Fifty miles, fifty years: St. Croix River conservation leaders reflect on five decades since lower river protected

Anniversary event featured panelists with many memories of efforts to preserve the river in its natural state.

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Left to right: Dan McGuiness, Bill Palmquist, Molly Shodeen, Buck Malick, Ellen Denzer, Peter Gove, Craig Hansen (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

“Final action on the St. Croix bill is urgently needed. If comprehensive protection is not extended to the riverway, the St. Croix will eventually become one more city river, its waters poisoned with pollution, its shorelines gutted with indiscriminate development.”

– Sen. Gaylord Nelson, 1972

On October 25, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed legislation to protect the lower St. Croix River as Wild and Scenic. The upper St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers were designated in the original 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but including the 52 miles from St. Croix Falls to Prescott was a long-sought and hard-fought achievement.

Wednesday evening, at the Marine on St. Croix Village Hall, a panel of people involved in the past and present protection of this beloved stretch of river shared stories of stewardship to mark the upcoming fiftieth anniversary. The group had a combined 200 years of experience working to protect the river. Hosted by Wild Rivers Conservancy and moderated by the National Park Service’s Craig Hansen, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, the event focused on the rough road to passing the legislation, and work in the decades since to ensure the law had its intended effects.

“It was ultimately the advocacy of local citizens that protected the lower St. Croix,” said Rick Clark, a National Park Service expert with long family connections to the river. He was one of several speakers to point out how many people have generations of family links to these wild waters.

The lower river had been included in earlier versions of the bill, introduced in 1965-1967, but only the river above the St. Croix Falls dam was ultimately designated. Senators Walter Mondale of Minnesota and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who had championed the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and ensured the upper St. Croix and Namekagon were included, didn’t give up. Neither did the many supporters on both sides of the river.

Peter Gove, who was a young aide to Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson at the time, was there for a key meeting in Washington, D.C. early that year. The state and local leaders had to convince Nixon administration leaders to support the effort.

“The Interior Department was very skeptical,” Gove said. Opposition arose from department official James Watt, who would later serve as President Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary, making a name for himself as an “anti-environmentalist” before resigning amid a scandal.

‘Immediate need’

Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

The St. Croix conservationists knew they couldn’t let the administration stop them. The river was under enormous development pressure, and advocates and officials knew the protection was needed. Gove reminded the audience of a highly controversial proposal to build six 10-story condominium buildings on the banks of the river in Hudson. The Allen S. King power plant had also just started operating.

In remarks to the Senate, both Mondale and Nelson pointed to more than $100 million in development projects currently proposed along the lower St. Croix.

“The 52-mile river segment from Taylors Falls, Minn. to Prescott, Wis., is widely known as one of the last remaining unspoiled rivers within a metropolitan area,” Mondale said in the Senate on October 9, 1972. “Remarkably, the Lower St. Croix has maintained its natural character despite its proximity to the more than 2 million residents of the Twin Cities and surrounding region. But with visitor use increasing each year, and massive pressure for commercial development, public officials and local residents are convinced of the immediate need for national action to protect the river — before it is too late.”

The solution to the conflict was compromise. Minnesota and Wisconsin elected officials traveled to Washington in early 1972, and helped the Senate hammer out a deal. The first 27 miles of the lower river, from the St. Croix Falls hydroelectric dam to Stillwater, would be managed by the federal government as part of the National Park Service. The lower 25 miles, from Stillwater to Prescott, would be managed by the two states.

So, in early October, at the same time the Washington Post published a significant story about the Watergate Hotel break-in and cover-up, the legislation was introduced again. It promptly passed on near unanimous votes in both the House and Senate, and two weeks later, Nixon signed it into Public Law No. 92-560. (Read the legislation.)

The work was far from over.

State cooperation

“We are dealing with a vanishing American asset, and the question for all of us here . . . is whether the St. Croix River is going to go the way that all other rivers have gone, from lovely, scenic, magnificent rivers into ugly, desecrated sewage. The measure which Senator Nelson and I have introduced is designed to try to keep it a lovely, unpolluted, scenic river and magnificent as it is, and I think time is running out.”

– Sen. Mondale, Congressional field hearing, St. Croix Falls, Wis., 10/23/1971

Within six months of Nixon’s signature, the legislatures of Minnesota and Wisconsin passed the bills required to complete the process, and the whole St. Croix had some level of protection.

For about the first 30 years, Minnesota and Wisconsin worked to manage the lower St. Croix River through the bi-state Boundary Area Commission. This group had five representatives from the Minnesota side of the St. Croix and five from the Wisconsin side and a full-time staff. It also covered the stretch of the Mississippi from the St. Croix confluence down to the Iowa state line. The commission dealt with development proposals and worked to ensure the rules were followed the same on both sides.

Two of the panelists, Dan McGuiness and Buck Malik were deeply involved in the Boundary Area Commission, serving as executive director at different periods in the 1980s and 1990s.

“The Boundary Area Commission had the unique position of taking the river’s point-of-view,” McGuiness said. They held 18 meetings per year with lots of opportunities for public involvement. He added that the St. Croix’s position as a border river presented a unique challenge: if you were on one side of the river looking at the opposite shoreline, you were often powerless to protect it.

In 2001, Wisconsin quit funding the group and it was forced to dissolve. Since then, it’s largely been up to state and local officials to ensure they comply with the river’s Wild and Scenic protections.

Three of the panelists have been part of that work. Ellen Denzer, Community Development Director for St. Croix County, Wis. and Bill Palmquist, mayor of Afton, and Molly Shodeen, retired hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, spoke about their efforts.

“We work every single day to protect the St Croix,” Denzer said of her 30-person department, which includes the county’s land use and zoning, natural resources, and parks staff. “We have to say ‘no’ a lot, but we also say ‘yes’ a lot because we want people to enjoy the river.”

Denzer has worked for the county for 30 years, leading the department for the past 10. When she and her staff analyze a permit application or a variance, or another action that might affect the river, they always take a position, recommending approval or denial. That is not the practice at every government agency, but she believes it is important.

“We never stay neutral,” she said. “We hold the line, not in a negative or mean way, and we try to educate.”

Armor against nicks and cuts

Lake St. Croix in St. Croix County, Wis. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

In 2017, Denzer was involved in St. Croix County’s legal action about development on the banks of the St. Croix that ultimately ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court. In Murr vs. Wisconsin, the high court ruled the county had the legal power to limit development for the benefit of the Wild and Scenic River. Months later, the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill to effectively override that decision, but the legal precedent still stood, and the St. Croix remains protected.

“The property has still not been developed,” Denzer reported. “There are other issues with it, like floodplain rules.”

The Stillwater bridge controversy was probably unavoidable, as many of the panelists were involved in the issue, though it was less of a focus than the “thousands of nicks and cuts” that Mondale had always said was the biggest threat.

Denzer hailed the millions in mitigation money that was included in the final project. It allowed St. Croix County to acquire seven parcels to protect in perpetuity, including a new park with 4,000 feet of river shoreline.

As Deb Ryun, executive director of Wild Rivers Conservancy, said, the bill signed in 1972 was not the end of the work to be stewards of the St. Croix River.

“It’s taken 50 years of protection to keep it this way,” she said. And it will certainly require another 50, too.

The future of St. Croix stewardship

Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, near Marine on St. Croix, July 2022 (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

Conservation is never complete. While the discussion this week reflected on the last five decades, there was also talk of the years ahead.

Gove offered in closing remarks his views on three ongoing threats to the St. Croix: federal scenic easements being ignored, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs or factory farms), and invasive carp.

Superintendent Hansen, who started at the Riverway in March of this year, announced that the Park Service will begin a Comprehensive Management Plan process. The last time something similar was done was around 2000.

“It will help set the direction to enhance values for which river was protected,” Hansen said. He also said it will have numerous opportunities for public input and involvement.

A few hundred feet behind the stage, the St. Croix River slipped past in the early autumn darkness. Somewhere out there, fish swam, beavers chewed, birds roosted, the current kept carving the channels in soft sand banks. No lights nor other sign of people could be seen on the other side.


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One response to “Fifty miles, fifty years: St. Croix River conservation leaders reflect on five decades since lower river protected”

  1. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    Sure enjoyed your article, Greg!

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Fifty miles, fifty years: St. Croix River conservation leaders reflect on five decades since lower river protected