The curse of the Lower St. Croix River, perhaps, is its proximity to the sprawling Twin Cities metro area and development pressures that come with it – aided by timidity by state and local officials from enforcing seemingly simple things like setback requirements for home sites and allowing oversized mansions to be built on small “original” foundations.
And so, to some, it’s not so surprising that the national advocacy group American Rivers has placed the Lower St. Croix on its list of “America’s 10 most threatened.” The designation has already focused attention on abuse that can come from too much love by people drawn to the river’s spectacular beauty and too little spine by those charged with keeping it that way.
Today, weekend boaters and recreationists crowd to the river and, save for all their beer cans and other garbage, at least they go home on Monday. But others want to live on its banks as close to the water as possible, and state and local zoning officials in too many cases have allowed encroachment or turn away as residents just go ahead and cut trees to expand a lawn or put up another building where it’s not allowed.
“This river is in danger of dying a death from a thousand cuts,” said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers in Washington, D.C. “Poorly planned development is slowly killing the very qualities that make the Lower St. Croix so special.”
Sen. Nelson continually sought to protect it
The galling part to people like Wodder, who’s spent a lot of time living near the St. Croix, is that her former boss, the late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, spent a good part of his career seeking ways to protect the river from inevitable pressures of civilization.
In 1968 the Upper St. Croix (from Taylors Falls northward) and the Namekagon River in Wisconsin were among the first to be protected as “scenic” under the then-new Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Nelson regretted not adding the Lower St. Croix (from Taylors Falls southward to Prescott) to protected status in 1968, something he corrected in 1971 with a bit of deft maneuvering in Congress. Nelson understood the consequences of not acting and he feared – correctly, it turns out – that development pressures would overwhelm the scenic valley.
In truth, the St. Croix has always been under siege, and even the untold story of Nelson’s “miracle” legislative work in 1971 (as characterized by then Minnesota Gov. Al Quie) reflects the reality that commercial interests have eyed the St. Croix for most of the last century.
Hydropower helped logging and sawmill operations
In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s hydropower assisted logging and sawmill operations; to this day many river towns throughout northern Wisconsin snug up to reservoirs behind dams that remain an important regional power source.
In the 1930s, FDR’s New Deal provoked a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to extend commercial shipping on the Mississippi River up the St. Croix to Taylors Falls. At the same time there was a push by farmer interests to create a “little TVA of the north” by rebuilding the “Nevers Dam” at St. Croix Falls and another at Kettle Falls that would create a 30-mile reservoir all the way up to Danbury, Wis.
The plan fizzled, but Northern States Power Co. (NSP, now Xcel Energy) sought permission to build a series of dams and reservoirs on the St. Croix. The company was confident enough in its plan to buy up some 30,000 acres of land along the St. Croix, anticipating it would be flooded.
That plan, too, fizzled under a torrent of protests by recreation interests. NSP still owned its land, but its interest for power generation had turned to coal and in the 1960s it was ready to cut a deal. NSP would offer its land along the St. Croix for permission to build what is now the Allen S. King coal-fired plant in Oak Park Heights, south of Stillwater.
(Another, albeit brief, development plan was advanced by industrialist and pizza maker Jeno Paulucci of Duluth. He sought to build the “Missing Link Canal” down the Amnicon River from Lake Superior and tying into the St. Croix. But that proved too far-fetched, and resulted in little more than notoriety for Paulucci, a master at gaining PR for his many exploits.)
NSP emissaries met with Nelson
NSP knew that Sen. Nelson wanted the St. Croix protected, and so it dispatched its emissaries to a remote cabin near Mellen, Wis., for a personal meeting with Nelson. NSP would donate its land for the St. Croix Scenic River, and in return Nelson would accept Allen S. King and its very tall smokestack that rises high above the valley rim to disperse air pollution.
Today, the Upper St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers in Wisconsin remain protected as Nelson had envisioned, even though, as one person who attended the Mellen meeting said, “He had to cut a deal with the devil.”
But the Lower St. Croix hasn’t enjoyed the same fate, as the American Rivers’ “10 most threatened” designation attests. In addition to the continued residential development – the “1,000 cuts” that Wodder referred to – there was a recent plan to build a superbridge across the valley south of Stillwater to replace the two-lane “historic” lift bridge at Stillwater that’s used daily by Wisconsin commuters.
The bridge plan is on hold, at least for now. But development interests continue to push for another river crossing to accommodate those wanting to live in the scenic hills of Wisconsin’s St. Croix County with quick access to Minnesota jobs (the aging Lift Bridge is subject to shutdowns and its 18,000 daily crossings can create gridlock in downtown Stillwater).
Building the replacement bridge would be only another of the assaults suffered by the St. Croix. And while the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and a smattering of local elected officials have variously said they want to protect the St. Croix valley from harmful intrusion, the “threatened” designation is the latest of obvious indicators that they collectively have failed.