August 5, 2005
Taking the river back from
The Missouri River belongs to the people, and we need to take it back.
For far too long, PR shills for those who stand to make a lot of (taxpayer) money from commercial exploitation of the waterway have gotten away with arguing that when it comes down to what’s good for humans or what’s good for the environment, people should take priority.
But such blandishments are illogical stabs at viscera — defensive, combative, jealous arguments to invalidate the concerns of those who stand in their way.
Fortunately for Missourians, the river has its enthusiasts and they see the river as more than a battle between humans and some fish.
Jeff McFadden is one of them. While he says he’s lost his fight, that fight returns as soon as he begins to talk of the river, its history, and its importance to itself and the humans that inhabit its banks. He’s a wealth of river lore, history and a veritable encyclopedia when it comes to cultural and environmental change on the river.
McFadden, a Coast Guard certified boat captain, used to run a river tour business with his boat, Morningstar, a 24-foot, handmade houseboat. But because he had difficulty getting permits from Kansas City (they didn’t know what to do with him), he had to operate from the lonely river bottom ramp downstream at Lexington, which doomed his business.
McFadden says he put his own money at risk, never asking the public for one dime, and found that the market for his service was limited, particularly when kept out off the Kansas City waterfront by the city and away from river festivals by the Missouri Water Patrol.
And despite his business setback, he advocates with fiery passion for greater citizen participation with their river, arguing that this water is no longer merely a haunt for a few hearty anglers.
McFadden has written extensively about the river and maintains the most informative and historically accurate Internet site about the river (www.longestriver.org). Because he wants people to use the river, he documents with pictures and an eye to detail his trips on the Missouri (www.missouririvertrips.com). For those who want to see the river, but fear the lack and quality of access, camping and facilities (of which there are plenty) — or wildly inaccurate and exaggerated dangers of river travel — his collection of photographs is second to none.
Like McFadden, Mike Cooper is an ardent and untiring Missouri River advocate. He runs a boat landing, campground and marina on the Missouri River south of Columbia near the Katy Trail (www.cooperslanding.net). It’s the only full-service marina between Blair, NE, and the Mississippi River — some 600 miles of river bereft of services for people with boats, paddle craft and Missourians who want to spend time on the river bank.
Cooper’s a keyed-up individualist. A conversation with him is exciting, informative and filled with the kind of anger that a man who’s seen his river damaged. He ardently and passionately argues that the Missouri River should not be a corporate-exploited resource, but a cultural and social resource important to humans and the fauna and flora of the riverine environment. His is not a self-righteous and indignant fury, but one that feeds his enthusiasm for river advocacy and for the rights of entrepreneurs and citizens to have a river free from the auspices of greater authorities serving corporate interests.
A level of calm exists at Cooper’s Landing that belies Mike’s A+ personality, allowing democratic access to the river’s quiet beauty. With such perks as an oversized koi pond, Chim’s Thai Kitchen, Mike’s own grill specialties, and possibly the best import beer selection on the Missouri River, the marina and campgrounds have become a Mecca for all manner of river devotee — from the houseboat inhabitants to college students to travelers of the Katy Trail.
Besides giving people reasons to experience the river, Cooper is heavily involved with Columbia-based Missouri River Relief, a nonprofit river education and river cleanup organization (www.riverrelief.org). River Relief puts citizens into direct contact with the river some four to five times a year with river cleanups and educational days that get people to the banks, on the water and show them what a good time a river can be.
The Relief brings together some surprising allies in the effort to get people involved with the river. With full-time river enthusiast and environmentalist Chad Pregracke (whose life is dedicated to his nonprofit Living Lands and Waters, www.livinglandsandwaters.org), the organization regularly enlists (and gets) the help of the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri departments of Natural Resources and Conservation, Bass Pro Shops, river shipping interests and the Mid-America Regional Council.
This year, Missouri River Relief has sponsored river cleanups and educational events at the Blue River in Kansas City, Cooper’s Landing and at the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
On Sept. 24, the organization will sponsor a cleanup from Boonville to Rocheport, headquartering at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Franklin Island Access just east of Boonville. Closer to home, Missouri River Relief will work from Kaw Point Park on Oct. 8. Educational seminars are scheduled with local schools and open to all comers the day before each event.
River cleanups are special. Department of Conservation agents ferry people — many for their first time on the river — to pre-scouted sites along the riverbank to heft all manner of trash and debris for recycling and disposal at landfills. Now, hauling trash may sound rather dreary but Missouri River Relief gets people’s feet wet. They get to see the river’s beauty and how human irresponsibility affects it, reinforcing the notion that they are part of the riverine environment and not separate from it.
The Missouri River is made up of hundreds of tributary streams, all of which affect the water quality and physical environment of the larger river. The Little Blue River Watershed Coalition (www.littleblueriverwc.org) works to maintain river quality and advocates for low-impact development along the Little Blue River in eastern Jackson County. Since the water in the Missouri arrives via rivers like the Little Blue, this group of energetic people understands that when the tributaries are healthy, so are the larger streams. The Coalition is often involved with Missouri River Relief in river cleanups and educational events.
It’s unfortunate that Kansas Citians have become so separated from their river and have such a bad attitude toward it (if they have any at all). But the local media, and city and state governments have left them to ponder the falsehoods. Lies, deceit, perpetuation of river myth and lazy reporting work for the few who stand to feed at the public trough. It works for politicians (like U.S. Sen. Kit Bond) who make a living from filling the trough. In short, the myth of a dirty, dangerous river keeps people off the water and out of the hair of some very savvy capitalists.
A few organizations are active in dispelling the myth, however, and telling the truth of how corporate endeavor has closed the river from its people. The Sierra Club has become an advocate for the health of the Missouri through its affiliate chapters. The Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club maintains an informative Web page centered on the health of the riverine environment. Along with the Sierra Club Eastern Missouri Group and the Thomas Hart Benton Group (located in Kansas City), the information the Sierra Club provides about environmental issues facing the Missouri are invaluable to truth seekers.
All these people and organizations are important in reconnecting people with a reality larger than an interstate commute across the river. Such connections act against government and private sector corruption. But the more citizens pay attention to their river, the fewer industrial corporations get away with using the river to dispose of their waste. Cities and towns have to cease releases of substandard and untreated wastewater into it. Landfills have to do their jobs correctly and mitigate the effluvia of our consumer culture before it hits the little creeks and rivers that flow into the Missouri.
But there’s little to stand in the way of that kind of behavior, except these advocates for a healthy river (and a healthy people). The daily irresponsibly publishes PR reports for the commercial barge industry — two and sometimes three shippers whose main concern is keeping enough water flowing through the Missouri to fill the Mississippi River channel between St. Louis and Cairo, IL, during low-water months. The alternative newspaper is neither an alternative nor a newspaper, preferring smartass non sequitur to some semblance of the truth. And Missouri state government through the Department of Natural Resources perpetuates river myth and demonology to keep its emphasis on commercial uses of the river that cost taxpayers millions for little or no return.
This means, of course, that as far as most Kansas Citians are concerned (if they think of it at all) the Missouri is a dangerous, polluted commercial canal and should stay that way.
But the river’s not just a trough for corporations to feed at and politicians to make hay from. A growing number of people are telling us the river is ours, and we need to take it back.
For information on Missouri River Cleanups:
For Missouri River Relief education events in Kansas City previous to the cleanup:
For more on issues regarding the Missouri River:
Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, http://kansas.sierraclub.org/Issues/MissouriRiver.htm
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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