Riverway Volunteer Program Protects Scenic St. Croix

by | Aug 2023

Aerial view of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Aerial view of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Photo: Craig Blacklock

Meet the two organizations behind an all-new joint Riverway Volunteer Program.

The St. Croix Valley and Riverway may be a treasure to the people who call it home, but did you know our backyard is home to a unit of the National Park Service?

The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was first established in 1968 and is headquartered in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. But even before the riverway was protected under federal law, local residents and volunteers have played a large part in maintaining the health and beauty of the watershed via Osceola-based Wild Rivers Conservancy, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway’s official nonprofit partner.

This year, the two organizations joined forces to reach more people and engage more audiences, merging their volunteer base to create the Riverway Volunteer Program. The program aims to provide meaningful experiences for volunteers to actively conserve and enhance the scenic riverway and to help visitors explore and discover the natural beauty of the region.

To oversee this process, the conservancy has added volunteer coordinator Erika Van Krevelen to its 12-person, year-round staff. “It’s really rewarding to see how dedicated people are,” Van Krevelen says. “We have goals to make this initiative strong, so volunteers have a great experience and bring their friends … We want everyone to feel comfortable and invited to come volunteer and get involved.”

Riverway volunteers can engage in a variety of service opportunities and programming, including river cleanups, habitat restoration, invasive species removal and water quality monitoring. There are also opportunities to participate in education and outreach through various community and school programs and outdoor excursions, like hikes, clean-ups and river paddles.

Longtime volunteer Carol Dahl started kayaking with the conservancy in 2011; as her skills improved, she realized she could share her expertise with others. “I really started to help out with kayaking by helping people get in and out of their kayaks and get them straightened out to go down the river,” she says.

Now, Dahl makes an effort to share her knowledge—and time—with the conservancy at least once a month doing whatever is needed, even if it’s folding mailings. She’s one of nearly 100 active volunteers, who support both organizations year round.

 Students appreciate the sights and sounds of the St. Croix River on the Wild River Journey program.

Students appreciate the sights and sounds of the St. Croix River on the Wild River Journey program. Photo: Wild Rivers Conservancy

The Headwaters

In 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was enacted by the U.S. Congress to protect more than 13,000 rivers and streams in the country, bringing 200 miles of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway—including major St. Croix River tributary, the Namekagon River—under federal protection.

Long before then, in 1911, local volunteers came together to protect the river through cleanups and informational meetings—founding the St. Croix River Association. For the first 98 years of its history, the group focused on river cleanups and informational meetings and was led solely by volunteers. In 2021, the association took on a new name: the Wild Rivers Conservancy and moved to its current offices at the Acreage in Osceola, Wisconsin. “It was really built by volunteers,” Van Krevelen says of the organization. “It wasn’t until 2008–2009 that the first staff was hired. Volunteers are really at the core of the conservancy’s work and continue to be.”

: Volunteers at the Acreage in Osceola, Wisconsin, planting native trees.

: Volunteers at the Acreage in Osceola, Wisconsin, planting native trees. Photo: Kate Wright

Around the Bend

For people passionate about the watershed, there’s a service opportunity through the Riverway Volunteer Program that suits their ability and interests.

“A lot of our volunteer opportunities are for people without any existing knowledge, and they can jump right in,” Van Krevelen says. “And there are also other opportunities that require some training to be able to do that activity … All of the work is very critical.” Riverway volunteers can participate in the following programming types:

  • Education and Outreach: Between the conservancy and the park service, there are always many educational programs in the works. Programming is targeted toward schools, the general public and private groups and organizations from around the region that want to explore and enjoy the river. Volunteers can find themselves out on the river, on a nature walk, snowshoeing or assisting in the conservancy’s Osceola office.
  • Natural Resource Management: Water quality monitors help collect stream data from St. Croix River tributaries. Volunteers also assist in special programs to support various species and environments. Past projects have included a Karner Blue Butterfly assisted migration and the restoration of Arcola Bluffs, a 165-acre parcel north of Stillwater.
  • Invasive Species Management: This group monitors terrestrial and aquatic species through various projects. This is also the first year of the purple loosestrife biocontrol program, which has a goal to engage 50 volunteers over the next three years to raise and release 125,000 galerucella beetles. Over the summer, volunteers raise these beetles that feed solely on the invasive purple loosestrife plant. In late summer, the beetles will be released in priority areas on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix watershed, where they can continue their work to help control purple loosestrife populations.

Also new in 2023 is the Riverway Ambassador program. Ambassadors will be trained volunteers, who serve as stewards of designated sections of the St. Croix or Namekagon rivers and support educational programming and cleanup efforts. Land-based stewardship opportunities will also be available.

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo: Craig Blacklock

Volunteers may find themselves continuing to do so for years and even decades. “Some of these folks have been with us since we hired staff and increased opportunities,” Van Krevelen says. “There are many key players in the volunteer program.”

Dahl keeps returning because of the connections she’s formed with other volunteers and those who enjoy and experience the riverway. “For me, it’s getting to know people and enjoying their company,” she says. “I also love the hugs I get. The students are always giving me hugs.”

Volunteer opportunity coming this fall!

Namekagon River Cleanup Day, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. September 9

Take a day to support the Namekagon River, a tributary of the St. Croix River. Head up to beautiful Hayward, Wisconsin, and join volunteers to pick up trash in and around the river on kayaks, drift boats, cars and on foot. An afterparty will take place in Hayward with local food, prizes and live music. Registration begins at 9 a.m., and the afterparty is from 3– 6 p.m. For more information, visit wildriversconservancy.org/event/namcleanup/

Wild Rivers Conservancy
Facebook: Wild Rivers Conservancy
Instagram: @wildriversconservancy

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
401 N. Hamilton St., St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin; 715.483.2274
Facebook: St. Croix National Scenic Riverway


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