Celebrating 50 years of Wild and Scenic River protections

Planned events include Spring Gathering, May 11; Namekagon Paddle, June 9-15; Wild and Scenic Film Festival, Aug. 25

The year was 1965, early in the environmental movement, and murmurs of concern from citizen groups around the country were just beginning to translate into protective legislation. An early version of the Clean Air Act had just been passed, but the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would not be established until 1970. Rachel Carson had published her landmark book Silent Spring in 1962, but DDT was not yet outlawed in the United States. The Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and first ever Earth Day were still in the future as well.

The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burns in 1969 – image from patrickmurfin.blogspot.com. Disasters like this highlighted the need for environmental regulations to protect water, land, and air.

When a proposal to build a new coal-fired power plant on the St. Croix River in Oak Park Heights/Bayport began to move forward, citizens in the St. Croix Valley wondered if their river would suffer the same fate as the Mississippi, Cuyahoga and other urban rivers that were choked with pollution and void of natural beauty.

That year, a newly elected Wisconsin Senator named Gaylord Nelson began advocating for new legislation to protect the St. Croix River. Though his efforts failed to stop the new power plant, U.S. Congress eventually passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, including the St. Croix among eight rivers having “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values” worthy of protection. The Act declared that these rivers should be “preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Today, the St. Croix River remains a natural oasis, despite its close proximity to the Twin Cities metro area.

Today, the National Wild and Scenic River system has expanded to protect 12,734 miles of 208 rivers in 40 states, a quantity that sounds large but represents less than 0.25% of all the nation’s rivers. The St. Croix is the only federally protected Wild and Scenic River in Minnesota.

Fifty years ago, Senator Nelson spoke eloquently about urban water pollution and his desire to chart a different future for the St. Croix. “The story of America’s rivers warns us against that American spirit of optimism that presumes there is always more to be had and more to be carelessly wasted. The vision of the frontier, with its promise of untapped land and fresh opportunity has always been part of our dream. It has not, however, been part of our reality for some 70 years. We are only now coming to realize this fact.” Nelson also predicted increased demand for outdoor recreation opportunities as the Twin Cities metro continued to grow. “By the year 2000 — only 35 years away (those of you who remember 1930 will realize what a short time 35 years is) — the Twin Cities area population will hit the 2 million mark….the need for and demand for outdoor recreation in the beautiful lower St. Croix Valley will be enormous.” The act was passed, and to this day, the St. Croix River remains a natural oasis, tourist destination, and economic asset for the region.

Stillwater at night
As the sun sets over the St. Croix River, lights glow in downtown Stillwater. The river brings tourism to local communities and offers unique recreation opportunities.

For its part, Xcel Energy donated more than 23,000 acres to the federal and state government during the 1970’s when the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was first created. The company has also made a number of improvements to the Allen S. King Generating Station in recent years to reduce its environmental impact. Between 2004 and 2007, Xcel installed flue gas scrubbers to control sulfur dioxide emissions, and began using selective catalytic reduction for nitrogen oxide control, activated carbon injection to capture mercury emissions, and fabric filters to keep particulates out of the air. The plant has also been active in peregrine falcon restoration efforts.

Allen S. King Generating Station - coal burning
The Allen S. King Generating Station, located on the St. Croix River in Bayport/Oak Park Heights, donated 23,000 acres to state and federal government when the riverway was created and has made numerous environmental improvements over the years.

Meanwhile, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the St. Croix River Association has planned dozens of events throughout the year to celebrate the river and advocate for its continued protection.

The spring gathering, to be held on Friday, May 11, 6-9pm at the Science Museum of Minnesota, will feature Rue Mapp, CEO of Outdoor Afro, who will speak about “Changing the Face of Conservation Leaders.” During the presentation, Mapp will suggest ways to connect with new audiences and encourage river stewardship into the future.

The Paddle Namekagon, June 9-15, will offer a unique opportunity to experience the Namekagon River in Wisconsin, which is the St. Croix’s largest tributary and also protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. During this six-day trip, participants will traverse 92 miles of the Namekagon by canoe and kayak, camping overnight along the way. Learn more at scrapaddle.org.

Other 50th Anniversary events include “Bike and Boat to Bayport” (May 12 from 10am-1pm),  the film premiere of The Wild and Scenic St. Croix (June 6 at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul), a Wild & Scenic Film Festival on Aug. 25 (Trollhaugen in Dresser, WI), and an official celebration event on Oct. 2 at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson. Learn more about these and other events at: www.stcroixriverassociation.org.