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St. Croix National Scenic Riverway celebrates 50 years

"Backwaters are my natural habitat," said Greg Seitz on the backwaters of the St. Croix River near Scandia and Marine on St. Croix on Friday, June 1, 2018. Seitz has paddled nearly every inch of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and plans to check his last 20 miles off this summer to mark the 50th anniversary of the riverway. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 4
"Fall colors along St. Croix River near Cedar Bend" is one of the photos from "St. Croix & Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift" by photographer Craig Blacklock. The book is available at available on the web site: Courtesy of Craig Blacklock2 / 4
The St. Croix River in 1915. The St. Croix National Wild and Scenic Riverway is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The St. Croix River and its largest tributary, the Namekagon, were among the first recognized in 1968 when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act become law.Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society3 / 4
Side channels of the St. Croix are full of birds and beautiful scenery, as well as a sense of solitude and exploration. Courtesy of Greg Seitz / St. Croix 360 4 / 4

ST. PAUL—It's a cool, overcast weekday morning in May, and Greg Seitz is paddling a stretch of the St. Croix River he calls his "milk run."

The 6.4-mile stretch between the Osceola and Log House landings is where Seitz heads whenever time allows.

"It's where I was really introduced to the St. Croix back when I was in high school," he says, ­dipping his paddle in the river and steering around a spit of land where two men are fishing. "I love it. It's my go-to stretch. It's the one I've been doing the longest, the one I know best."

Seitz, founder of the St. Croix 360 website, has paddled nearly every inch of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway — 252 miles of the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers. He plans to check off his last 20 miles this summer to mark the 50th anniversary of the riverway.

In 1968, efforts to protect the St. Croix led to the passage of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. This week, a documentary called "The Wild and Scenic St. Croix" is being released to commemorate that action and to reinvigorate the commitment that led to the river's protected status.

The act, co-sponsored by Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale and the late Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, resulted in development restrictions.

Park ranger and historian

Julie Galonska was named superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway last year after being interim superintendent for more than a year. She previously was chief of interpretation, education and cultural resource management.

"We are very fortunate to have such a resource here," Galonska said during a recent speech at the Lowell Inn Event Center in Stillwater. "We take it for granted, but not all rivers are so well-loved or so well-protected."

The St. Croix has been known for its scenic qualities ever since explorers and early settlers arrived, she said.

By the late 1920s, Northern States Power Co. had acquired almost 30,000 acres along the river for power-generating facilities, Galonska said.

"In 1939, NSP — we're in the midst of the Depression — leased 7,000 acres on the upper St. Croix to the state of Minnesota to become part of St. Croix State Park," she said. "And they started inviting the public to come to their land."

In the 1960s, NSP announced plans for two power plants, including a 500,000-kilowatt coal-burning, steam-generating plant in Oak Park Heights.

When a joint state-federal task force met in Stillwater in January 1965 to discuss the Oak Park Heights plant, Sen. Nelson testified.

"Call the roll of the great American rivers of the past ... the mighty Hudson, the thermally polluted Delaware, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and even the Minnesota," he declared. "The story in each case is the same: they died for their country."

"That was the tone of this hearing," Galonska said. "It's about stopping the power plant, but it's also about the larger idea of river protection. He argued that saving the St. Croix for recreation would provide more economic development than industry."

Between 1965 and 1968, bills were introduced in Congress to protect the best of America's remaining wild and scenic rivers. Nelson asked Mondale to co-sponsor the bill.

When the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed in 1968, NSP was the only corporation named in the act. To create the scenic riverway, the company donated 7,000 acres to the National Park Service, 13,000 acres to Minnesota and 5,000 acres to Wisconsin.

"This park literally would not exist if not for Northern State's willingness to work in partnership to try to get the land protected," Galonska said.

Mondale's love of the river

Former Vice President Walter Mondale's deep and abiding love of the St. Croix started 63 years ago during a canoe ride with his future wife.

"I was trying to figure out how to make progress in a decent way," Mondale said. "We decided to go out on this canoe. She prepared a little lunch in a basket. Oh, God, it was a beautiful day. You have to get married after that."

Mondale and Joan Adams got engaged after 53 days. "That river did its work," he said.

The Mondales had a cabin on the St. Croix for many years. Joan Mondale died in 2014. Mondale said last month that he is selling the property.

"That was where Joan and I had our fun," Mondale said. "I could sit there and watch the river go by whenever I wanted to. Gaylord Nelson and I would talk out there. But the family grew up, and the kids flew away, and there we are."

The St. Croix is a national treasure that must be protected for future generations, he said.

Documentarian says threats remain

Lobbyist John Kaul is a documentary filmmaker whose latest project is a film celebrating the 50th anniversary of the riverway.

"The Wild and Scenic St. Croix" will debut Wednesday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.. Kaul and Tom Reiter, who also created "Rebirth: The Mississippi's National Park," produced the film in partnership with the St. Croix River Association.

Many of the photos and video clips in the documentary were shot by famed nature photographer Craig Blacklock, who recently published "St. Croix & Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift."

"The river is special because it's been preserved in a near-pristine state," Kaul said. "It's special because it's a story of resurrection, and that should give us some hope in these kind of dark times."

Kaul said threats to the river remain.

"I hope that we just don't assume that because we've got a national park that we're on cruise control," he said.

Among the threats: suburban sprawl, climate change, invasive species and pollution, he said.

A major blow to the river came in 2010, Kaul said, when the Minnesota Supreme Court sided in favor of broadcasting executive Rob Hubbard in his fight with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources over his new house in Lakeland. The Supreme Court ruled that the DNR did not have the authority to overturn Lakeland's approval of the project.

The advocate's three-week paddle

The St. Croix River Association, with about 1,200 members, dates to 1911 and is one of the oldest citizen-based resource-conservation organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Deb Ryun, who previously was the executive director for Conservation Districts of Iowa in Chariton, Iowa, became the SCRA's first director in 2009.

Two years later, Ryun led a three-week, 184-mile paddle of the river to celebrate the association's 100th anniversary. "I wish everyone could experience spending days — in all weather conditions — floating every mile," she said. "For those three weeks, we all lived in the moment, enjoyed life to the fullest and had an adventure of a lifetime. The sights, sounds and smells still come back to me when I visit a stretch of river again."

The association recently launched a new fund — the St. Croix Watershed Protection Fund — to help ensure that the park "is protected and preserved forever," Ryun said.

"We want to make sure that the riverway remains an ecological, cultural and community treasure for the next 50 years — and for as long as the river flows."