

Pine and water

The Northern States Power Co. proposes to begin construction this year on the first of two coal-operated steam-electric generating units at Oak Park Heights, Minn., just south of Stillwater. The first unit would have a capacity of 550,000 kilowatts. It, would have a 785-foot smokestack, a halfmile coal pile, and require 660 cubic feet of river water per second for cooling and condensing steam. The second unit, a 750,000- kilowatt unit, would of course require even more cooling water.

Valley residents and thoughtful conservationists everywhere fear the heat pollution of the river, pollution of the air by the sulfur gases from the burning of low grade fuel, and the fiftyfold increase in barge traffic on the river that the first unit of the plant would require. In essence, this plant will simply and unnecessarily reduce the value of the river for recreation at a stage in history when the trend should be sharply reversed.

On the narrow question of water pollution danger, I have no new information to add. The Minnesota Water Pollution Control Commission is, I am confident, ·able to sift all the available evidence on that problem. If the evidence shows that the operation of the plan will have any adverse effect on the water quality or the ecology of the river, I am confident that the commission will either turn down the company’s application for a permit to return heated water to the river, or at least require the construction of the proper cooling towers to insure the river against damage.

I would like to raise one question, however. The national power survey just released by the Federal Power  Commission indicates that it is generally considered sound practice to limit stream diversion for steam condensation to one-half the streamflow. The first unit of the proposed Allen S. King plant would require, I understand, 660 cubic feet per second, well over half the 1,000 cubic feet per second which is the 10-year minimum flow of the St. Croix at Oak Park Heights. Since the second unit of the plant is even larger than the first, I am anxious to see evidence behind the company’s assurances that no harm will be done to the river by such massive withdrawal of its waters.

I would like to make one other comment. The company asserts that the additional cost of constructing this plant on the Mississippi — say at the Prairie Island site, north of Red Wing, Minn., would not be great enough to affect the electricity rates. It has also argued the wisdom of developing the St. Croix site now on the grounds that the power requirements of the Twin Cities area in the years ahead will be so great that all available sites must be developed at one time or another and the best time to develop the St. Croix site is now.

Given the fantastic pace in power plant design and development — it was only in 1961 that the first 500,000-kilowatt steam-electric generating plant went into operation-would it not be wise to hold off on using the St. Croix site for the time being in the expectation that new developments in plant capacity would make using the site unnecessary?

Perplexing problems

The pollution questions you are expected to pass on. The larger questions, more crucial really, raise perplexing problems. The fact is that the fight over the location of this plant reveals a gap in the fabric of our institutions. It raises the question of land-use evaluation. There is no agency available to resolve that question.

This is a genuine, honorable conflict. Which is to come first on the St. Croix: power development or recreation and conservation? Who can decide the question?

This case raises the age-old question of land use and resource use, a question that must daily be decided in situation after situation across the country. Whose responsibility is it? Are we to ask Northern States Power Co. officials to make their decision on the basis of the area’s present and future recreational needs? The Washington County officials?

For the taxpayer that $68 million plant is a well-nigh irresistible tax windfall, although I believe there are some who see the long-range dangers.

We are the future generations

In the absence of any regional, or metropolitan planning authority, the appeal must be made to this joint hearing to take the larger considerations into account. I am aware there are differences of opinion over the scope of authority vested in the conservation commissioner by the words “health and welfare” in the pertinent section of the statutes. These are matters over which competent counsel are expected to differ. But since they do differ and the issue is so important, it surely is a matter that ought to be settled by the appropriate court before authorization is granted the company to proceed.

That there is a vested public interest in public waters as such is clear; that any reasonably liberal interpretation of the word “welfare” raises the question of the stake of the general public in this matter; that since this is a private utility with a monopoly in a service area set by the Government, the company can hardly argue that a few months of delay will cause irreparable damage-while whatever damage is done by the plant to the river will be irreparable.

Furthermore, I am advised that the company plans to proceed with construction on other sites including the Mississippi in the years immediately ahead. I ask again, would it not be reasonable to develop another site now, saving the lovely St. Croix for exploitation at some future time and only if absolutely necessary?

I know you all realize this is a case of national significance. It has attracted attention of the press and magazines through the Midwest and from coast to coast. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation and New Republic have written stories and editorialized about it.

During the past 100 years we have wrought more wanton destruction of. our landscape than any previous civilization accomplished in 1,000 years. We now say, what a pity our ancestors didn’t have the foresight to husband our bountiful resources more sensibly. How much richer we would be both in esthetic and material wealth had they had more vision and more courage.

Before this case is decided I think we all should ask ourselves this question: What are our great-great-grandchildren going to say about us a half century from now?

Protecting the river for all and forever

I might add that beginning attempts at the industrialization of the St. Croix made it clear that Federal action is needed to protect the national interest. Therefore, I am now drafting a bill to make the entire length of the St. Croix and its Wisconsin tributary, the Namekagon, into a national scenic waterway.North of Taylors Falls the St. Croix would be designated a “wild river” as envisioned in the Federal study. A national recreation area would be laid out along the lower St. Croix.

A number of Washington County people seem to feel that Save the St. Croix, Inc. is made up of wealthy yachtowners who want to keep Lake St. Croix as their private playground. This charge ls not based on fact. But the fact is that if the St. Croix is to be made a recreation area for all, careful planning must begin now. Access points and riverside parks must be developed and proper zoning regulations worked out in cooperation with local property owners. The river must be made available to all the people of the area. That is the purpose of the bill I am drafting.

The future establishment of a St. Croix National Scenic Waterway would, of course, have no legal effect whatever on the Northern States Power Co. proposal now before you. That decision rests with you.


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50th Anniversary: Read Senator Gaylord Nelson’s fiery 1965 speech calling for St. Croix River conservation