St. Croix Master Watershed Stewards’ conservation efforts flourish

Unique program empowers volunteers to find new ways to protect the river and its watershed.




4 minute read

Heidi Fettig Parton is a St. Croix Master Watershed Steward.

Wisconsin/Minnesota combined steward cohort at graduation.

In the spring of 2016, the St. Croix Master Watershed Stewards (SCMWS) began as an innovative program aimed at equipping a cohort of adult volunteers with the skills necessary to “dramatically increase the environmental stewardship ethic and activities in the St. Croix River watershed.” Three years later, SCMWS is fulfilling its mission.

SCMWS was one of only three such programs nationwide funded by an EPA Environmental Education grant. Participants were selected from Minnesota and Wisconsin applicants living in the St. Croix Watershed. These volunteers came from a diverse range of backgrounds to form an active learning community. The program encouraged innovation in the protection of natural resources and empowered private citizens to initiate and promote grassroot solutions to vexing environmental issues.

Comfort-Forest Lake Watershed District board president Jon Spence (left) presented Jack MacKenzie (right) with an award for his volunteer efforts. (Photo courtesy East Metro Water)

Guided by Project Manager Patty Mueller, stewards participated in 58 hours of hands-on learning and 12 hours of distance learning. At the end of their training, stewards completed capstone projects throughout the watershed. These capstone projects used a variety of means to promote and enhance the future wellness of the watershed. In October 2017, thirty master watershed stewards were certified, and a leadership council was created to track future conservation efforts.

2018 was a flagship year for SCMWS. In 2018, stewards logged a collective 1,795 hours on behalf of the St. Croix watershed. As with their capstone projects, the stewards continued their service in many locations throughout the 7,650 square miles of the St. Croix River’s watershed. Their work was focused in the following key areas: education/interpretation, watershed advocacy, citizen science, arts integration, direct stewardship activities, and leadership opportunities.

Kids explore nature at Lee & Rose Warner Nature Center. (Heidi Fettig Parton)

Notably, the stewards began teaching other citizens. Stewards trained high school students to monitor the water quality of rivers and streams throughout the watershed. Others became certified to serve as adventure outing leaders with the St. Croix River Association. Stewards have taught community-based groups about storm drain pollution mitigation and about the danger of lead tackle to water fowl. Steward Jack Mackenzie received the CLFLWD (Comfort Lake Forest Lake Watershed District) Champion award for work he did in educating residents on lawn management practices that would encourage watershed health.

In addition to educating others, stewards did work as citizen scientists. Steward, Don Wendel, received a grant that allowed him to expand on his capstone project, studying the impact of a limestone-coated roadway on the health of a bog located at Warner Nature Center. Other stewards continued to learn, and teach others, about invasive species. In Wisconsin, Steward Margaret Smith coordinated Kinnickinnic township’s efforts with UW-Extension offices to identify and map* the location of wild parsnip. Mapping was done using the Great Lakes Early Detector Network (GLEDN), an app created to help states map invasive species. This mapping is now aiding in the safe removal of wild parsnip.

The map used to form Kinnickinnic’s wild parsnip vegetation management plan. Green “points” indicate areas of light infestation, appropriate for removal by citizen volunteers. Red “polygons” indicate areas of heaver infestations, more effectively removed by an herbicide treatment.

Because arts-based training was included throughout the SCMWS program, a few artists joined the cohort of volunteers. These artists continue to serve the watershed. Examples of arts integration-based steward work included the facilitation of ecology-focused book club meetings, the creation of large banners used in clean water activism, the promotion of a children’s book written by a steward about watershed health, and the publication of an essay entitled, “The Antidote to Despair,” written about the SCMWS experience, forthcoming in the 12th volume of Saint Paul Almanac: Resistance and Resilience.

Examples of direct stewardship included efforts to weed out and remove buckthorn and wild parsnip—two insidious invasive species—from locations throughout the watershed. Many hours were also dedicated to removing trash from the St. Croix River and helping organize safe collection sites for lead tackle, which is harmful to many waterfowl. Steward John Goodfellow used his extensive forestry background to implement an urban forestry plan, which resulted in Marine on St. Croix’s designation within the Tree City USA program. Stewards are also working on Operation Pollination, a program that seeks to increase pollinator habitat through partnerships with organizations and individuals.

Marine on St. Croix recently achieved Tree City USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation thanks primarily to the efforts of Watershed Steward John Goodfellow.

Finally, stewards engaged in numerous leadership opportunities. These activities involved participating in the Minnesota Legislative Water Commission Meeting and attending board meetings with North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix Heritage Area (NWW), a non-profit organization that promotes the natural, cultural and historic resources of the St. Croix watershed. NWW hopes to expand the St. Croix Master Watershed Stewards Program throughout the watershed by recruiting, training, and supporting additional stewards.

Given these collective accomplishments, SCMWS has proven a successful model for fostering citizen environmental stewardship ethics and activities. The work of SCMWS will continue forward and, hopefully, expand with the help of NWW.


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St. Croix Master Watershed Stewards’ conservation efforts flourish