In his new job as caretaker of one of the most beloved river systems across two states, Christopher Stein is in an enviable position. The new superintendent of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, which includes both the St. Croix River in Minnesota and the Namekagon River in Wisconsin, his work takes him through some of the most undeveloped country in the Upper Midwest.
The 92,735-acre park was authorized 40 years ago when the U.S. Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It was one of the nation's original eight river systems to receive the special federal designation, created to protect the rivers from further dam building and to preserve their natural, wild beauty.
Stein last worked at Yosemite National Park in California as the park's chief of interpretation and education. We caught up with him last week to learn about his latest adventure.
Q What are your main responsibilities as superintendent of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway?
A Back in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. The Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway was created as part of that act, and to be declared as one of the first of eight, that's pretty significant. Not only was it declared as one of the first eight, but it was also made into a national park.
Our responsibility is to keep this a free-flowing river and an unpolluted river for its wild, scenic and recreational purposes.
We enhance its recreational, scenic resource values and we work with partners to do that. We work with partners like the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. We work with all the governments and their entities and private landowners again to carry out the mission of why we were established -- keep the rivers free-flowing and unpolluted.
Q What is your vision? What do you hope to accomplish?
A I do believe that helping to keep the water clean needs to be the primary vision. Every other vision that I have after that is secondary to keeping the water clean.
I would like to help everyone who visits the St. Croix River or who lives in the St. Croix River Valley to become true stewards of the river. To embrace the fact that this is a national park right in their back yard and that we're very lucky to have a national park right here in the St. Croix River Valley and that this is their park.
When that legislation passed in 1968, it was Congress giving the people of the St. Croix River Valley their river back. Because throughout America, rivers have been grossly mistreated over time. And we don't plan to do that here.
So saying to help make everyone a steward of the river, it's just to help show them that their actions ultimately can affect the riverway and its unpolluted state and I'd like to help them take care of the river.
This could be through environmental education programs for children, getting the kids excited at a young age so that when they become voters, they will think about environmental protection when they make their decisions.
Even though a lot of people know about the St. Croix River, a lot of people don't know that it's part of the national park system. A place like the St. Croix River, I'd like to raise the identity of this river and the Namekagon as a unit of the National Park System.
Q The St. Croix River recently was put on a list of impaired waters because of pollution. What should be done to make sure it stays clean?
A That is a major concern of mine. What happened there is that it's the phosphorous loading of the river and that comes from fertilizers from agriculture. I was told that by 2020 for that to be an unimpaired section of the river, we need to remove about 100 metric tons of phosphorous coming into the river.
With these partnerships that I've told you about I feel very, very fortunate. One of those partners, for example, is the St. Croix River Association. That's a not-for-profit group that's been around since 1911. They recently have gone through some rethinking of what their mission should be, and just recently they announced that they want to work to protect the entire St. Croix River Watershed, which is absolutely wonderful.
To really protect the St. Croix in an unpolluted state you need to protect all the rivers in the watershed. They can't all be designated wild and scenic because they're not all of that quality. But the St. Croix River Association saying that they want to protect the whole watershed, to me, is music to my ears because I know to protect a major river, you have to protect all the tributaries that are coming into it.
Q What's your favorite national park to visit?
A I like to say that as you go from park to park, whichever park you're working at is your favorite park. And that certainly is going to be the case here.
That said, hands down, in 1994 to 1998 I spent those years as the superintendent of the new National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific. That, without question, was my favorite park.
The tropical rainforest, the coral reef, the 3,000-year-old Samoan culture that we were helping to protect. We did everything in accordance with Samoan tradition, including managing the park, attending meetings. It really was such a unique cultural experience. You walk into the water and you snorkel among 600 different fish species. You walk in the rainforest and there are flying fox fruit bats with 3-feet wingspans.
I remember one of the things I did when I was there was I attracted National Geographic magazine to do a story about the new National Park. I was taking the writer down into a crater, one of our volcanic craters. There were the vines, and the swirling mist and the tropical birds flying around and I said to him: "This is where we keep our tyrannosaurs," and he ended up quoting me on that. But it really was an otherworldly experience for a person who grew up in the continental United States.
Allie Shah • 651-298-1550