- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Molly Shodeen has protected the St. Croix River for more than three decades.

It’s been her job at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where her official title is area hydrologist.

She prefers “riverkeeper.”

“This river, so close to a large metropolitan area, has it all,” Shodeen said. “It was set aside for everyone to enjoy without loving it to death. It deserves to be there in a protected state for our children and grandchildren to relish all that it has to offer. That is what I committed to in this job.”

To her critics, Shodeen has been an overzealous, inflexible regulator. To her supporters, she has been the river’s angel.

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“She’s been a real source of strength to us,” said former Vice President Walter Mondale, the driving force behind naming the St. Croix River as one of the nation’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers, in 1968.

“She understands this river and the legislation and the role of the states and the importance of communities. She’s had a lifetime of experience.”

Shodeen, who retires June 2, was responsible for getting local units of government to enforce the strict rules regulating structures and the cutting of plants and trees along the river. Since 1981, she has helped cities and Washington County interpret and enforce the protective ordinances adopted at the DNR’s urging, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1AAReOo ) reported.

The ordinances govern the lower 52 miles of the St. Croix — from Taylors Falls, Minnesota, to its confluence with the Mississippi River at Prescott, Wisconsin — a stretch that won congressional protection under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1972.

The restrictions are intended to preserve the bluffs and shoreline and to protect the view from the river. The rules regulate the density, height and color of buildings and prohibit cutting trees that screen structures from view.

“It’s not always fun telling the public, ‘No, Mr. Landowner, you can’t do what you want to do with your property,’” said Steve Johnson, DNR river management supervisor from 1987 to 2004. “It’s not always popular. Some of that work gets pretty contentious. You’re making people awfully angry.”

Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association, said Shodeen was “amazingly durable” as she navigated between local governments and property owners to protect the spirit and intent of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for the Lower St. Croix.

“She was steadfast and unwavering in her common-sense approach to interpreting the laws in the face of landowners and local officials who either were unaware of the rules or wanted the rules modified to serve their own interests,” Ryun said.

“Without a doubt, Molly’s intentions were clear: protect the wild and scenic values of the riverway — for the public good. She was a true friend of the river.”

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Naturally, Shodeen had her critics.

“She created a lot of unnecessary hurdles for property owners to get through,” said Brian Zeller, former Lakeland mayor and current chairman of the Middle St. Croix Water Management Organization.

“I always felt like she was spring-loaded to say ‘No.’ She was never a problem solver. It was very black and white. She was inconsistent and combative at times.”

“I think protection of the river is critical, but it is a river in somewhat of an urban setting,” said former Afton Mayor Dave Engstrom, who also served as a Washington County commissioner and is current president of Friends of Washington County.

“There are existing uses, and people need to have some reasonable benefit from the dollars that they’re spending on their homes.”

But he said Shodeen was conscientious and diligent in her efforts.

“If you love the St. Croix River as is, she’s been the great protector. There are people who will say she hasn’t done enough,” Engstrom said. “But there are people who will say just the opposite — that she’s been the enforcer, and it’s been a really tough, tough position.”

Shodeen remembers how she was struck by the river’s power and beauty during a visit to a river bluff property in the 1980s. It was during a spring flood, and there wasn’t a boat on the water, she said.

“It was so peaceful, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a major river, and it’s just doing what a river does,’” Shodeen said. “That’s one of the things I love about rivers: Nature reigns supreme. You can’t manage rivers like you can manage lakes, for example. No matter how we try to tame rivers, nature does her thing.

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As the DNR’s area hydrologist, one of her biggest cases involved broadcasting executive Rob Hubbard.

After the department rejected Lakeland’s approval of Hubbard’s plans to build a house overlooking the river, the president and chief executive of Hubbard Television Group took his case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which in 2010 ruled the DNR did not have the authority to overturn the city’s approval.

Under the court’s ruling, the DNR now must sue if it wants to change a city’s action.

“The Hubbard case changed the face of regulation on the St. Croix,” Shodeen said. “It’s unfortunate, but (suing a local unit of government) is our only remedy. I would hope that we can work in partnership so that it doesn’t come to that.”

In 2011, the Minnesota Legislature approved a change in state standards for granting variances. The law allowed governments to grant a variance request if the property owner shows “practical difficulties.” It essentially reversed a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling, known as the Krummenacher decision, that had largely eliminated the ability of municipalities to grant variances.

“Those perceived lesser standards … have really changed the way we operate and have changed the way the local units of government operate out there,” Shodeen said.

“Variances are supposed to be hard to get; it’s not supposed to be just a normal paper shuffle. Unfortunately, I think, that’s where we are going. At this point in time, that seems to be the trend. Local units of government are granting the majority of variances and getting very little in return as far as protection or enhancement.”

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Shodeen, a self-proclaimed introvert, said it was difficult to take on such a public and controversial role.

“I certainly never thought my career was going to go this way,” she said. “I’m really a quiet person. I don’t deal that well with confrontation. I really had to develop almost a different personality to take this on, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.

“I had to be able to defend the program and be able to articulate that. I thought it was worth defending, that there was value in it. You’re protecting it for future generations, so that they can have the same experiences that people now or before us had.”

Dealing with critics comes with the territory, she said.

“If everyone liked me, I wouldn’t have been doing my job,” she said. “I think I’ve been consistent, and I think I’ve been fair. I don’t single people out. I apply what there is uniformly — no matter what their name is. I would hope that that is something that people would appreciate about me — that I have been consistent. I always felt like it wasn’t personal, but I think in the last 10 years or so, it has become personal. I think that’s a change. It seems like people are now focusing their criticism on me as a person.”

Shodeen oversaw all public waters and wetlands in Ramsey and Washington counties as part of her job, but she made the St. Croix a top priority. She took a boat tour each year to document changes along the Minnesota shoreline. She snapped and filed thousands of photos “so that years from now, when people want to restore it, then they’ll have a base to go by,” she said.

“Each individual project doesn’t destroy anything, but the cumulative effects of the nicks and cuts does undermine it, does change it over time,” she said.

“That’s simply what is happening. We have to look at the big picture. How do we really want this to play out in our community?”

Most of the people who live along the river “are good stewards and do take care of the balance that is needed to protect the river,” she said.

Her issues have mostly been with newer residents who “don’t know about or don’t understand or were never a part of protecting the values that made this river so special,” she said.

“They want to do their own thing without regulation,” she said. “It’s not your property and what you do to it that makes the resource valuable; it is the resource — the river, in this case — that makes the property valuable. And I would add that living on a highly protected resource makes the property even more valuable, preserving the very reasons people want to be there.”

Shodeen said her successor, Jenifer Sorensen, has her work cut out for her.

“She gets that the river is a really special place. She understands it. She loves it,” Shodeen said. “But I don’t think she is going to be able to spend the time that the St. Croix warrants. She’ll try. I know she’ll try, but I just think that without more assistance, without getting more people in our region, we can’t sustain our effort on the St. Croix.”

Shodeen is proud of the role she played in protecting a “national treasure.”

“It’s still beautiful,” she said. “If you’re looking for undeveloped places, you can still find that on the Lower river. If you’re looking for developed places, you can find that on the river, too. There are huge expanses of shoreline that have been preserved. If you want to put your boat on an island for the weekend, you can do that.

“It serves so many different needs or desires, but it’s for everybody,” she said. “It’s still being preserved for everybody.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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