St. Croix Falls: A Sustainable Community Connected by Trails

Imagine that: Walking through a network of trails from our Wissahickon Farms Country Inn, a rustic private cabin nestled in the woods, to grab dinner in town more than a mile away where the restaurant, Indian Creek Orchard Winery and Grille, features mostly local ingredients to prepare their Elk burgers and homemade sauces and soups. We started our hike on the 98-mile Gandy Dancer State Recreational Trail which passes through an edge of the 30-acre Country Inn property, a property certified by Travel Green Wisconsin.

Given the bears in the area, my son and I had quite the adventure: he made a “bear stick” to defend ourselves on the rare chance we might encounter one. After dinner, we wandered down to Overlook Park, featuring the River Spirit sculpture, before continuing along the riverfront on yet another trail to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Visitors Center – spotting a bald eagle soaring overhead along the way.  Ecopreneurial enterprises filled up many of the storefronts we peaked into downtown.

Getting around town without touching a car is completely possible in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, rightfully earning its moniker, “the city of trails.” While some places aspire to be something they’re clearly not, nor ever have been, St. Croix Falls is a place that features what they have in abundance: their network of walking, jogging, biking and hiking trails – and nature.

In St. Croix Falls’ historic downtown area, you can park the car and spend the rest of the time on foot or bike as you discover a segment of the 1,000-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail or the more than 10 miles of hiking trails in the Interstate State Park. Thanks to the spectacular St. Croix River, stunning coulees and “dalles” (ancient rock outcroppings), the community has emerged from its extractive history as a logging town and fur trading post to one of the premier places in the Midwest for the enjoyment of the outdoors, on foot, bike or in a kayak on the river.

The City of St. Croix Falls has provided both the inspiration and commitment to helping preserve the sense of place that has both attracted many to settle in the community of just over 2,000 and helped provide economic opportunity in a restoration economy for those who’ve always called the small town home. The City of St. Croix Falls now owns and stewards about 1,000 acres of forestland, prairie, and other habitat.

“The City of St. Croix Falls came to realize that preserving what we have, these beautiful bluffs and trails, is the most authentic expression of community,” explains Ed Emerson, administrator of the City of St. Croix Falls. “By preserving our unique sense of place we also create an environment where people want to visit, so it becomes an effective marketing tool as well.”

Additional parks in St. Croix Falls are owned and managed by the State of Wisconsin or federally protected and managed under the National Park System as the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway (all 252 miles of it) thanks to the steadfast work by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota. Even the Nature Conservancy has helped preserve 91 acres for recreation and conservation – within the city limits.

To help fund the conservation and preservation work, the City of St. Croix Falls has a commercial space ordinance that requires a fee of $1 per square foot with the funds collected being utilized to purchase and preserve green space. With the 240,000 square foot Super Wal-Mart, the City of St. Croix Falls secured $240,000 that was used to leverage funds from other sources to create what is now a 750-acre contiguous preserve on the city’s northern edge. These lands are home to black bear, coyote, deer and other fauna and flora. The City also requires “big box” stores to pay an outdoor sculpture fee of $50,000. These funds were used for the River Spirit sculpture we enjoyed downtown.

“The community advocated, rather professionally, that if we were going to allow big box stores, it would have to be in a manner that would enhance and preserve the character of the community,” says Emerson. “We implemented one of the strongest commercial space ordinances  in the nation, modeled after Boulder, Colorado. We went a step further so that all commercial space over 10,000 square feet is a conditional use. This empowers the community to negotiate from a position of strength. If big box stores want in, they have to meet certain standards. So far, it has successfully balanced business and preservation and has enabled us to be a rather dynamic community.”

St. Croix Falls celebrates the rich heritage and magnificence of the St. Croix River itself and the warmly interconnected, and increasingly artistic, community. Unveiled July of 2007, the Spirit of the Saint Croix River, a bronze, life-sized sculpture created by a local artist Julieann Stage, weaves together the themes of wind, water and nature while honoring the river itself. Being a community affair, some residents served as models for parts of the sculpture and the City of St. Croix Falls commissioned the sculpture, placed, appropriately enough, at the foot of the scenic overlook. Stage was born and raised in St. Croix Falls.

“The city also commissioned a graduate thesis which recommended the city focus on ‘arts, culture, and nature,’” continues Emerson, who, in fact, can trace his family roots back to the acclaimed philosopher and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “So the City of St. Croix Falls wanted to encourage its burgeoning artists and writers, be an authentic expression of who we are, and preserve unique woodlands and bluffs in partnership with the Ice Age Trail Foundation.” Attuned to being authentic, the community recognized that focusing on the falls made little sense since the rapids that once passed by St. Croix Falls were lost when a hydro electric dam transformed this waterway in 1912.

Before leaving, we stopped by the soon-to-be-completed public library — destined to become LEED certified with its passive building design and rooftop solar thermal system. Written on the walls of a water garden adjacent to the library is a quote from Gaylord Nelson, who, himself, grew up only miles from St. Croix Falls: “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

In the case of St. Croix Falls, however, residents and ecotravelers alike can delight in these spectacular environs knowing that both their taxes and the use of the trails are, in fact, making the world a better place for all.

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