The River's Return, continued

3. Empower the people

Enlisting volunteers to work on river restoration pays two dividends, says Deborah Karasov, executive director of Great River Greening.

Most obviously, you get the work done. In the case of Greening, work involves the hard labor of tearing out unwanted invasive species, replanting erosion-prone slopes, and replanting native plants, shrubs and trees in semi-natural areas that are more fallow than wild.

But just as important as the work is the attitude. “The idea that you could have people coming down to the river, helping to improve it—literally plant trees on the riverfront—that was part of changing a decades-old perception of what the riverfront was,” says Karasov.

Launched in St. Paul in 1995, Greening now works in 17 counties. “You have to continue to involve people,” says Karasov. “It’s not enough for an agency to do it. You have to have people invested in natural resources. That personal investment needs to be nurtured.”

The riverfront isn’t just a line, Karasov explains, but a swath that covers floodplains and rises to the bluffs. To stem erosion and restore native habitat “you need to work with private landowners. In terms of ecological resources, you can’t just deal with public land.”

Accordingly, Greening is working with refining company Flint Hill Resources to improve prairies and oak savanna habitat on several hundred acres bordering the river and Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area.

The organization also organized volunteers in rehabilitating the steep hillside and bluff at the southeast end of the High Bridge. Says Karasov, “They see it as a mark of a sense of place in their neighborhood.”

4. Join forces

The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area runs from Dayton, Minn., to south of Prescott, Wis., some 72 miles.

Managed by the National Park Service since 1988, the area is a “quasi new breed of partnership parks,” says resource chief Steve Johnson. It has a mission to “protect, preserve and enhance” the river’s natural, historical, recreational and cultural qualities, despite little federal land (other than several islands) or regulatory authority.

But the Park Service has the power of the purse. It has provided money for bike trails, park improvements and wildlife studies. “That’s the kind of thing we do when we can,” says Johnson.

The Park Service also brings a nationwide network of experts to the table. For four years, agency scientists with the Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network have climbed into all 22 bald eagle nests along the national river to take blood and feather samples from nestlings.

The scientists have been tracing emerging contaminants such as perfluorooctane compounds. “We are finding very high levels in some of these bald eagles,” says Johnson. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency plans to fund this research in the future.

“Scattered around the country we have people who have some very specialized expertise,” Johnson says. “We can bring those folks in and help local governments figure some things out.”

Another strength: telling stories. “There are a lot of interesting stories to tell,” says Johnson, “and the Park Service is probably better at telling … stories of American history and how history is related to place than any other agency in the world.”

Case in point, the agency has helped rediscover the old Meeker Island Lock and Dam. The first on the Mississippi, the facility is now mostly submerged just upstream from the Lake Street bridge. Along with developing and signing a trail to the dam, the Park Service provided money for a theater at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis and for exhibits in the Science Museum’s Mississippi River Visitor Center.

The river’s stories beg being told, says Johnson. “We’re chipping away at the local consciousness of the importance of the Mississippi River and the fact that it’s no longer a sewer,” he says. “This is one of the major rivers in the world. It’s an enormously important natural resource.”

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GREG BREINING is a St. Paul, Minn.-based travel, science and nature writer. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Audubon, National Geographic Traveler, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer and many other publications. He’s also the author of several books on travel and the environment, including his latest, A Hard-Water World: Ice Fishing and Why We Do It.

To-Do List

Mississippi

The Mississippi River is cleaner, more enjoyable and more productive of fish and wildlife than a generation ago. But there’s plenty of work ahead, says Mike Davis, Mississippi River ecologist for the Minnesota DNR. He says the Twin Cities should put five items at the top of their agenda.

Restore the roar
Davis dreams of the day that Lock and Dam No. 1, otherwise known as the Ford Dam, is removed, revealing several miles of roaring rapids and cataracts that once filled the gorge upstream to St. Anthony Falls. “That could become a world-class stretch of river for kayaking, shoreline fishing, rafting and hiking.” Expect opposition from owners of the hydroelectric station at the Ford Dam and shipping interests, which still haul gravel upstream to Minneapolis.

Give to the animals
Sometimes as you paddle a canoe down the urban Mississippi, it’s easy to imagine you’re in a wilderness. But elsewhere the corridor is industrial and barren. Davis would like to see areas not already devoted to high-intensity urbanity restored to wooded shoreline and islands. And throw in a few drowned trees, or snags, for their salubrious impact on turtles, herons, fish and other wildlife.

Clean up the drug habit
Sewage treatment could be better still. Effluent is loaded with caffeine and pharmaceuticals, some of which act in aquatic creatures as they do in humans—as hormones. “That stuff is clearly feminizing fish,” Davis says. Antidepressants such as Prozac cause mollusks to release larvae prematurely.

Keep farmland on the farm
The Mississippi may run cleaner, but its major tributary, the Minnesota, is nearly as dirty as ever, carrying sediment, nutrients and pesticides from southwestern Minnesota farmland. Further improvements in land management would help clean up the river.

Break up the traffic jam
A small channel cut around Lock and Dam No. 2 at Hastings would allow sturgeon and paddlefish to swim up from Lake Pepin to spawn at the Ford Dam—or in the restored rapids below St. Anthony Falls. Says Davis, “You could stand on the Stone Arch Bridge and watch the giant sturgeon spawning.”