St. Louis River
Over the last decade, gateway communities have realized that protecting and restoring their local river encourages recreation, connects the community to the river and creates an economic engine for the region. To illustrate the benefits communities have discovered by protecting and restoring local rivers, American Rivers developed a series of case studies highlighting gateway communities and how they have benefited from local river and land conservation.
Named “Best Recreation Town” by Outside Magazine in 2014, connection to the outdoors is a way of life in this Northern Minnesota community. With deep historical ties to the St. Louis River, its estuary, and nearby Lake Superior, citizens of Duluth are committed to the health of their river and the many benefits it holds for them.
Duluth, MN, population 86,000, is a historic port city on the western arm of Lake Superior. Located at the mouth of the St. Louis River, Duluth enjoys a deep connection to shipping, and both the river and Lake Superior have always been an essential element of the local way of life but have not always been treated as such.
The river was historically the scene of improper municipal and industrial waste disposal activities, and unchecked land use practices contributed to its degraded health. However, while pollution was unchecked, it was not illegal for companies to dump waste into the river. The Clean Water Act regulated pollution and allowed municipalities to appropriately deal with sewage and waste, and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District was established, reducing mercury and other pollution from entering the River. At the end of the 20th Century, the St. Louis River was listed as an area of concern by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This binational agreement between the United States and Canada was designed to improve the Great Lakes and the St. Louis river’s health.
While shipping and industry continues to play an important role in the local economy, recreation has also had a seat at the table in northern Minnesota. Home to over 11,000 acres of green space, and nearly 300 miles of paved, unpaved and multi-use trails, Duluth has prioritized multiple forms of recreation throughout the city, nearby Lake Superior, and along the St. Louis River. In addition to land-based trails, Duluth and the St. Louis estuary is the terminus of the St. Louis River State Water Trail. Legislatively designated by the state of Minnesota in 1967, it one of the oldest Water Trails in the nation and is the beginning of the Lake Superior State Water Trail, established in 1993. With improvements in access to the St. Louis River, Duluth has solidified its relationship to the river, prioritizing recreational amenities and development of the water trail, and enriching the experience for all users.
The health of the St. Louis River, with its connection to Lake Superior through the St. Louis River estuary, is critical to the well-being of Duluth. When the St. Louis River was listed as an area of concern by the EPA as part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a roadmap to river recovery and delisting was developed. Since then, Duluth along with its partners in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, have experienced significant improvements to the river corridor and estuary. As required by the EPA, The St. Louis River Alliance was formed to provide the citizen’s input into the process.
“The St. Louis River is the lifeblood of our community and Lake Superior. There is great momentum being built as we see positive results of the restoration. As people re-build their relationship to the River, we will continue to see an impact on our quality of life as well. There is a sense of hope renewed that the vitality of the river is pulsing back to life,” said St. Louis River Alliance Executive Director, Kris Eilers.
The Alliance, along with stakeholders including city officials in Duluth, MN and Superior, WI, state representatives from Minnesota and Wisconsin, federal agencies, the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and various nonprofits, participated in the process. Upgrades to local infrastructure, remediation of polluted land and water, and restoration and protection of critical river habitat, are just a subset of the multi-disciplinary solutions addressed by the collaboration.
According to Hansi Johnson of the Minnesota Land Trust, “Most people think of Duluth as a town on Lake Superior. But it’s more than that. Duluth is a river town. The St. Louis River has worked tirelessly to provide a quality life for the people who have lived along its banks. Unfortunately we have not always reciprocated that effort.”
As Duluth has recognized the positive impact a healthy St. Louis River could have on the economy, habitat conservation was prioritized as a part of the roadmap to restore the St. Louis River. Improvements have included the protection of Clough Island, the centerpiece of the St. Louis River estuary and vital to wildlife habitat and recreation; creation of sturgeon spawning habitat as well as water bird habitat; protection of 6,500 square miles of habitat in the St. Louis Streambank Protection Area. As a cornerstone of this effort, restoration of Tallas Island significantly improved local habitat. In 2004, after years of sediment loading from nearby Knowlton Creek, restoration efforts began on the island by removing 53,000 cubic yards of sediment, reconnecting Knowlton Creek and the St. Louis River. This effort also created two new pools for fish and bird habitat and restored surrounding wetlands.
While the City of Duluth and its partners have done great work to restore the St. Louis River and estuary, the fight to protect this critical ecosystem continues. American Rivers listed the St. Louis River in the Most Endangered Rivers list in 2015 due to the threat of sulfide-ore mining. In early 2016, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided to allow the mining project to move forward to the permitting stage. However, citizens of Minnesota continue to fight against the mining proposition as they recognize the importance of a clean and healthy river.
Transformation to Popular Outdoor Recreation Destinations
Recreation has long been at the heart of Duluth, as proximity to the river and Lake Superior provides many outdoor opportunities. In 1967, with the designation of the St. Louis River Water Trail, dedicated funding for enhanced river recreation was allocated, new access points and campgrounds were built, and a recreation map was created.
Supported by the University of Minnesota — Duluth, access points, hiking and biking trails, and recreation information hubs provide residents and visitors with information to better enjoy the river and surrounding open space. Water quality has also rebounded since the restoration efforts began and water infrastructure was improved. More recently, fishing has gained prominence, as improvements in local fish populations has drawn anglers to the waters of Duluth. These additions, as well as conservation improvements have further improved recreational opportunities around the city.
“After years of unfortunate neglect, the people of the Duluth and the Superior region value the river as a resource. By preserving and restoring the river and its recreational experience in the city, the St. Louis River is thriving. The river is positively impacting our lives, our community’s psyche as well as our economy,” says Hansi Johnson.
In 2015, the City of Duluth reaffirmed its commitment to protecting the river and estuary, and enhancing recreation, by passing a $50 million Outdoor Recreation Plan. As a part of this plan a one-half percent sales tax prioritized development of the riverfront along the St. Louis River.
“We’re doing it in a way that is really providing for the needs of longtime residents,” said city councilor, Joel Sipress. “We’re investing in a whole lot of things that people who’ve been born and raised in the western part of the city have been wanting for a long time, but in an attractive way for residents and new visitors.”
Recreational enthusiasts have long understood how Duluth contributes to the recreation economy in Minnesota. When Outside Magazine listed Duluth as the “Best Recreation Town” in 2014, it topped 64 other communities nationwide for the honor. The change Duluth has experienced in the last few decades, with a revitalized commitment to the river and recreation, helped to spur this victory.
Former Duluth mayor Don Ness proclaimed, “We proudly highlighted world-class outdoor recreation and natural beauty that compared favorably to much larger and much more popular cities across the nation.”