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Welcome to the inaugural issue of our Focus on Friends blog series. We are truly excited to bring you this guest blog post by Emilee Martell, an AmeriCorps VISTA member with the St. Croix River Association.

The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is not a well-known national park. I can say this with confidence because I grew up less than a mile away from it, spent my whole life hiking, fishing, and kayaking on it, and never knew that it was a unit of the National Park System until I was on the phone interviewing for a summer internship there. Even then, at the beginning of the conversation, I still thought the position was at a local state park, until a few comments clued me into the fact that we were talking about a much larger entity.

So in case you’re like me and have no clue what we’re discussing here; the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is made up of 255 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. It was created in 1968 as one of the nation’s eight original Wild and Scenic Rivers. It is known as a kayaking paradise, a world-class fishery, a globally important bird migration route, a haven for rare and endangered native mussel species, and a strikingly clean tributary of the Mississippi. Located near the Twin Cities metro area of Minnesota, the St. Croix and the Namekagon—its largest tributary—offer stunning wilderness experiences in a heavily suburbanized region.

After my internship as a park guide, I spent the next two summers as a seasonal ranger and have now returned as an AmeriCorps VISTA to serve at the Riverway’s official friends group: the St. Croix River Association (SCRA). We work on land conservation, water quality protection, invasive species management, education and outreach, and river celebration. As Riverway superintendent Julie Galonska says:

Our strong partnership with the St. Croix River Association [enhances] our mutual efforts to protect the resources of this park and help people enjoy it today and in the future. SCRA and NPS work especially closely on public and educational programming and aquatic invasive species monitoring and education. The River Connections Internship Program, now in its sixth year, places SCRA interns alongside NPS staff, boosting the capacity for outreach, land protection, and resource monitoring while engaging the next generation.”

Founded in 1911 during the waning days of the Midwest’s logging era, SCRA initially focused its efforts on protecting the lower 50 miles of the river. The organization consisted of a strong group of volunteers acting as local “watchdogs” as the threat of coal-fired power plants, highways, dams, and development swept through the area. For nearly ninety years, membership consisted of a $1 contribution and two meetings a year. With about 200 river-loving households participating, SCRA provided a way for members to connect with each other on a regular basis and tackle pertinent issues facing the river.

As with many communities and organizations throughout America, the 1960s marked—please pardon the pun—a watershed moment for SCRA. A monumental new chapter for the St. Croix River began with a lost battle in 1964, when Northern States Power (NSP), now called Xcel Energy, received permission to build a power plant on the banks of the southern portion of the St. Croix. However, NSP also owned thousands of acres of undeveloped land on the St. Croix and Namekagon to the north, and had long allowed people from around the region to canoe, camp, and fish there. Company executives realized that offering the land for a truly public park would be both a sound business decision and a legacy they could leave for the community.

At the same time, a pair of hometown-hero politicians, Gaylord Nelson—yes, the Earth Day founder–and Walter Mondale—yes, Jimmy Carter’s vice president—approached SCRA with an idea, the gist of which would become the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. SCRA members gave their enthusiastic support and threw their efforts into passing the legislation. In 1968, the upper St. Croix became one of the nation’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers. Business, community, and environmental leaders celebrated this momentous occasion as NSP officially donated 25,000 acres to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the federal government, creating the basis for our National Park Riverway. And, after four more years of campaigning by SCRA, the lower St. Croix joined in that designation in 1972.

At this point in history, SCRA was entirely volunteer-run. But as decades passed, SCRA found that, despite the protections provided by the St. Croix’s Wild and Scenic River designation, it was becoming increasingly difficult to address growing conservation issues throughout the watershed. In 2008, at a meeting locally known as “The Great Convening,” stakeholders gathered with an ambitious goal: reconstruct SCRA as a watershed-wide advocacy group, a “go-to” entity for conservation organizations working in and around the St. Croix. A year later, our first staff member was hired, and in 2011, we became the official friends group of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Nowadays, we have a staff that hovers around ten—a pretty good size for nonprofits in our region. But there’s always more to do. A river park has a number of unique challenges, and the biggest one for us is the fact that while our park is 255 miles long, it is, in general, only about half a mile wide. When Wild and Scenic status was established, the National Park Service worked to obtain a quarter mile of land on either side of the water as a buffer. In some places, this natural landscape is much larger due to wildlife areas, state parks and forests, or donated land. In others, easements allow grandfathered-in landowners to live by the water as their ancestors did. This public-private, local-state-federal patchwork makes management of the Riverway a complicated and endlessly evolving endeavor.

But rivers are, of course, much more than a channel of water and a strip of riverbank. The St. Croix’s watershed covers nearly 8,000 square miles in Minnesota and Wisconsin—a tapestry of farms, towns, villages, timber lands, gravel mines, public acreage, and tributaries. We are fortunate to have dozens of conservation organizations throughout this area, but SCRA is the only one with a watershed-wide scope, allowing us to focus on both sides of the river and both the upper and lower portions of the basin. We work north, south, east, and west with our outreach and stewardship efforts, and we see amazing results. During this school year, we reached over 5,000 K-12 students in watershed school districts through hands-on learning programs like mucking for macroinvertebrates in the summer and hunting for animals tracks on snowshoes in the winter. Our My St. Croix Woods program engages woodland owners on the nearly 3 million acres of forest in our watershed and tackles the growing challenge of generational land transfer, providing resources for people who love their woods and want to see them thrive generation after generation. We work with other agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide habitat for rare species like Karner Blue butterflies and do battle against noxious invasives like buckthorn and Asian carp. The majority of the St. Croix River is currently zebra-mussel-free, thanks in large part to diligent monitoring by many parties, including our summer interns, as well as partnerships with local marinas to promote good boating practices. And last year, during the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, we leaned hard into the “celebration” tenet of our mission and held events up and down the Riverway to spread the love for our local National Park.

Sometimes, our victories are clear-cut and large-scale, like when SCRA defeated a dam proposal in 1968 that would have drowned 75,000 acres of woodland on the upper river. Sometimes, threats are equally obvious, like the first-ever hog confinement that was just proposed in our watershed less than ten miles from the Riverway. But most often, challenges are pervasive, ongoing, and under the radar, which can make the successes harder to quantify. But we know that every uprooted buckthorn seedling, every empty zebra mussel trap, every student gasping over dragonfly larvae, every acre secured in a conservation easement, and every drop of water that flows clear and unpolluted into the river is a victory, and so we have dozens of them every day.

To me, this the key to a successful friends group. The National Park Service might have that enviable glamor that comes from watching over glaciers, climbing the world’s tallest trees, reintroducing charismatic mammals, stewarding the faces of presidents, and wearing iconic hats, but they’re standing on the shoulders of their friends groups, being lifted up by the most dedicated, passionate conservationists in the nation.

If you want to contribute to SCRA’s steady stream of small victories, you can become a member today on our website, on the phone (715-483-3300), or by sending mail to PO Box 655, St. Croix Falls, WI, 54024. We are a strongly member-driven organization and couldn’t exist without supporters and volunteers. Contact us any time with questions or comments, and we hope to see you out on the river this season!

Emilee Martell is an AmeriCorps VISTA member with the St. Croix River Association. A life-long river rat with a long family history on the St. Croix, she loves spring foraging, summer kayaking, autumn hunting, and winter hiking. During college, she worked as a seasonal ranger on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and hopes to return to grad school after AmeriCorps to earn a Master’s in Environmental Conservation.

 Do you have a story to share? We plan to regularly highlight the work of Friends Groups across the country that help protect our parks and public lands. Send an email to Emily Thompson … we’d love to feature the work of your group too!