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River Lost

Along the St. Croix River, the talk is about Rob Hubbard's proposal to build a 10,000-square-foot house. But that fight is merely one battle in a larger war.

River Lost
Photo by David J. Turner

(page 1 of 3)

Forty years after it was designated for protection, one of the state's most scenic rivers faces development pressures at every bend.

Cold, with hard blue skies scratched with clouds, It’s one of the last days to be on the St. Croix River, and Jim Rickard is guiding his Larson 220 Hampton through a no-wake zone near afton.

Only a few boats loiter near the shore on this Saturday, Probably put-ins from the public access, people who don’t own a piece of the river, but belong here nevertheless. They’re the guys Rickard is fighting for.

“How’s it going?” Rickard calls to some fishermen. “Getting any?”

“Couple of small ones.” 

The boat noses into the current, heading upstream. Rickard leans on the throttle and the Larson rears up. Dressed in a Columbia jacket and cargo pants, he puts on some gloves, almost sheepishly. “Might get out one more time,” he says optimistically.

Rickard is vice chair of the St. Croix Valley Interstate Group, part of the Sierra Club. If the title conjures images of a tofu-and-granola guy who lives in a tent and canoes to work, think again. A former director of business processes for United Healthcare, Rickard recently went back to school for a PhD in organizational management. He enjoys the horsepower of his Larson and says that he used to camp more. Now, after a day of boating, he and his partner, Nicole Mettler, usually return to the comfort of their Afton home. 

Mettler, sitting in the boat’s passenger seat, ducks out of a stinging wind, then looks up to see an iconic shape floating in the sky. “Bald eagle,” she says. Above, the bird hangs in the air, wings stretched so large they throw a shadow. The eagle moves from shore to shore, scanning the river for movement, like a sentry.

Rickard serves as something of a sentry himself. Up river, near Lakeland, he kills the engine near a small home barely visible through a stand of trees. It’s the spot where Rob Hubbard, president and CEO of the Hubbard Television Group, is fighting the Department of Natural Resources for the right to build a 10,000-square-foot home on the lip of the bluff. “You can’t see it now,” Rickard says. “That’s a good thing.”

A few miles downstream, Rickard takes the boat around a bend and throttles down. Above the far shore, wooden beams frame another 10,000-square-foot property under construction. The bluff has been terraced with massive rectangular limestone rocks. The home, owned by Butch and Diane Davies, is directly across from River Falls’s Kinnickinnic State Park. “This will be the new view from the park,” says Rickard, pointing up at the house. “None of that was visible before,” he says. “This thing is a tragedy.”

Rickard’s lament is a common refrain among those trying to preserve the historic nature of the St. Croix River. Today, 40 years after it was named a “Wild and Scenic River,” there are those that say the St. Croix is at risk at every bend. From St. Croix Falls, where a large condominium project (next to a scenic overlook built by the city) has been stopped, to Prescott, where a completed condo project sits half empty, the river roils.

In Hudson, for example, a developer has proposed a 45-foot-high condo, hotel, and retail wall between Main Street and the river (“height is money,” says a consultant). In Afton, at least seven lawsuits have been filed over development issues, two of them over a proposal to build condos in the flood plain. 

And while some cities have imposed moratoriums on development—partly to assess the impact on the river, partly because cascading home sales make pending developments risky—other municipalities have enthusiastically encouraged the boom, going so far as to ignore laws governing development along the river. “They approve lots and buildings without holding public meetings, as required,” says Molly Shodeen, a Minnesota DNR hydrologist. “Things have broken down to where there isn’t any respect for the law anymore.”

Today, the river is at the center of a familiar, if impassioned, struggle, between those who want to keep things the way they are, and those who want to bring commerce and convenience closer to home; between those who fear the St. Croix is nearing a tipping point—and those who argue the river has long since passed it. “If the DNR and Sierra Club think they’re going to save the river,” says Butch Davies, who’s building the home Rickard calls a “tragedy,” “they’re 40 years too late.”

Butch and Diane Davie
Photo by David J. Turner

THE ST. CROIX, which wiggles 164 miles from Upper St. Croix Lake and Namekagon Lake to its union with the Mississippi near Prescott, has always been the source of contention. In the mid-1800s, residents fought sawmill owners over logging and control of the river’s flow. Owners of the Nevers Dam would sometimes cut off the flow, leaving the river “at times nearly dry,” according to Saving the River, a book published by the St. Croix River Association, a preservation group. As far back as 1900, development was an issue: Residents wanted “more equitable distribution of enterprise and greater and more prosperous growth for the upper valley,” the Osceola Sun reported.

The battle between property rights and public good began around 1910, when residents of the Twin Cities began to build summer homes along the river near Stillwater. Fifty years later, when Northern States Power tried to construct a coal-burning steam plant with a 785-foot smokestack, the struggle escalated. Proponents touted the promise of lower taxes, but those who lived near the river rebelled. They formed activist groups and held emotional hearings that gained national attention. The St. Croix became the poster child for great rivers that, as one politician said, “died for their country” because of pollution. In response, then-U.S. senators Walter Mondale and Gaylord Nelson drafted the National Scenic Waterway bill. Preservationists were thrilled, but there were those who protested that the legislation gave the government “dictatorial powers over the St. Croix Valley.” Eventually, President Lyndon Johnson backed a  bill that set aside sections of eight rivers across the country for protection. Mondale made sure the St. Croix was one of them.

Today, the St. Croix is governed by a patchwork of rules and regulations overseen by various federal, state, and local entities. The section north of Stillwater is governed—and some of it owned—by the National Park Service. South of Stillwater, the DNR has the final say on development.

“The St. Croix above Taylors Falls should have no structures and should look as pristine as it did 3,000 years ago,” says Mondale, who considers his efforts on behalf of the St. Croix among his most important political accomplishments. “The part above Stillwater, the river banks and view from the river should be unchanged. Below Stillwater would be recreational,” with looser laws that would still strictly limit the view of development from the river.

“It’s been a huge success,” Mondale continues. “And we did it at the right time. There were all kinds of plans to change the river into something you’d see out East, with lots of development along it. The pressure on the river has been tremendous. What we have to worry about now is not some sudden bill that changes how the river is managed, but a death by nicks and cuts: One tree down here, one municipality going too far, one more power line or another bridge.”

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