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The St. Croix's Enduring Gift

November 30, 2018

On the rivers, there is the pull of gravity drawing me downstream. It creates its own rhythms of standing waves and swirling eddies. Then there is the long, slow inhalation and exhalation of changing water levels.

In the fall of 1968, a group of individuals including Senators Walter F. Mondale and Gaylord Nelson, working with Northern States Power (now Xcel Energy), the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the National Park Service, did something wonderful. They included the St. Croix River and its major tributary, the Namekagon, along with 7 other riverways when they co-sponsored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act—the St. Croix (including the Namekagon) being the only one given national park status. Like any park, this was a gift we gave to ourselves, but it was also a gift from Northern States Power, which donated nearly 30,000 acres along the rivers. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this enduring gift, thanking those who provided it for us, and taking stock of what the rivers mean to us, and what we must do to protect them into the future. Today in the U.S. there are 12,754 river miles protected by the Wild and Scenic River Act, a mere 0.35% of the total—making our St. Croix very special indeed.

I recently spent more than two and a half years paddling every mile of both the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers to gather photographs for my book, exhibition, and video, St. Croix & Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift. I’ve traveled wilderness waterways my entire life, making my living photographing the interface of land and water. Even so—I was amazed by these rivers and their tributaries: White pines towering above mixed hardwood forests, gleaming rapids, basalt and sandstone cliffs, and an abundance of waterfalls and wildlife, all astonishingly existing within easy access of millions of people.

This is where many of us learned to swim, canoe, and fish. On everything from innertubes to luxurious yachts, each summer weekend we immersed ourselves within the rivers’ seemingly unspoiled beauty. Few of us realize the riverway we travel through now is vastly different than it was just a few decades ago. The forests have largely re-grown following the intensive logging begun in 1839, and wildlife populations rebounded from the use of the pesticide DDT, habitat loss, and overharvesting of numerous species to the point of their being extirpated, or nearly so, from the riverway. Rebuilding populations of beaver, gray wolves, osprey, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, giant Canada geese, wood ducks, great egrets, sandhill and whooping cranes, bluebirds and other species within the watershed often required tremendous efforts on the part of wildlife biologists and volunteers. Along the way, we learned perhaps the most important lesson the river has to teach us—that the world is finite.

It would be easy to look at those success stories, and the fact the rivers lie within state or national park boundaries and assume the rivers and their inhabitants are now safe. But that undermines the cornerstone of all ecological teachings—that everything is connected. These parks are but a thin ribbon within a much larger watershed experiencing rapid human population growth. With that growth comes habitat loss, and an increase in runoff pollution both from farms and suburban yards.

More boaters bring an increased risk of transporting invasive species, and global population growth has given rise to climate change that respects no borders, and is pummeling the rivers with increased major flooding and warming waters.

There are many threats to these rivers, and indeed towards everything we love. But each has a solution starting with the decisions we make as individuals, multiplied by 7.7 billion of us. This starts with what many scientists are now stating: that we must encourage one child families until our population gradually declines back to two billion—the number the earth can sustain with a decent standard of living for all, while retaining viable ecosystems to sustain all the other species.

The enduring gift our predecessors gave us when they protected the St. Croix required personal sacrifice, and diminished corporate profits, both done for the greater good of others and future generations. I hope my daughter will be able to look back 50 years from now and see that we were as magnanimous. +++


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