Craig Hansen started serving as superintendent of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway a year ago this month, after a career path criss-crossing the country. While he’s worked at numerous parks over the past 25 years or so, each protected site has existed because of water. Now that he’s gotten his feet wet at the St. Croix Riverway, which includes about 150 miles of the St. Croix and 100 miles of the Namekagon, Hansen says the sheer size and complexity of the park makes it unique.
With two states, 10 counties, many municipalities, and 250 linear miles, Riverway management can be complicated, but Hansen says that also means it has a broad base of support.
“There are a lot of people that care deeply for maybe different reasons but, the bottom line is, they care deeply about the St. Croix,” Hansen said.
Hansen recently participated in an interview with St. Croix 360 to discuss his first year on the job and the future of the Riverway. In coordination, he will also be a featured guest on River Radio on Saturday, March 18, when host Gayle Knutson will also interview him, expanding on this article.
Hansen grew up on a farm in northwestern North Dakota, where he helped his family raise small grains and cattle. This life instilled a love of the outdoors and conservation in him, which he pursued at Minnesota State University, Mankato. During and after college, he worked as a ranger for the Army Corps of Engineers at the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in Minneapolis, and then at recreational sites around the Mississippi’s headwaters region.
After a stint with the Army Corps in California, Hansen returned to his home state of North Dakota to lead an environmental learning center. In 2003, he got his first job with the National Park Service, as education specialist at North Dakota’s Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. This significant centuries-old Native American village and trading site was visited by Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1804. Hansen spent the next 14 years at Knife River, ultimately serving as superintendent.
About six years ago, Hansen came back to Minnesota to be the new superintendent of Grand Portage National Monument on Minnesota’s North Shore. He served five years at the unique park site, which is co-managed with the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. After eight months as interim superintendent at the Mississippi River Recreation Area, he was appointed St. Croix superintendent in early 2022. He and his family, including wife Kasha and two children, have moved to the area and started settling in.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What makes the St. Croix Riverway unique in your experience?
If you want to just hang out on the shore and float around on a stand up paddle board, you can do that. Or you can go fly fishing or hit the Taylors Falls historic boats and experience it from a paddleboat, or you can experience it from a kayak or tube. It’s pretty unique in that respect.
What kinds of experiences on the Riverway have you enjoyed so far?
Spending time with my family and being able to get in the water with the stand up paddle boards on a hot July day. It’s been a special time. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time in the state parks along the river, running the trails. That’s a wonderful way for me, on a personal level, to decompress. To have that ability so close to here, to be at Wild River or O’Brien or others, it’s so accessible and that has made for some special moments in my first year.
You said last fall the Riverway will soon begin work on a Comprehensive River Management Plan. What will that entail?
Comprehensive River Management Plans are are required of all Wild and Scenic Rivers. This will actually be the first one that the park has done. The park has had plenty of other planning documents and this will be layered on top of those. In the nineties, the park did a General Management Plan, and a Comprehensive River Management Plan has a lot of the same elements, but there’s more specific ones to the management of Wild and Scenic Rivers. It’s needed to really align visitor opportunities with protecting the park’s outstanding, remarkable values and associated resources.
It’s a multi-year process that we’ll hopefully kick it off in April or May with some planning and pre-activities that will include a series of listening sessions that we’re going do at different communities throughout the Riverway. The goal there is just to provide people the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the Comprehensive Management Plan process and then to give some initial thoughts and suggestions. Next fall, there will be more public meetings to review the initial material.
What kinds of issues might it cover?
Some of the issues that will be considered while we’re putting this together will be visitation and visitor use management. Visitor conflicts both on the water and the land. User capacity is something that we’ll be talking about, which we’re mandated to look at through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. That’s just trying to get a sense on how many people a certain stretches of the river can accommodate.
The other piece is really taking a look at usage of the river and how those uses interact between other uses. So, for example, how tubing interacts with fishing, how fishing interacts with kayaking. And technologies that maybe we’re not 100 percent aware of right now but that are upcoming. So we’ll be trying to holistically look at sections of the river and where those usages are most prevalent, and looking at ways to make sure we’re managing to minimize use conflicts.
There have been increased complaints on the river in recent years about airboats and boats with “mud motors.” How does that fit in?
Airboats are prohibited by regulation on any of the federally-managed river, anywhere from the Boom Site up, the same as a personal watercraft like jet skis that are prohibited.
Jet boats or different types of vessels like that, are things that maybe so many years ago, weren’t necessarily anticipated. We don’t want to ignore it, we’re not by any means condemning the use, but let’s just be real about it and see what it’s all about and manage it appropriately. I think we do ourselves a favor and we do the community of folks that use the river a favor when we are smart in how we move forward with those types of uses.
What’s the latest on the Osceola Landing construction project?
We’re getting close to putting the final touches on that, pending spring flooding. Our goal is late spring, early summer to have the landing, finished and wrapped up. Some of the improvements that people are going find there are the separated motorized and nonmotorized launches, the additional parking spaces that have been added to some of those areas, the interpretive signage, and the shade shelter that were installed close to the existing ramp.
There is a phase two of the landing project planned, and really what will happen hinges on the Highway 243 bridge replacement and making sure it interacts with that appropriately.
Everything so far we’ve seen indicates that there’s going to be pedestrian access across that bridge. So then I think it’s imperative for the Park Service when we look at phase two to make sure that all flows correctly and that visitors interested in walking from Osceola to the landing can do that.
What is the Park Service doing with the new plans for managing Fairy Falls?
We are in the process of developing a site plan and we’ve just presented the public with a couple different broad stroke options. One being a waterfall focus where the development of the site would focus on the waterfall — never cutting off access to the rest of the site — but we would just focus our attention on a trail that would go to the waterfall, the interpretive sign which would have more to do about the waterfall. And the other option, you know, broadly speaking would just kind of incorporate elements of the entire site, including the waterfall.
We are also focused on continuing to work with partners and neighbors on providing safe access and trying to find a permanent parking solution. So at this point, Fairy Falls is open. We’ve worked with the township and the township has removed a couple of “no parking” signs.
The public comment period is open until March 29. Well we’ll take those public comments and analyze that and produce a draft document for people to react to again in the fall.
What’s happening with commercial use, like guides and outfitters?
Compared to the past couple of years, it’s been steady. I feel that the outfitters can provide a service, when they work with the National Park Service closely, and provide opportunities so many people that would otherwise maybe not be able to go fly fishing or kayaking can do it.
The outfitters have to do certain things for to get a National Park Service permit, and then portions of their revenue go to the Park Service. And then that revenue is required by law to stay within the Riverway. So every dollar that a permit holder pays in fees goes back to management. Be it through improving a landing or through helping with seasonal staffing.
The Comprehensive Management Plan will also help us create a framework on how to manage commercial use going forward.
The Riverway and its nonprofit partner, Wild Rivers Conservancy of the Namekagon and St. Croix, recently launched a new volunteer program. What is the role of that partnership?
Deb Ryun [Wild Rivers Conservancy executive director] and I work very closely together and are in constant communication about what’s happening in the Riverway and what we can do to move our collective goals forward. It’s been a highlight of being here to have such a strong nonprofit partner.
One of the things we identified that they had talked about prior to me coming, but I had some experience with other parks, was the idea of a joint volunteer program. The goal is a one-stop shop for folks that want to volunteer on the Riverway for the National Park Service or the Wild Rivers Conservancy.
With the mileage and the campsites and the landings and everything we manage, volunteers play a huge role in us being successful.
What is the Park Service doing to promote safety and prevent tragedies like drownings?
Our staff and in particular, our law enforcement and emergency services staff, is dedicated to trying to make the river a safer place for all. We recently worked with Wild Rivers Conservancy on a messaging campaign to help promote water safety.
We’re also in the beginning stages of trying to work with the those commercial use outfitters on a river safety video that could be shown prior to getting their users out. The video could be shown at key places beforehand that really hit home on the importance of safety on the river.
What guides your thinking on managing the Riverway’s ecosystem and natural resources?
The Riverway is really just a thin ribbon of protection. The federally managed area is at best a quarter mile on each side of the river. We can manage on that local level, we can do restoration of shoreline and the forest and try to get rid of the buckthorn. But those ecological issues, like invasive species and water quality, it really takes a landscape level approach and working together with communities and landowners and others.
This is again where the Wild Rivers Conservancy and many other organizations come into play. And as your readers are going to know, it takes a lot of work to, to get an acre of buckthorn cleared out. So, it’s a constant thing and with the size of staff we have and with funding constraints, it’s not always possible.
What would you tell people who want to help protect the river? What can they do?
People can get out and enjoy it. I think that promotes protection. I think that when you have friends come to your house and you take them out to paddle a chunk of the river or to trails along the river, you’re going a long ways to help in that protection.
When we do that, I think we’re recognizing the special nature of this place and we’re helping them make decisions that will make it protected long term.
I think there’s nothing better than somebody being able to take their grandchild out on the river to catch their first fish where they could have gotten there first fish when they were a kid. Those are the things that, if we continue to do that, we’ll have the most long-lasting impact on the protection of this place.
What’s your guess for ice-out at Marine on St. Croix?
I think it will be flowing good on on March 26.
Hear more from Superintendent Craig Hansen on River Radio, presented by the Marine Community Library, live tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. via Zoom or Facebook, or at your convenience through the podcast.