St. Croix Riverway: A national park in our own backyard
When it comes to the mission of the National Park Service and the St. Croix, one question guides almost everything they do. "Is it in the best interest of the river?"
That's how park superintendent Chris Stein explains his role and that of the 40 full-time and more than 50 seasonal National Park Service employees who manage and maintain the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
National parks have been pretty high profile in recent weeks thanks to the film by Ken Burns, "The National Parks, America's Best Idea." And Stein wants the people of Hudson and all the communities that border the St. Croix River to realize they have one of those parks smack in the middle of where they live.
"The National Park Service has lots of different names for the places they manage -- parks, monuments, memorials and historic sites and scenic riverways but the mission is the same. You can think of the St. Croix Riverway as your Yosemite," said Stein from the visitor center for the park in St. Croix Falls.
The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway including the Namekagon River was among the first eight rivers nationwide that were part of the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1968. At first it only included what was known as the upper St. Croix River north of St. Croix Falls but in 1972 the lower St. Croix to the Mississippi in Prescott was added. More than 120 miles of the riverway border Wisconsin and Minnesota.
As parks go, the St. Croix Riverway is unique for several reasons, not the least of which is its location so close to a major metropolitan area. It has more than 97,000 acres but is only up to a quarter mile wide on either side. The park service only owns 25 percent of the land along the waterway but has close to 400 "scenic easements" with private landowners. The easements were purchased from the landowners to preserve the view from the river and along it and prohibit any development that would obstruct or impair it.
The number of easements along the St. Croix Riverway represents 25 percent of all the scenic easements owned by the National Park Service nationwide.
"The idea is to maintain the illusion of being in a wild area that isn't developed. Because of the location of the riverway between two states with hundreds of communities and landowners along its shores, it is one of the more complex park situations we have in the system," said Stein. "I could stay here the rest of my life and I wouldn't get to know all the people I should when it comes to this park."
A partnership of interested parties
As superintendent, Stein manages a $3.8 million budget with the help of five division chiefs that cover park law enforcement, land management, education, interpretation and cultural resources, maintenance and administration and resource management. In addition to the full-time and part-time seasonal staff, several area organizations partner with the staff on issues and projects. There is also a growing group of volunteers who assist wherever they are needed.
Shortly after taking his new position last October, Stein met with his staff and together they developed what they call the vision and the priorities for the riverway. They appear with this story.
Although the area of the riverway known as the Lower St. Croix from near Stillwater to Prescott is managed by the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of natural resources, Stein and his staff work closely with them on issues affecting the riverway as a whole. An example would be the steps taken to alleviate the spread of Zebra mussels that threatens native mussels in the river.
Another threat to the river is the water quality of Lake St. Croix, the wide area of the river here in Hudson which is considered an "impaired" body of water due to high phosphorus levels. Stein and his staff are working with groups like the local St. Croix River Association and American Rivers to address the run-off that is coming not just from around this area of the St. Croix but from the more than 35 smaller streams, rivers and lakes that flow into the 252 miles of riverway.
There was opposition by Department of the Interior and the NPS to a new Stillwater bridge back in the late 1980s and early 1990s but those issues have been resolved and Stein said the federal government now supports a new bridge.
It all started with the hat
Stein, who has been with the NPS for 30 years, came to the St. Croix Riverway after a six-year assignment at Yosemite National Park in California where his wife, Meryl, was an ecologist for the NPS. His career as a ranger has taken him to urban parks, parks in the desert southwest, the Great Smoky Mountains and to American Samoa.
He said his path to the park service is similar to many rangers who say it all began with some experience in childhood. His own was on a school field trip to Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, the home of Teddy Roosevelt, near his home on Long Island, N.Y.
"The bus came up over this hill and stopped. The door opened and this ranger wearing his hat got on the bus and started talking to us. I knew I had to get one of those hats. By the time I was in high school I had made the decision that I wanted to be a park ranger."
He said he didn't know much about the St. Croix River before his assignment but he wasn't worried about liking it here. "The thing about working in the national parks, you are kind of guaranteed a really beautiful place to work. And I cherish the opportunity to learn a whole new story and meet the people who live here."
Stein and his wife are the parents of three grown sons and grandparents of two. They also recently became the proud parents of two-year-old Willow, who they adopted from China. The family lives in Marine-on-St. Croix, Minn.
For more information about the St. Croix River National Scenic Riverway go to www.nps.gov/sacn or contact the visitor center in St. Croix Falls at (715) 483-2274. The center is located at 401 North Hamilton Street.