The answer? It’s the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which embraces the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. But because “park” isn’t in its name, the “Find Your Park” campaign brings more visibility. We spoke with riverway Superintendent Chris Stein.
Q: What do you want people to know about the riverway?
A: That the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is a unit of the national park system. The St. Croix River is an incredible national treasure. There are not many places in the United States where you have such a relatively pristine riverway so close to an urban center. That is something we hang our hat on here at the St. Croix — clean water is so important. We want to educate people about that fact. Clean water is not only good for people, but it’s also good for all the plants and animals that depend on it. The St. Croix is a renowned Upper Midwest waterway for its mussel diversity. We have about 40 different species of mussels that our biologists believe are the same assemblage of mussels that you found here in the riverway hundreds of years ago. How many rivers in the United States can claim that?
Q: How can you attract people to the riverway?
A: We are very good at providing opportunities for people to recreate on the river, providing river landings, camping spots, maps, guide materials. What we are not so good at is the marketing. We rely on groups, or friends like the St. Croix River Association — an organization with 800 members — to get the word out. When people come here, they will have the necessary tools they need to experience this riverway in an intelligent and safe way. In today’s world where there are so many competing interests, it’s difficult to capture the attention of the average person. Everybody is on their iPhones and other media devices. Sometimes we forget that we come from nature and going outside and experiencing nature is important to our souls.
Q: In terms of getting people to come, does the riverway face the same challenges as other national parks?
A: Having been a ranger for a number of years, I can say that if you don’t have the national park title after your name, the fact that it’s a national park gets lost. In the National Park Service we have over 25 different last names. We have national monument, national recreation area, national seashore, national lakeshore, national battlefield, national historic site, national memorial, national scenic riverway. Then we have the premier title, which is national park. But of the over 400 places protected by the National Park Service, only 59 have the paramount title, I call it, the national park title. When you say St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, most people don’t associate that with a national park. We have the same management policies systemwide. We are one national park service.
Q: Why not rename the riverway St. Croix National Park?
A: It does raise a good question, and that is a political question, and it’s certainly not my job as park superintendent to lobby for that. It would makes things simpler in the minds of the American people. There’s actually been an effort — called the Second Century Commission Report a number of years ago — it did call for a reduction in names of the NPS. That is something that’s recognized by our leaders, it’s very political, I don’t know if the day would ever come when everything is the national park. That’s the basis of Find Your Park. We’re trying to tell people that you don’t have to have that capital N, capital P, last name to have a national park experience.
Q: What are the top issues facing the riverway?
A: When Congress created the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, they asked us to protect what’s called “outstandingly remarkable values,” things like nature, history, culture, water quality, geology. When we did our evaluation of the St. Croix River bridge project, we did say that $700 million project would have an impact on the scenic and recreational values of the riverway. How could it not? But Congress chose to exempt that section of the river from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. We do what Congress tells us to do. That bridge was a precedent-setting case. I mention it because the impacts of that thin slice will be small [by comparison] if the invader that’s coming from the south affects the riverway. That’s the Asian carp. If they hit the riverway, they’ll devastate the economy and the natural environment.
Q: How can the park service stop the carp?
A: It’s a 52-mile run between the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers and the dam here in St. Croix Falls. This dam, which is over 100 years old, was grandfathered in under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If the Asian carp hit the river, they will be stopped by the dam. However, there is nothing to prevent a person with a bucket, having fish in it, going upstream and dumping that bucket out, and if that happens, it’s all over.
Q: What about other threats to the river?
A: Another challenge of the riverway is external threats — keeping the river clean and free flowing. I’m very thankful for Congress’ wisdom in passing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but let’s face it, only the mainstem of the St. Croix and one of its major tributaries, the Namekagon, is protected in this national park. What about the thousands of other tributaries, the rest of the St. Croix Valley? I only have authority to enforce park service policies within the boundaries of the riverway, but we have an 8,000-square-mile watershed. Every drop of rain that falls is heading for the St. Croix River, ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.
It is so important for us to work with our partners — other federal agencies, state government agencies, private businesses, nongovernment organizations, organizations such as the St. Croix River Association. Most western national parks in the traditional sense, you have a mountain and around that mountain is a square line and you have a box. Everything within that square is protected. Here in the St. Croix Valley we have an inverse mountain. Everything flows to the river, which is the only thing that is protected, and we have no control over land use practices that take place outside our boundary. That’s why it’s so essential that we have good relations with multiple partners around the valley who are working to keep the water clean.
Q: What about development people can see from the river?
A: Things like gravel mines that are built on our boundary, like the one that was passed a year or so ago in Scandia, our job is to protect the view from the river. Congress asked us to protect that view shed. Then you have cell towers that go up nearby. We don’t want people coming down the river and seeing cell towers popping up on the landscape. You can now go on the river and have almost a wilderness-type experience.
Q: Are you continuing to want a visitor center on the Minnesota side of the river?
A: There has been talk from some of our friends that we should try to have a location in Stillwater. I couldn’t agree more, but where would that be? Many years ago we had a visitor center in downtown Stillwater in a storefront. We pulled out because people were treating us like a chamber of commerce. The questions my rangers were getting were: Where is a good place to eat? Where can I stay for the night? While those are valid questions, essential for the experience, they’re not the type of questions I want my rangers answering. I want my rangers talking about why Congress established the riverway in the first place.