It’s morning on the lower St. Croix River and Natalie Warren faces into the cool wind off the bluffs, inspecting nature’s panorama before her.
“I would choose to stand by a river probably more than anywhere else,” she said. “It’s a place where people come to reflect and meditate and have good conversations.
More than just an admirer of the St. Croix and its beauty, Warren is the latest “river steward” to wade into the laws and ordinances that govern land use on both sides of the federally protected waterway.
Employed by the St. Croix River Association through a three-year state grant, she will work with landowners, real estate developers and local governments to explain land-use regulations before misunderstandings turn into confrontations. She’ll be both educator and researcher to help residents “preserve the areas where they live.”
Difficulties can arise with proposals to remodel existing houses, or build new ones, along the riverfront. Local governments must decide whether the law permits exceptions — known as variances — to build there, and how those changes will affect the view from the river.
“If people have the information beforehand, the majority of people are going to do the right thing,” said Deb Ryun, the association’s executive director. “What’s been unfortunate, whenever you see a lot of the variance situations, is a lot of the people say, ‘We didn’t know about it.’ We want to get to it before people get mad.”
As one of 208 federally designated wild and scenic rivers, the St. Croix enjoys special federal and state protections from overdevelopment. The “federal zone,” as it’s known, encompasses the entire St. Croix watershed north of Stillwater under National Park Service management.
South of Stillwater, where most riverfront development has occurred, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and its Wisconsin counterpart work with cities and townships to manage river regulations. It’s in that stretch that Warren will concentrate her efforts to educate and inform people about “why this place is so special already.”
She plans to do that with face-to-face meetings, educational materials and training workshops.
“It’s not just another urban river. It’s a really beautiful place,” she said of the St. Croix. “Local communities are making an effort to protect the river, and I think that’s in their best interest.”
Warren, 27, doesn’t just talk about rivers. She practically lives on them.
A saxophone student at an arts high school in downtown Miami, Warren came to Minnesota to study environmental policy at St. Olaf College in Northfield. In 2011 she and a friend paddled more than 2,000 miles on the Minnesota and Red rivers, among others, from Fort Snelling to Hudson Bay, Manitoba, and in 2013 she paddled the length of the Mississippi River.
In May, she will be on a team of six women that will paddle the Yukon River in Alaska for 444 miles nonstop, trying to beat a 39-hour record.
“She’s such a winsome personality,” said river conservation leader Clarence “Buck” Malick, who anticipates Warren will do just fine dealing with conflicting viewpoints.
“She’s an outdoor woman, she canoes and kayaks, she writes a blog nationwide,” he said. “She’s also a real quick study. I’ll predict she’ll be very successful.”
There’s room for much more education about riverway rules, Malick said, because “institutional knowledge keeps going away” as elected officials turn over and riverfront homes change owners.
“What Natalie is hoping to do is immediately raise awareness … so that information will be passed from successor to successor so it doesn’t have to be reinvented every time. Her charge is to simply help everybody get it right,” he said.
Finding the right balance
The area Warren will focus on is 52 miles long — and a quarter-mile from either side of the river — and extends from Taylors Falls, Minn., to Prescott, Wis.
One area that she won’t be entering is the regulatory arena. That’s a job that belongs to the Minnesota DNR.
Jenifer Sorensen, an area hydrologist responsible for reviewing local government decisions on variance requests, describes the St. Croix as “a regional priority” and said Warren’s work in public education and outreach will complement the DNR’s work.
“This gives us the opportunity to get a fresh look,” she said. “We can share the information that we pull together.”
Ryun said part of Warren’s job will be determining whether more variance requests have emerged since 2010, when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the DNR didn’t have authority to overrule local zoning decisions under the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act governing the St. Croix.
To that end, Warren is working with Malick and Sorensen to compile a historical database of variance requests that will allow them to determine land-use trends. They’re doing that in connection with the Lower St. Croix River Partnership Team, which conducts after-the-fact reviews of land use decisions.
Finding a balance between private property rights and the public’s right to enjoy a national treasure benefits everyone, Malick said.
“The purpose of zoning ordinances is for the common good,” he said. “Everyone’s property is more valuable if everyone follows the rules.”
Since starting her job in December, Warren said, she’s learned that most people living along the St. Croix appreciate it as something special. Those people, she said, represent the first line of defense against the prospect of the St. Croix becoming just another fouled and troubled river.
“My job is to help the locals to be protectors of the river and to preserve the areas where they live,” she said.