Visit ParkNet NPS Geographic Information Systems National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
[Go Back]

Scenic Quality Analysis in the St. Croix River Valley

Saint Croix/Lower St. Croix NSR
Marianna Young
Imagine yourself gliding quietly in a canoe down a flowing river, with towering walls of ancient basalt rising out of the river on either side. Soon the view opens up into a wide, ancient glacially carved valley, where you see a great blue heron rise up from the shoreline and a bald eagle soaring overhead.

This view, and many others like it, are what the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, and its sister unit, the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, were preserved for in 1968 and 1972.

However, as is the case in the vicinity of many other National Park Service units across the country, development pressures are creating threats to the scenic quality both within and outside park boundaries. The pressures take the form of housing developments, hobby farms, gravel pits, commercial strips, and the accompanying infrastructure of roads, telecommunication towers, transmission lines, and more. Over 500 miles of NPS park boundary parallel the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers as they make their way to the confluence with the Mississippi River. These development pressures threaten to fragment important habitat and destroy critical natural, cultural and scenic resources beyond the Riverway boundary.

In 2001 the St. Croix River valley was designated by the Scenic America non-profit organization as a Last Chance Landscape, which places it in a Scenic America-designated category as an “Endangered Landscape”—one of ten nationally designated as such in 2001 (see

This designation led to the formation of the St. Croix Scenic Coalition (SCSC), a non-profit group composed of valley residents, representatives from local units of government, local activists, etc. The National Park Service serves the group in an advisory capacity.

One component of the work of the SCSC is community mapping. This is defined as mapping community assets of the St. Croix River valley from Danbury, Wisconsin to the Mississippi River (a distance of 120+ river miles), and working with citizens and local leaders to define community character and the extent of desired scenic protection.

From January to April 2003, eight daylong community workshops were held along the 120-mile-length of the valley. Attendees included many area residents, as well as county supervisors, township board members, other government officials, and business owners. Presentations during these workshops included one on Scenic Quality Analysis and how the process might be used to help communities identify and prioritize scenic views within the valley. That process is briefly described below as it pertains to a prototype area within the valley.

The first step is to obtain input from area residents about their scenic resources—what overlooks, trails, road corridors, etc. provide high-quality or locally significant views? These features are used as input to the viewshed analysis, which shows the extent of what’s visible from the viewpoints and corridors, and the frequency with which these areas are visible from different locations. Using the results of the viewshed analysis, citizens return to the field and rate each view area using a specified set of evaluation criteria. These ratings, combined with information such as landscape vegetative cover and proximity to viewing point/corridor, are added into the analysis. The resulting product is a visual sensitivity (AKA scenic quality) map, showing those areas of prominent and persistent visibility.

What are some applications for a product such as this? They range from helping a community or local unit of government prioritize lands for conservation, to helping direct land development efforts toward less visually sensitive areas, to assisting in the development of regional ecological corridors. Locally in the St. Croix River valley, the initial application will be to assist interested residents and/or communities with identifying and quantifying their scenic views.

Medium- and long-range, the hope is that these efforts can help mitigate the effects of rapid development partially caused by proximity to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. A community cannot protect the assets that it hasn’t identified. Preserving the character and assets of Riverway communities contributes to the National Park Service mission to protect these resources for future generations.
April 08, 2004