River stewards recognized at St. Croix River Association gathering

The event included awards for Walter Mondale and Gaylord Nelson, river protectors, and educators, and a presentation by Tia Nelson.




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Tia Nelson, St. Croix River Association spring gathering, May 17, 2019 (All photos courtesy Gary Noren)

“Climate change affects us where we are, right now,” Tia Nelson said to the audience listening in an airy barn.

The environmental advocate and daughter of St. Croix River champion Gaylord Nelson was the featured speaker at the St. Croix River Association’s (SCRA) annual spring gathering. The May 17 event was held at a farm and event center east of Taylors Falls.

As she spoke, more dark clouds were rolling over the fresh green horizon of the St. Croix Valley. It had been a rainy spring, just the kind of weather predicted to happen more often around here due to climate change. The river was high, a natural stage reached with increasing frequency these days, a cycle distorted by global warming.

The barn was filled with 100 people enjoying barbecue, beer, and wine. Everyone had a connection to the St. Croix River. All was committed to protecting it.

None had done more than one of the night’s guests of honor: Walter Mondale, the former senator, vice president, and ambassador who helped ensure the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers were protected as Wild and Scenic in 1968. His partner in the effort had been Senator Gaylord Nelson.

Tia Nelson and Walter Mondale

Mondale and Tia Nelson were there to receive SCRA’s inaugural Nelson-Mondale Legacy Award, which “honors individuals, organizations, businesses, and communities that have had a similarly extraordinary impact on saving the St. Croix for the enjoyment and appreciation of future generations.”

Their reunion at the event brought together the Minnesota river steward and the daughter of his partner in the politics of protection from the other side of the St. Croix (Tia was 12 when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed in 1968). They hugged and spoke with smiles on their faces.

Receiving the award, 91-year-old Mondale spoke sweetly of his love for the river. It had been a respite for him and his wife, Joan, who passed away in 2014, for many years. It was also the scene of their first date.

Walter Mondale

Another award recipient that evening also had a river story about his relationship with his wife, Mary. Gove said shortly after getting married, they paddled down the Kettle River, a St. Croix tributary.

“Highlights included my capsizing our canoe (she warned me about that low branch…) and that night apparently sleeping soundly in a sleeping bag with a trickle of water running through it from a leaky tent,” Gove said.

A long-time river steward responsible for helping build the St. Croix River Association starting in 2008, Gove received a St. Croix Stewardship Award this year. In 2018, he played a key role in ensuring the perpetual protection of a stretch of river bluff in Osceola.

“He is a wise and patient servant-leader, and an inspiration and mentor to many other conservation-minded activists,” said Deb Ryun, SCRA’s executive director.

Left to right: Peter Gove, Deb Ryun, SCRA executive director, Tia Nelson, Walter Mondale

Gove’s acceptance speech acknowledged two of his “conservation heroes” in the room, Nelson and Mondale, and urged protection of the river as a way to respect past efforts.

“For those who know me, I am a glass half full guy,” Gove said. “But I admonish the board and staff, and the fine public servants of the National Park Service, to be proactive, brave and creative in dealing with the many threats to this river and watershed. Not only for our children and grandchildren but also honoring those who came before us to set aside these rivers for the enjoyment of all.”

He named climate change, the Trade Lake CAFO proposal, invasive carp, and nicks and cuts that add up over time.

The other recipient of the Stewardship Award was the four-county partnership that put together a marketing campaign for the Namekagon River last year in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. “Namekagon River: Wisconsin’s Moving National Park” inspired new audiences to explore the river and reminded past visitors of their memorable experiences, inviting them to come back.

Another addition this year was the 2018-2019 Every Kid in the Croix award. It celebrates schools that are committed to making environmental education a priority through the “Rivers Are Alive” K-12 environmental education program. The recipients were Taylors Falls Elementary and Pine City Elementary.

In Taylors Falls, physical education teacher Amy Allram has assured that every student participates in the Let’s Go Snowshoeing class for the past two years. This school year, students also participated in the Snowshoe Sleuths class and this spring every student will experience the Observation Olympics class, a hiking for fitness course.

At Pine City Elementary, science teacher Joel Lorsung, named November 2018 as “Rivers Are Alive” week, and every student in 1st – 6th grade participated in River Connections in the Classroom. They learned about the Snake River ecosystem and how the living and nonliving elements of this ecosystem are connected. The week ended with a school assembly where students became official Jr. Rangers at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

As the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers enter their second 50 years of Wild and Scenic Protection, having celebrated the big anniversary of the historic legislation last year, this spring evening seemed focused on its future.

Gove summed it up by quoting Walter Mondale, “So, in the words of our other Legacy honoree tonight, ‘keep fighting.’”