With the passing of Vice President Walter Mondale on April 19, 2021, many of us who care about rivers—and the St. Croix, in particular—were sad to say goodbye to a true champion. At Agate, we couldn’t think of a better tribute than to reflect on his own words, from a 2017 essay he wrote as an introduction to the book, ST. CROIX & NAMEKAGON RIVERS—The Enduring Gift. This beautiful book was created by photographer Craig Blacklock, whose images capture these protected rivers in all their grand and subtle glory. It was published on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of congressional enactment of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, legislation co-authored by then-Senator Mondale and Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.
Thank you to Craig Blacklock for granting permission to share this excerpt of the essay with Agate’s readers, along with selected photographs from the book showcasing life along the rivers that Walter Mondale helped to preserve.
The Enduring Gift, by Vice President Walter F. Mondale
The St. Croix has been part of my life for over sixty years. I grew up in Elmore, a small farming community in southern Minnesota, and learned of the St. Croix while attending Macalester College in St. Paul.
My first river trip was in the early 1950s with Joan on one of our first dates. I recall we rented a canoe and floated from Osceola, Wisconsin, to Minnesota’s William O’Brien State Park. She packed a lunch and we stopped along the way at a sandbar. It was a marvelous day on a beautiful river. I credit the St. Croix in large part for nurturing our relationship. We were married in 1955 and before we moved to Washington, enjoyed taking our young kids to the St. Croix to explore the rocks and potholes of Interstate Park and all this magnificent river has to offer.
During my tenure as Minnesota attorney general, the Northern States Power Company (NSP), now Excel Energy, proposed a large, coal-fired power plant south of Stillwater, Minnesota, located along the St. Croix, commencing one of the first environmental battles in our state. The construction of that plant was a prelude to a dialogue with NSP a few years later, regarding the protection of the upper St. Croix River.
At the time, a Minnesota legislator and lawyer, Wendell R. “Wendy” Anderson, represented the Save Our St. Croix citizen group opposing this plant. Wendy was elected governor in 1970. During his time in office, Governor Anderson advocated and signed more legislation to protect natural resources than any other governor—several motivated in part by that power plant dispute on the St. Croix.
When I became a U.S. Senator in 1964, I joined Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson in sponsoring legislation to protect the St. Croix River for future generations. He had grown up in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, on a tributary to the river, and its protection was one of his lifelong priorities. He became not only my colleague, but also a dear friend.
Senator Nelson and I worked together for several years on St. Croix legislation. We went to many meetings with landowners along the river and conferred with NSP, which owned thousands of acres on the upper St. Croix. It was sometimes a rocky road, involving several versions of the bill, but our objective was always to preserve as much of this fragile northwoods river as possible.
In January 1965, Nelson testified at a hearing of the Minnesota Conservation Department urging the state to protect the St. Croix for recreation. He traveled to Stillwater at his own expense and gave one of the best speeches of this long career—as governor, senator, and leader of The Wilderness Society—about preserving the St. Croix River.
Two hundred thirty river miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon were protected in 1968 as part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The St. Croix and Namekagon were in the first group of eight designated rivers and the only rivers at that time managed by the National Park Service. The wilderness-like upper St. Croix would not have been available for protection without the stewardship of NSP.
I remember October 2, 1968, when President Johnson signed the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which became Public Law 90-542. Its purpose statement is as relevant today as fifty years ago: “to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”
A pen from that signing resides in the archives of the National Park Service’s Visitor Center in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. Another 52 river miles—from Taylors Falls, Minnesota, to the confluence of the mighty Mississippi River in Prescott, WI—were added in 1972, with the lower 25 miles managed by the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Between these 1968 and 1972 St. Croix legislative milestones, awareness changed in the United States of the many environmental challenges facing our economy and quality of life. The Environmental Protection Agency was established, Nelson proposed the first Earth Day, and the Environmental Policy, Clean Air, and Clean Water Acts were enacted—all signed by President Nixon. Limits to Growth, and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb were published, both more relevant today than when first released.
Additional rivers were added across the country over the intervening decades to this incredible system of wild, scenic, and recreational rivers. Today, there are over 12,700 miles of protected rivers in forty states. What a legacy for future generations! But a legacy requiring stewardship and diligence.
As Craig Blacklock says, “for environmental victories to endure, each generation must defend them against new threats. It only takes one loss for all previous generations’ forethought and generosity to be lost forever.”
I remained active in ensuring the protection and management of the St. Croix during my tenure in the Senate and later, as vice president. And I have always supported that finest of federal agencies, the National Park Service.
Joan and I purchased a cabin on the river bluff in Scandia, Minnesota, in 1992 near the historic Cedar Bend. It has been a source of joy and solitude for our family ever since. When I was ambassador to Japan and came back to Minnesota on leave, we stayed at the river cabin. Our children and grandchildren have grown to know and love this river.
I sit on my deck and listen for the sound of the wooden canoe paddles hitting the metal gunnels in the river valley. Songbirds, sandhill cranes, and trumpeter swans join with the laughter of young and old enjoying this river. An important heron rookery is just up river from our spot as is a large bat cave. Eagles, red-tailed hawks, and other raptors cruise over the valley.
The river communities of Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, and Osceola, Wisconsin, are close by—both served by steamboats in the late 1800s. A few miles further north are the Dalles of the St. Croix River, as are two of the eight state parks along the St. Croix, both named Interstate Park, on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
When I drive from Minneapolis to our St. Croix retreat, every mile I am closer to the river, the better I feel. And when I sit on my deck, looking to Wisconsin during the glorious spring, summer or fall seasons, I salute my friend, the late, great senator and governor, Gaylord Nelson. For without Gaylord, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and National Park Service protection of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers would not have happened.
I have been an advocate to ensure these rivers remain clean, scenic, and available for future generations, just as Gaylord and I intended in passing that bill fifty years ago. There have been many battles, some significant. We have won some and lost others. I worry about the cumulative impact of nicks and cuts from unwise development impacting what our children and grandchildren will experience.
Citizens continue to be key protectors for this river and its large watershed, working in an essential partnership with federal, state, and local resource managers. I am pleased that the St. Croix River Association today is the official “friends” group of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. In the years ahead, [Craig Blacklock’s] wonderful book of images will assist citizens and public sector managers alike to make the case to safeguard the St. Croix watershed.
“Save our St. Croix” was a rallying cry more than a half century ago, and still resonates with me today. I hope you will commit to doing your part in protecting this wonderful and diverse resource, so close to a major and growing metropolitan area. It so deserves our support.
Walter F. Mondale, October 2017
Tia Nelson, daughter of Gaylord Nelson, remembering Walter Mondale
Walter Mondale was among the most honorable public officials to serve this country. He was a friend and a mentor. I loved him deeply. He represented integrity beyond reproach, dedication to many good and important causes in the best interest of our citizenry, and played a critical role in ensuring the long-term protection of the St. Croix River as a national treasure.
He often joked that my father roped him into many hard battles in the U.S. Senate, but he said they inevitably became some of his proudest accomplishments. One of his funnier jokes was that Papa didn’t tell him until after he’d enlisted him to sponsor the designation of the St Croix under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that most of the opposition was on HIS (Mondale’s) side of the river. He told the story often, always followed by a big laugh and broad smile.
He was a fine and dear friend to both of my parents, and the feeling went both ways. When my mother passed away in March this year, Fritz called and left me a message offering his condolences, saying there were no words he could summon for how special she had been to him. It was the kind of person he was, to reach out to comfort me when he was just weeks away from his own passing.
I will save and treasure these words for all time, just as I will never forget all of his good deeds and the enduring accomplishments of a life well-lived in service to others.
Tia Nelson, April 2021
Agate wishes to thank Tia Nelson and Craig Blacklock for their contributions to this feature. There is so much more to savor in the book, ST. CROIX & NAMEKAGON RIVERS—The Enduring Gift. To hold it in your own hands, ask for it at your local library, or order one of three available editions through the Blacklock Gallery.