Background and overview of the Lower St. Croix Riverway

scene of canoe on saint croix river


The Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is comprised of the lower 52 miles of the St. Croix River, extending between Taylors Falls, Minnesota and the confluence with the Mississippi River. The Lower St. Croix was added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Program by Congress in 1972, following the designation of the Upper St. Croix and Namekogan Rivers, north of Taylors Falls, in 1968.

The Saint Croix River has remarkable scenic characteristics, recreational opportunities, and may be the most species-rich waterbody in the Upper Mississippi River basin (111 fish and 41 mussel species documented). It has exceptional water quality and is an outstanding fishery.

To preserve the scenic character, the riverway management strategy aims to accommodate for “limited, planned, development that is consistent with the historic character of the communities” (Cooperative Management Plan, 2002). The river’s close proximity to the Twin Cities metro area makes it continuously vulnerable to intensive land use development and recreational impacts.

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Overview of Lower Riverway Management

Cooperative Management
Unlike most other designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Lower St. Croix adjoins private lands under many different jurisdictions. It was the first federally-designated Wild and Scenic River that is managed cooperatively by federal, state, and local entities. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have established special riverway zoning regulations based on the original master plan. Local governments along the lower riverway enforce these regulations through ordinances meeting the state standards.


To further guide this relationship, a cooperative agreement was established between the Minnesota DNR, Wisconsin DNR, National Park Service to guide the planning and coordination of the riverway management. The Lower St. Croix Management Commission is a policy-making board that consists of representatives from each of these three agencies, and is tasked with implementing the Lower St. Croix River Act of 1972 as well as the Master Plan for the riverway. The 2002 Cooperative Management Plan established the Lower St. Croix Partnership Team, which evaluates local decision making in the riverway, and also serves on the Management Commission in a nonvoting capacity.
Land Use Regulations

See Land Use Regulations in the Lower St. Croix Riverway

Upper Riverway vs. Lower Riverway

The Lower St. Croix Riverway was federally designated separately from the Upper St. Croix Riverway, which includes the portions of the river north of Taylor's Falls, up to the headwaters of the St. Croix and Namekogen Rivers. The upper riverway was established by Congress four years prior to the Lower Riverway, and was among the first eight rivers added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Program. Together, they are the only two federal river designations in the state of Minnesota.

The lower riverway was designated separately and is managed differently than the upper riverway. The upper riverway is managed entirely by the National Park Service through the federal ownership of deed holdings and scenic easements. The lower riverway relies on strict enforcement of local zoning ordinances throughout its length, whereas no riverway-specific zoning regulations exist in the upper riverway. The lower riverway is further broken into two different management zones. The areas north of Stillwater make up the “Federal Management Zone,” which benefits from significant federal landholdings. The areas from Stillwater and south make up the “State Managed Zone,” which is entirely dependent on each local government’s effective administration of their zoning ordinances.

The lower riverway is also different as it relates to regulations for watercraft speeds and type. The types of restrictions are much broader and different within the lower riverway.

Scenic Easements

The National Park Service holds a significant amount of fee-simple title and scenic easements in the lower riverway. These landholdings are exclusively concentrated in the Federally Managed Zone, between Taylors Falls and Stillwater. Scenic easements are on private land, but limit allowable use, activity, and development rights. They are primarily designed to preserve the scenic impacts based on what can be seen from the water, by influencing things such as building height, building placement, and vegetation removal. The states possess a limited amount of scenic easements in the State Managed Zone as well, but to a far lesser extent than the National Park Service. Landowners or prospective homebuyers should be aware of any easements on their land, as any development or activities must comply with the terms of those easements.

  • NPS NPS DataStore
  • MN DNR’s Easement GIS data available upon request
Boating Restrictions on the Lower St. Croix River

The Lower Riverway has a number of regulations that guide boat speed and type. These have been established In Minnesota Rules (parts 6105.0300 through 6105.0550), as well as through policies adopted by the Lower St. Croix Management Commission. See Boat Speeds on the Lower St. Croix River


History of the Riverway

Timeline of Historic Riverway Protections

1906 – The Minneapolis General Electric Company establishes a hydroelectric plant in St. Croix Falls, WI. Later operated by Northern States Power (NSP), they begin to acquire significant landholdings along the riverway in anticipation of a larger dam, or dams.

1950s – A time period of aggressive dam construction by the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation. Glen Canyon Dam is approved in 1956. Many hydroelectric projects are constructed, including two proposed along the St. Croix. All of this drives considerable advocacy for river protection and draws attention to the St. Croix.

1963 – National river protection first proposed at the federal level. A study was initiated by the secretaries of agriculture and interior for a plan to preserve a national system of rivers.

1964 - Allen S. King plant in Oak Park Heights, operated by Northern States Power is approved. This brings further attention to the St. Croix River.

1965 – Minnesota Wisconsin Boundary Area Commission is established through interstate compact. The six members are appointed by the governors of each state and work through each state's Legislative Advisory Committees. They have an advisory role only, but maintain full time staff. Senators Gaylord Nelson (WI) and Walter Mondale (MN) introduce a bill to establish the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway.

1967 - Senators Nelson (WI) and Mondale (MN) again introduce a bill to establish the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway. Companion House bill introduced by Representative Joseph Karth (MN).

1968 – In the lower riverway, the King Plant goes online, and a number of other impactful developments are proposed. The Army Corps of Engineers builds support for a large hydroelectric dam. The “Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” is authorized through Public Law 90-542, which immediately established protections for eight rivers – including the upper St. Croix Riverway.

1969 – Northern States Power, who grew to become one of the biggest advocates for riverway protection, sign an agreement to donate approximately 25,000 acres of St. Croix waterfront to the federal government and two states, provided they begin management of the land within three years after title is transferred. Within the lower riverway, the state donations make up what are now Interstate State Parks.

1972 – The “Lower St. Croix River Act of 1972” is authorized through Public Law 92-560, which amended the original “Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.” This was signed into law on October 25, 1972, and appropriated funds for acquisition and development of property, provided for state responsibilities, and required that the states and federal government jointly prepare a ‘comprehensive master plan.’ The Lower St. Croix was the 10th federally designated river segment.

1973 - Master plan is completed, but the National Environmental Policy Act (1972) had recently been adopted. It is determined that an EIS is required, which delays implementation. The federal government and states of Minnesota and Wisconsin enter into a cooperative agreement, which established the Lower St. Croix Management Commission (LSCMC). Staff from the Minnesota-Wisconsin Boundary Area Commission are tasked with supporting riverway management and this new policy-making body.

1974 – Governor Wendell Anderson signs Executive Order 74-86 establishing Critical Area protections for the Lower Riverway, which serve as interim development regulations until the rules were adopted.

1976 - Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Master Plan officially goes into effect. Land use rules, developed by the Minnesota Bureau of Planning, were put into effect shortly thereafter, through NR 2200-2202.

1977 – Lower St. Croix boat speed regulations go into effect.

1978 - LSCMC established a policy to guide future changes to boat speed regulations. LSCMC updates boat speed regulations.

1981 - LSCMC updates boat speed regulations.

1983 – LSCMC makes a number of minor boundary amendments, and are published in the Federal Register.

1984 - LSCMC updates boat speed regulations.

1987 - LSCMC updates boat speed regulations.

1991 - LSCMC updates boat speed regulations.

1993 - LSCMC voted to endorse the National Park Service's proposal to update the Master Plan, which officially kicks off the planning for what is to become the Cooperative Management Plan.

1996 - LSCMC updates boat speed regulations.

1996 - Lower St. Croix Planning Task Force was established to guide the development of the Cooperative Management Plan. Task force meet 54 times between 1996 and 1998.

2001 - Cooperative Management Plan approved by LSCMC. Plan establishes a framework for updated regulations and also establishes the Lower St. Croix Riverway Partnership Team. The MWBAC is dissolved this same year.

2002 – Wisconsin updates their Riverway Rules (NR 118) following the adoption of Plan. Minnesota's rulemaking effort was unsuccessful.

2004 – LSCMC updates boundary within the City of Bayport.

2010 – MN Supreme Court’s Hubbard decision. This decision eliminated the state requirement for variances to be certified by the DNR.

2012 – On March 1 President Obama signs legislation accommodating for the Stillwater bridge replacement under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Other resources


  • Matt Bauman, Central Office LSCR Program Lead, 651-259-5710
  • Dan Scollan,Washington County Area Hydrologist, 651-259-5732
  • Craig Wills, Chisago County Area Hydrologist, 763-284-7221


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