St. Croix River tributary celebrates decades of protection

Afton land conservancy Belwin works to protect highly-valued Valley Creek, with benefits downstream for the Wild & Scenic River it joins.




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Originally published in The Meadowlark:

Valley Creek (Photo: Greg Seitz)

Valley Creek is clean and healthy, but it really shouldn’t be.

The headwaters of the cold and crystal-clear stream are found at the edge of the Twin Cities urban core. The surrounding landscape is developed in ways that often cause excessive sediment and nutrients in such waters.

Yet, Valley Creek is one of the healthiest trout streams in the state, maybe the country. It’s like Serena Williams living in a house with McDonald’s on one side and Taco Bell on the other.

The creek is home to native brook trout, as well as introduced rainbow and brown trout. The fish reproduce naturally, requiring no stocking, a rare feat for a fragile, spring-fed stream where too much silt could bury riffles required for eggs, where groundwater changes can reduce flows or raise temperatures.

Cardinal flower on the banks of Valley Creek

Along Valley Creek, a complex web of life that is highly sensitive to small changes has been in Belwin’s stewardship since 1958, when the Bell family first acquired property along the creek.

Perpetual protection

One day last August, Belwin’s operations director Justin Sykora walked along the banks of the creek, as a crew from Prairie Restorations worked to control invasive buckthorn nearby.

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The area had been choked with the non-native brush until January 2018, when 30 acres were cleared. Now, herbicides were being used to suppress regrowth, giving native species a chance to take hold.

The crew was using a special chemical approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use near water. While the restoration is intended to help Valley Creek, steps were also needed to prevent the work from contaminating the stream.

“Valley Creek is really a treasure to have on our property at Belwin, and we work hard to protect it and preserve it all the way down to the St. Croix River,” Justin says. “By getting rid of the buckthorn and everything else in here, we’re trying to improve the water quality that eventually ends up in the St. Croix.”

Justin pointed to the bank near a bend in the creek, where bright red flowers jutted up on tall stems. It was cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a beautiful native plant that only grows as far west as the St. Croix Valley and its tributaries, like Valley Creek.

Belwin had no idea cardinal flower grew along the creek until the buckthorn was removed. That was a symptom of the larger problem: the brush shaded out flowers and grasses that normally would grow along the creek, holding soil in place. Buckthorn made it much easier for the banks to erode into the creek.

Downstream connection

With its pristine quality so close to a major metro area, Valley Creek is much like the river it flows into: the St. Croix. The federally protected St. Croix River was one of the first rivers designated in the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, 50 years ago this year.

Map designed by Wade Wenzel

The celebration of this anniversary has included numerous events and activities, art exhibits, stewardship fundraising, a documentary film by Afton resident John Kaul, and a book of photographs by Craig Blacklock (click her for details about an event featuring Blacklock at Belwin on Dec. 6).

Like Valley Creek, the St. Croix is renowned for clean water, a healthy ecosystem, and wild shorelines. And it too is within 25 miles of 3 million people.

Valley Creek provides Belwin a direct downstream connection to the special St. Croix River, and the organization is excited to join this year’s celebration of its “golden anniversary.”

Valuing Valley Creek

Two other milestones are also being observed in 2018.

The first is the Bell family’s acquisition of the first property along the creek, in 1958. The initial purchase of 68 acres, ten years before the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act was passed, commenced a project that continues today, as Belwin now owns and actively manages 1,400 acres in the creek’s watershed. That’s 17.5 percent, or nearly one fifth, of the landscape that drains into Valley Creek.

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Photos by Greg Seitz

By keeping these lands healthy, Belwin helps protect the creek’s clean water.

Development such as parking lots, housing developments, and corn and soybean fields can cause increased runoff carrying nutrients and other harmful substances. But Belwin’s prairies, forests, and savannas soak up rainwater, and hold it back from rushing into the creek.

The second anniversary is the formation of the Valley Creek Conservation Partnership in 2008, ten years ago. Working with state funds, private donations, and other contributions, Belwin and the partners (Minnesota Land Trust, Trout Unlimited, the Valley Branch Watershed District, and the Washington County Land and Water Legacy Program) have so far protected 10 properties in the watershed, totaling nearly 1,000acres and more than 20,000 feet of shoreline.

Watershed work

Belwin’s stewardship of Valley Creek has the added benefit of protecting the St. Croix River. The river’s clean waters were one reason it was protected, but the National Park Service generally owns or controls only about a quarter-mile on each side of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway – often just to the top of the bluffs.

The river receives runoff through many creeks and rivers flowing through 7,800 square miles, an area the size of New Jersey. So the whole area has some responsibility for the excess amounts of phosphorus found in the waters of the Lower St. Croix, where Valley Creek joins. The entire region also has responsibility for fixing the problem.

With so much of the watershed privately owned, protecting the river’s clean water takes help from people and organizations like Belwin.

Riverway superintendent Julie Galonska believes people and organizations working on tributaries throughout the watershed are critical to St. Croix River conservation. She says private landowners, which range from organizations like Belwin to private citizens, are the “first line of defense” in protecting the St. Croix River.

Over the past 60 years, public policy and dedicated conservation has done much to protect both Valley Creek and the St. Croix River. But of course, the work continues.

Belwin would like to thank the Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program for funding our work on the Valley Creek woodland restoration project. This work would not have been possible without their support.


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St. Croix River tributary celebrates decades of protection