Saving and sharing: Speech in 1997 summed up the state of St. Croix River stewardship

Professor and St. Croix River resident gave remarks on the 25th anniversary of conservation legislation.




9 minute read

Cedar Bend (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

October 25 was the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon signing the legislation that protected the Lower St. Croix River in 1972. The event has been celebrated as a conservation milestone. It was also an occasion 25 years ago, in 1997, when John Borchert gave a speech to the Lower St. Croix Management Commission to mark it.

Borchert was an influential professor of geography at the University of Minnesota for a 40-year career. The university’s map library today bears his name. He was known as a brilliant thinker and a kind and generous friend and colleague. He and his wife Jane also had a strong connection to the St. Croix River. They first canoed it in 1953, and later lived on the bluffs at Cedar Bend in Scandia for 27 years. John was involved in several aspects of river conservation over the years.

John Borchert
(University of Minnesota)

It has been another 25 years since Borchert’s speech — reading it now provides a glimpse into the recent past, and what has changed and what has not. In his remarks, Borchert talks about his family’s relationship with the river, the success of its conservation efforts, and the biggest issues that need attention.

Borchert’s family has created a website with information about his life and work, including a link to this speech given in 1997. Borchert passed away three years later in 2001 at age 83.

Perspective on the Lower Riverway after the first quarter-century

John R. Borchert to Lower St. Croix Management Committee, October 28, 1997

I appreciate your invitation to speak on this occasion.  You are an important group.  I very much respect for your work and deeply appreciate the challenges you face.

On numerous occasions I have prefaced both supportive remarks and disagreements with the statement that I consider the National Riverway project by far the single best thing that has happened in the St Croix Valley, probably in its human history.  Jane and I have actively supported the Riverway from its conception.

What’s so good about it?  Like most people who support the Riverway from their hearts, my feelings stem from personal experience.  Jane and I and three of our children made our first canoe trip on the St. Croix in the summer of 1953.  We reveled in the experiences we had–rest stops in the cool water along the sandbars; watching and being watched by the herons; towering rock walls of the gorge; flower- and moss-edged creeks and springs entering the channel; whitecaps as we rounded the bend at Arcola; intriguing cottages; the high bridge; the 19th century skyline of Stillwater ahead as we rounded our last bend at the boom site.  We reinforced and added to those emotions in many subsequent trips, followed by twenty-seven years of residence along the river, above the swing bridge in New Scandia township.

Like many others, in our hearts and minds we want these scenes to be preserved.  And we were thrilled when the resources and influence of the nation were joined to those of the states, the residents of the valley, and their local governments and organizations in the conservation effort–when the nation joined the team.

Let me reflect briefly on what has been accomplished by the team in the subsequent quarter century.

  • Foremost are the physical improvements and improved maintenance and the intangible awareness that have come with the establishment of the National Riverway, itself.
  • The state park improvements at Kinnickinnic, Afton, Wild River as well as at the established Interstate and O’Brien.
  • The new regional parks at Lake Elmo and Cottage Grove; the array of county parks.
  • The maintenance and improvement of state waysides–notably the beach at Point Douglas and the walks and observation points at the Minnesota end of the bridge at St. Croix Falls.
  • The increase in both the amount and rationality of zoning, subdivision controls, and performance standards developed by the counties, states, and towns.
  • The new protection and upgrading of sewage treatment at all of the compact cities.
  • Conservation easements, promoted by the various private land trusts.
  • Preservation and restoration of historic landscapes.
  • Increased quality and design of semi-private areas such as the organizational camps and the former Control Data employee recreation park–without which Washington County probably would not now have its fine new county park.
  • Improvements in privately operated public facilities in the valley–the ski resorts, marinas, canoe liveries, and the growing fleet of excursion boats.  Like public parks, waysides, anad sewage treatment plants, they exploit the scene and the waterway, and likewise have the opportunity and obligation to maintain the views and the waterway.  And they enable us to share the beauty of the valley with others.  Thanks to increasing regulation, affluence and maturity, these uses are more sensitive to the river landscapes than they were a generation ago.
  • Thanks to evolving subdivision controls and performance standards–with the essential help of growing affluence and the irrepressible growth of the softening vegetation cover, much new home construction in the valley has become sensitive to river corridor sites.  Meanwhile the homes, themselves, allow scores of thousands of additional visitors each year to enjoy the valley.
  • Finally, in the short span of my own two-generation familiarity with the St. Croix, I am struck by the changes in how people get here.  Of course, the improvements in the riverway, parks, beaches, landings, camps, waysides, and homes are all means of maintaining or improving access to the river and the scenery.  But at the regional scale, roads provide the access, and the changes have been profound.  In our time many of us have personally observed the end of almost all vestiges of the rail lines that once tied both sides of the Falls, Osceola, Stillwater, Bayport, Hudson, and Afton to central St. Paul and Mineapolis.  We have seen the transition to a vast multi-centrered metropolittan region, where scarcely one-tenth of the jobs are in the historic downtowns.  We have seen the surfacing of the last of the mud roads and paving of many of the gravel roads.  Bridge improvement has come as part of the road improvement.  Accessibility has grown a hundred-fold.

 Like all of the other improvements, the roads have multiplied the number of people who can share the resources of the valley.  Thus they have increased the risk of exploitive use of the valley.  But they have also brought growing wealth and knowledge to the valley, with an accompanying increase in measures to protect and preserve.  As members of the human family sharing scenic resources, we are almost always forced, as protectors, to confront ourselves as exploiters.  In this particular Riverway, the sharp increase in affluence and educational level, which was facilitated by transportation improvements, has been a powerful force in both the promotion of regulations and planning and also in the ability to follow the plans and regulations.  There’s an interesting interrelation between affluence, awareness, mobility, and conservation.  We have here in the valley a vignette of the same interrelation that has developed at every scale from local to global since Earth Day.

Each of these improvements has contributed to two of the goals which appear emphatically in Jim Harrison’s recent interviews with the Senators Mondale and Nelson and Representative Quie.  The changes help to “retain the 1970s look indefinitely”.  That was Jim’s phrase which all three of the statesmen endorsed.  And the improvements also help “a growing population to be able to use and enjoy the river”.  Those were the words of Al Quie.   Those two goals underlie the past congressional action, and they pose the future challenges and potential rewards for all of us.  I would call them Saving and Sharing.  It is also noteworthy that the list includes actions by every level of government and a variety of private agencies and individual residents.   You have been and will continue to be partners in the team–sometimes senior, sometimes junior; but as far as feasible to provide access for a growing population and to maintain indefinitely the look of the 1970s.

Meanwhile, of course, we are afloat in a sea of change and uncertainty.  Since our first family canoe trip I have watched the Twin Cities metropolitan region add the equivalent of all of metropolitan Kansas City–nearly one and one-half million people.  Given the population increment plus the normal replacement of obsolete and abandoned structures, we and our children and grandchildren may well have to make additional room for more than 400,000 people each decade.  We will also accommodate generational changes in views, attitudes, styles, immages.  We will accommodate increasing diversity–reflecting the growing multitude of cultures induced not by traditional ethnicity but by the growing spread between the high and low ends of the income spectrum, the volume of information, the variety of beliefs, and the diversity of buying habits.   There is much uncertainty in the future of the settlement pattern.  For example, I can accept the usual, perfectly plausible model in which the population of the valley is doubled, with an accompanying doubling of floor space and residential land.  But I can also postulate an equally plausible doubling of the number of households with no increase in floor space or residential land.  It depends on what I assume about the economy and the steps extended families would take to cope with a collapse or simply changed priorities.  The truth will probably  lie somewhere in the wide zone between the two extremes.  And that’s only one dimension of the complex description necessary to know what we’re talking about. 

We will also accommodate technological change.  For example, personal vehicles which do not use fossil fuel; high efficiency on-site waste disposal, computer-fibre-optic-induced geographical dispersal of work, entertainment, and even education.   A shift away from fossil fuel for the generation of electric power.  Problems in maganging today’s settlement pattern cry out for these changes, and a pretty well-founded faith in human ingenuity in an open society suggests they will come.

Now let me look ahead toward continued improvements along the Riverway, set in a sea of change and uncertainty, in pursuit of the goals to “retain the 1970s look” and help “a growing population to be able to use and enjoy the river”.

In the first place, I urge, as I have before, that you continue to keep sight of the three distinct geographic segments of the Lower Riverway: the gorge, the historic urban segment through Stillwater and Hudson, and the majestic lake section from Hudson to Prescott.  They are different.  Problems are different and solutions tend not to be generalizable from one to the other.

Then I suggest the following goals for the gorge.

  •  Complete the fee and easement acquisition program.  If one looks at the Mississippi gorge in Minneapolis and St. Paul or the southwestern lakes district in Minneapolis, the importance of this needs no elaboration.
  •  Facilitate public use to the greatest degree possible–information, trails, toilets and waste receptacles, panoramic viewpoints.  The latter is a neglected aspect of the riverway, in  my judgement.  A number of opportunities exist, with teamwork by various agencies and private owners.
  • Keep the public use areas defined, working, clean, and safe–  with voluntary help where possible, with paid staff where necessary.  I believe the Disneyland approach to the task is relevant.
  • Limit surface water use to canoes and low-powered slow-moving  motorized craft.

For the urban segments of the riverway, I would emphasize two points.

  • Continue your efforts to control density and promote safety of surface water use.  Encourage river-boat type passenger vessels to increase public access without increasing high-speed, small-craft traffic.
  • Accommodate the relentless aging, obsolescence, and replacement that pervades the urban landscape.  Incorporate fully in your thinking the local historic districts, zoning and re-zoning, subdivision regulations, performance standards, codes, parks, and river-front promenades.
  • Be flexible in accommodating changes in technology, materials, layouts, design, lighting, landscaping.  To adapt an admonition from our grandparents, “You don’t have to save the dishwater in order to save the dishes!

And in all three of the segments think about how to live with the inexorable growth of the regional population and circulation system that will persist in surrounding the riverway in one form or another.  Will the riverway stand as a Maginot Line astride the east-west circulation system in the eastern side of the metropoilitan region?  If so, all related plans must accept that and adapt.  If not, all members of the team must participate in the choice and the design of intersections of the riverway with the regional circulation system.  And I pray fervently that through political fragmentation, partisanship, turf battling, and indifference, this work will not be left to lawyers.  This is perhaps the toughest issue.  The present bridge problem is not all there will be to it.  There is no good geographical analogy or precedent.  In some ways the Hudson River gorge in the New York metropolitan region?  In some way s the Alpine corridor between urban-industrial areas of south Germany and northern Italy?  But in both cases the scale and cultural settings are so different.  In any case, the task calls for a design team, and your agencies are part–but only part–of it.

Finally, let me add a word about the edges of the riverway.

What is their nature?  They are geographical boundaries in every sense of the word.  They mark the edge of your jurisdiction.  On one side lies the riverway; on the other side, the rest of the world.  Your goals must be to avoid the incompatible and seek the compatible in terms of “the look” on either side of the border.   There are forces working in your favor.  The increased amenity and value of land adjoining the riverway, simply because of the riverway–if you do your maintenance and preservation job–will tend to influence neighboring developments toward more compatibility.  New settlers, sellers, and politicians are influenced toward more compatible developments by the existence and image of the riverway.  But it’s a changing world out there, so listen and be flexible.

Probably the most important and complex goal beyond the boundary is protection and improvement of water quality.  The public has a right to expect results from a team that includes the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the two state Departments of Natural Resources, the municipalities, and the county land records officials.  I would like to see you able, on an occasion such as this, to hang up a time-series of maps of the watershed showing in detail the changing patterns of runoff, ground water movement, vegetation cover and volume, erosion and soil creep, stream water quality, land use, land ownership, land value, and land easements along streams.  The revolution in geographic information systems makes this possible, and you can play a role in moving us from talk to product.

In the pursuit of all of these goals, your own effort and example will help to raise the entire level of understanding and spirit of community, not only out here in the St. Croix valley, but also in the sometimes isolated and abstract world of central offices.

Thanks again for your hospitality.

Note: Thank you to Susan Miles for pointing St. Croix 360 in this direction. More information about John Borchert.


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Saving and sharing: Speech in 1997 summed up the state of St. Croix River stewardship