ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Walter Mondale lived and traveled all over the world.
But his favorite place on Earth, he always said, was the St. Croix River.
The former vice president fell in love with the river while canoeing with his future wife in 1955. “I had a girlfriend named Joan Adams,” he told the Pioneer Press in 2015. “We went up to Osceola and canoed down to Marine on St. Croix. Man, did we have a good time. We got engaged after 53 days; that river did its work.”
Thirteen years after that fateful canoe trip, then-U.S. Sen. Mondale and Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson worked to have the St. Croix River designated as one of the nation’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers. The stretch from Taylors Falls, Minnesota, to Prescott, Wisconsin, was added in 1972.
Today, there are 226 Wild and Scenic Rivers - a designation given to only one-half of 1 percent of the nation’s rivers.
Mondale, who died earlier this month at the age of 93 at his home in Minneapolis, called the St. Croix a “national treasure” and considered his work to preserve it among his proudest political accomplishments, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
“The river is magnificent,” he said in the 2015 interview. “It’s a spiritual experience. I’ve always loved that river. Part of the miracle was that it was located next to a major metropolitan area, but it was still largely an untouched river. The communities alongside it were still modest communities. They lived at peace with the river. The river was clean. You could go down that river in a canoe for three or four miles and never see anything.”
Had the St. Croix not been protected in 1968, “you would have seen developments up and down the river,” Mondale said in a 2007 interview. “You would have seen high-rises. You’d have seen marinas. You’d have seen … just name it: Any way to make money on it would have been pursued, and there would have been no way to resist it, unless the local community or the county board would, and it’s very hard for them to do that.”
The Mondales owned a home in Scandia that overlooked the St. Croix; Joan Mondale died in 2014.
“I sit on my deck and listen for the sound of the wooden canoe paddles hitting the metal gunwales in the river valley,” Mondale wrote in the foreword to photographer Craig Blacklock’s book “St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift.” “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.”
Mondale and environmentalists like Sigurd Olson “fought battles ferociously to give protections to the wild places we now take for granted,” Blacklock said.
“All you have to do is look at the many other rivers and lakes in Minnesota to see what happens to shorelines that aren’t protected - they get ringed with homes every 50 feet,” Blacklock said. “It’s ‘No Trespassing’ sign after ‘No Trespassing’ sign, and you go out on the water and you’re looking at docks and boats and homes. Even when you’re paddling the relatively high-population areas near the cities, when you’re on the St. Croix, you’re in a wild spot. It might be city up above the bluffs, but where you are, it’s wild and quiet. We are so indebted to their forward thinking. It’s up to us to carry on those protections.”
Mondale believed the greatest threat to the river was development pressure as a whole, rather than any single fatal blow.
“Bit by bit, through nicks and cuts, they destroy it,” Mondale told the Pioneer Press in 2007. “The biggest threat (to the St. Croix) is the loss of resolve to put the protection of this natural treasure at the highest priority. If you just put it in among other things, it’s just going to get traded away.”
From 1981 to 2015, Molly Shodeen served as area hydrologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where she was responsible for getting local units of government to enforce the strict rules regulating structures and the cutting of plants and trees along the St. Croix River.
“Fortunately for us, Fritz was a legislator during a time when lawmakers who had big-picture, visionary and far-reaching ideas could work together to get things done,” Shodeen said. “His dedication and foresight will forever benefit the people of Minnesota and beyond. In his honor, we cannot let the ‘nicks and cuts’ he was concerned about become fissures and scars.”
One of Mondale’s biggest regrets was not being able to get the river’s “federal zone,” which encompasses the entire St. Croix River north of Stillwater and is under National Park Service management, extended to the confluence of the Mississippi River at Prescott, said longtime friend Peter Gove, former chairman of the St. Croix River Association.
South of Stillwater, the river is managed by the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs and local governments, but the “agencies face intense pressure from some property owners who desire zoning variances to renovate or build new structures,” Gove said. “Everyone loves the river, but they’d like a little bigger house, a little closer to the river, with a few less trees.”
Mondale was furious when Congress amended the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 2012 “to allow the big bridge to be built,” Gove said, referring to the bridge between Oak Park Heights and Houlton, Wis., that opened in 2017. “That was very hard on him,” he said. “I’m not sure he ever went across that bridge. I doubt he did.”
But Mondale was encouraged by the news that Xcel Energy plans to shutter the Allen S. King coal-fired power plant by 2028.
“Fritz won’t see it, but maybe within 10 years, there will be a couple of boat launches there and a park and maybe an environmental education center, versus a big coal pile with a lot of coal dust and a huge stack,” Gove said.
Mondale’s condominium in downtown Minneapolis overlooked the Stone Arch Bridge and the Mississippi. “I used to tell him, ‘You’re a bi-river guy,’ ” Gove said. “He loved rivers. He loved being on the river and seeing the changing dynamics of that river. One of his biggest complaints last spring, when he was shut in, was that he couldn’t get out to go fishing.”
John Kaul, a lobbyist, photographer and documentary filmmaker who worked with Mondale on a number of St. Croix River-related projects, said Mondale “epitomized what it meant to be a public servant.”
“Often when I was paddling on the St. Croix River, I would text him to thank him for the Wild and Scenic River Act,” Kaul said. “He would always text back and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ He was so proud of that achievement.”
Mondale said he loved boating on the St. Croix on The African Queen, which he called “the oldest pontoon in Western society.”
“We go up and down the river,” he said. “Instead of paying a psychiatrist, I go out there and get better. It’s cheaper.”
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