From his office at the Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center, Jim Fitzpatrick can see the river glimmering below through the trees. If he's lucky, he might see a deer or red fox on his way to work, or bald eagles hunting for breakfast.

For the past 27 years, Fitzpatrick, now executive director of the center, has helped protect the St. Croix by teaching the park's 30,000 visitors to respect and appreciate what they have, before it's too late.

It's almost too late.

Today, national watch group American Rivers will put the St. Croix on its list of 10 endangered rivers. "Wild and Scenic Lower St. Croix River, a hot spot for anglers and boaters and a rare natural retreat from urban life, could have its character destroyed if poorly planned development along the river continues," the group said in a press release.

Fitzpatrick is not surprised. In fact he calls the designation "way overdue."

"As someone put it, it's like be being nibbled to death by ducks," he said. From Taylors Falls to Prescott, changes large and small, intentional and unintentional, are ruining the very thing that draws people to the river.

"Humans are loving the river to death," said Fitzpatrick. "They love the river so much, they cut all the trees down and put a lawn down to it. Then their ChemLawn runs into the river. Everything we do affects the river, and we need to come to grips with the fact there may be some things we just can't do anymore."

The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was established in 1968 as one of the original eight rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Then-Senators Walter Mondale (Minnesota) and Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin) made sure of that. The lower 52 miles -- the ones now in danger -- were added to the system in 1972.

Over the decades, the river has had many enemies: mills and power plants, waste from overgrown cities, noxious chemicals, overzealous developers, landowners who ignore rules, weekend boaters who dump garbage and litter. There's a reason one popular spot attained the evocative name of "Beer Can Island."

"A lot of people live ecologically on the river," said Fitzpatrick, "But there is plenty of finger-pointing to go around."

Where the fingers point

"This lower St. Croix is a national treasure, but poorly planned development is slowly killing the very qualities that make it so special," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers.

As a grad student in 1977, Wodder spent a lovely summer on the river, studying the impact of encroaching development. She says this designation is a wake-up call to river lovers from Minnesota and Wisconsin to "encourage the [Department of National Resources] to do what they promised to do. We are all counting on them," she said.

Molly Shodeen, a hydrologist for the DNR, has tried. Every year, she cruises the river and takes pictures to see how homeowners on the river have altered the landscape. Even though they are supposed to get approval for changes, many don't. Some of the communities have stopped reporting development to the DNR, which then has to sue later to get compliance.

"There used to be more of a spirit of partnership," said Shodeen. "We are trying hard to remind them that their decisions are not happening in an isolated vacuum."

The report specifically names Denmark Township in Washington County, which approved a 3,500-square-foot house just 13 feet from the riverbank, where the zoning standard is a minimum of 100 feet. The home sits squarely across from the public beach.

Lakeland also approved a major expansion of a building on a small foundation within the bluff setback area, a home owned by media mogul Rob Hubbard. The DNR has pursued that case all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

"Not only do these communities have a commitment to the nation, they are eroding the value of the treasure they have," said Wodder. "They are killing the golden goose."

American Rivers is asking that the DNRs of both states ask communities along the river to issue a two-year moratorium on zoning variances in order to strengthen, not weaken, existing rules.

Meanwhile, a newly invigorated local group, the St. Croix River Association, plans to invite officials from river towns on a boat trip this June to see the impact zoning decisions have on boaters and anglers, and the DNR is holding a seminar for area residents. But they can't make attendance mandatory.

So, Dan McGuiness, interim executive director of the association, said he hopes the bad news about the river will change some attitudes. "We need more selflessness and less selfishness," he said.

Before it's too late.

Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702