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St. Croix area seeks national recognition

Citizen’s from around the 8,000-square-mile St. Croix watershed are seeking Congressional recognition as a national heritage area to coordinate historic, tourism and economic development in the region that includes southern Douglas County. (Jed Carlson/

It’s going to take an act of Congress to bring national recognition to the St. Croix watershed.

For five years, a group of citizens have been working toward a proposal to do just that. Now, they’re ready to share their work with the public.

The proposed 8,000-square mile St. Croix National Heritage Area includes parts of southern Douglas County.

“Around five years ago, there was a group of citizens from around the basin that got together to explore the possibility of developing a national heritage area within the entirety of the St. Croix watershed,” said Jason Laumann of Northwest Regional Planning.

Laumann said the group used a variety of methods to gauge support for the proposal.

Northwest Regional Planning Commission is the coordinating agency to oversee federal funds associated with a national heritage area.

The group developed a feasibility study to provide the justification for making the St. Croix watershed a national heritage area.

The area is of national significance, said Danette Olsen, spokeswoman and member of the Heritage Initiative Task Force. Olsen said the citizen task force spent eight months just determining if the region should undertake the effort.

“For any region getting that Congressional designation one of the greatest advantages is a sense of regional identity and regional pride, and being able to work across sectors … a sense of heritage tourism. In most regions, one of the hardest things to do is work across sectors.”

The heritage area would focus on natural and cultural resources, and it is advantageous when people can work together, Olsen said. She said right now, there is nothing to connect people across the 8,000 square miles of the region, and having the communications in place to work together strategically and could eliminate “accidental” competition.

Plus, it provides federal funding, including $150,000 to develop a management plan and additional funding to execute plans.

“That opportunity to bring federal funding back home, to help local citizens make their plans and execute their program plans is nice,” Olsen said. “Most heritage areas actually leveraged 5-1 so that’s wonderful incentive.”

National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. Through local resources, they tell nationally important stories that celebrate the nation’s diverse heritage.

“The entire region is representative of a north woods lifestyle, if you will,” Laumann said. “It is representative in a national context. Second, is of course, the Native American history, and how that is still alive within this basin. The third piece is the logging industry and the impact that logging industry had on the growth and development of large cities in the upper Midwest.”

Olsen acknowledged she is a bit biased, but the region’s ties to the French fur trade, logging industry and Native American history all make the St. Croix basin a strong candidate for the Congressional designation.

“The big, big strengths are the depth and quality of the stories of national significance we have to tell,” Olsen said. “It’s one thing to tell a story, but it’s another thing to actually have evidence of that story. We have many local heritage assets to help tell the story.”

Then there is the natural resources and history of the Ojibwe and Dakota people, and the conservation ethic that developed in the region.

Olsen said while the beaver population nearly was decimated, and the landscape was denuded, the region consciously attends to the conservation of the resources today.

“We are the region where the founder of Earth Day (Gaylord Nelson) was born,” Olsen said.

After five years of work, the task force has completed its feasibility study and the process is now in a period of public review. Citizens have until June 30 to weigh in on the study as Northwest Regional Planning is working on the legislative side of the equation.

“It’s very important to read the study and engage in the conversation,” Olsen said. She said it’s also the public’s opportunity to make sure the story is accurate.

“One of the most important things for people to know is that heritage areas are completely, locally controlled,” Olsen said. “Local citizens sit at the helm. These efforts allow no regulatory authority. This is about heritage tourism and economic development that is connected to our heritage.”

For information or to comment on the study, visit Comments can be submitted online or send them to or mail to Heritage Initiative, c/o St. Croix Valley Foundation, 516 Second St., Suite 214, Hudson, WI 54016.