For as long as anybody can remember, volunteer stewards have protected the pristine and scenic St. Croix River to ensure that it remains a crown jewel of recreation for generations to come.
Yet as the river flows along, worry has set in.
Conservationists say they're struggling to find enough younger stewards to protect the river decades into the future. The river will need plenty of them, they say, because of growing pressure to build along its fragile shores and threats to water quality.
"Generally speaking I see a tendency to shift away from environmental protection," said Dave Ferris, a Burnett County, Wis., conservation officer. "As far as the younger generation coming up I guess I don't see as much emphasis on natural resources now as in the past."
The drive to recruit an army of younger stewards is a priority at the St. Croix River Association (SCRA), a longtime guardian of the river's conservation efforts. Executive Director Deb Ryun said a confluence of development pressures on the river and cultural changes in the home make the issue more urgent.
A massive four-lane bridge under construction at Oak Park Heights will encourage further development, she said, and more homeowners are challenging setback laws with variance requests. Culturally, younger people preoccupied with electronic devices sit indoors rather than heading outside to hike, boat and camp, she said.
"It's really about making sure whoever the next generation of owners are, that they have that heart and soul, that understanding, of what makes the river special," Ryun said.
To that end, the SCRA will offer six internships this summer to put young people to work at the National Park Service headquarters in St. Croix Falls, Wis. The National Park Service and the SCRA have been strong allies in a quest to maintain the natural character of the St. Croix, one of the most popular recreational waterways in the Upper Midwest.
"We're hoping it will be one of those things that builds constituencies," Ryun said of the intern program, which is now seeking applicants. "You get six, you gather 600. We want to be the incubator. We'll get the seed growing."
At the park service, which manages 255 miles of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway along the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers, interpreter Julie Galonska already has programs in place to acquaint youth with the river. One is "Rivers Are Alive," a discovery outing for fourth-graders. In other instances, rangers join youth groups camping along the river to teach them about everything from ecology to history.
"It's really about getting kids excited that there's a sense of discovery in their back yards," Galonska said. "These places are not going to be around unless the next generation is committed to them."
Jerry Dorff, who owns Wild River Outfitters in Grantsburg, Wis., said his canoe and kayak rental business has attracted families with young children for years. However, he also wonders whether outdoors adventures and natural resources hold the same fascination for today's youth as electronics and other marketing distractions.
"That's a concern from both an economic and business standpoint," he said.
Greg Seitz, whose website St. Croix 360 is built on the very idea of stewardship, said younger people often want to join the river conservation effort but don't know how. He suggests they learn through personal experiences on the river and by studying issues that affect it. That would include volunteering for cleanups and other public activities and becoming involved in local government decisions that affect the river, such as stormwater treatment and rain gardens.
Youth also can initiate clubs built around river conservation, he said, and recruit friends to help.
"Just being a voice is a big part of it," Seitz said.
At the St. Croix River Association, a summer "St. Croix Paddle" takes participants on a journey over several days and nights to expose them to the river's pristine environment. For many, it's a chance to see the river from an on-water perspective for the very first time.
"Just that transition to, 'Wow, we really have something here,' is huge," Ryun said.