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WisBiz In Depth:New conservation plan in works for upper reaches of Mississippi

By Gregg Hoffmann

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is huge, a “big business,” multi-purpose endeavor.

It runs for 261 miles and encompasses around 240,000 acres. It is also home, at least temporarily each year, for thousands of wildlife species and millions of people.

Consider some facts: Forty percent of the continent’s migratory waterfowl stay in the refuge for at least part of the year. Fifty percent of the canvasback duck population spend time here.

An estimated 1,000 eagles nest along the river’s banks. More than 115 species of fish inhabit the waters of the refuge. More than 300 species of birds and 50 types of mammals live here. Eleven kinds of turtles – exceptional for this far north – share the water and land.

Turning to homo sapiens, 70 human communities sit along the refuge. Eight senators and six congressmen represent the areas along it. A major navigation route runs right through the refuge.

Last year, 3.7 million tourists visited the refuge, more than Yellowstone National Park. Roughly 1 million anglers fished its waters, while another 1.3 million people used beaches and camped on islands and other lands within this outdoor wonderland.

The refuge has a budget of $3.1 million and 37 fulltime employees. It is divided into four districts, with headquarters based in Winona, Minn.; La Crosse; McGregor, Iowa; and Savanna, Ill. The financial impact of the refuge on surrounding communities is in the millions.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, working with the natural resource departments in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, the Corps of Engineers and the public, has been asked by Congress to come up with a 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the refuge.

“I believe the fish and wildlife people are trying to balance protection of this beautiful resource we have here with public access to it,” said Congressman Ron Kind before last Thursday’s final public hearing on a draft of the plan.

“It’s a big task. The fact people have turned out for these hearings shows how much they care about the river and the refuge,” added Kind, who described himself as a “river rat from the north side of La Crosse” and speculated that his congressional district encompasses more of the refuge than any other.

Much of the media emphasis and public concern over the plan has been on some of the more controversial proposals – possible restrictions on access in certain areas of the refuge, especially during migratory and breeding seasons, fees for certain uses and additional land acquisition.

A Work in Progress

Don Hultman, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, emphasizes that the plan is still a work in progress. Workshops involving the public will start June 13 in Winona.

“We want public input and involvement, and they have not been shy in giving it to us,” Hultman said.

“We have thick skins and try to look beyond just the criticism. The input has been invaluable. We’ve had great ideas, and have learned some of the nuances of certain areas of the Refuge.”

Hultman estimated that about 1,500 people attended the series of hearings on the plan. He said hundreds more could be involved in the workshops and other opportunities for public input before that period technically closes at the end of August. The plan should be finished in 2006.

The federal agency has come up with four alternatives: One would basically maintain the status quo. A second plan would lean heavily toward protection of wildlife, a third would emphasize public access and use, while a fourth proposal is a compromise that tries to integrate the two philosophies. Agency staffers and officials favor the latter.

Some elements of the proposal favored by the agency, called Alternative D, include:

  • Maintaining the integrity of the refuge boundary by working with the Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over navigation and the locks and dams.

  • Acquiring more territory by 2020, which would include only land that was identified in the 1987 master plan and subsequent approvals.

  • Protecting the bluffs along the refuge through easements and other means.

  • Improving water quality and level.

  • Eradicating invasive species, including purple loosestrife - which has grown rampant - zebra mussels and Asian carp.

  • Management plans for each of the 14 pools in the refuge. Wildlife habitat is essential in these pools.

  • Managing hunting, fishing and trapping in the refuge.

Of course, special interest groups have rallied to their individual interests and causes. A group circulated a petition at the June 2 hearing calling for adoption of the alternative that would virtually maintain the status quo.

Any plan also has to be worked out with other levels of government. The wildlife service already is partnering with the Corps, the states and municipalities. On the surface, perhaps the relationship between wildlife service and the Corps has the potential for the most conflict, although Hultman said the two agencies have cooperated well.

But the Mississippi is a major navigation route for freight. Water levels have to be maintained for that business endeavor. The system of locks and dams has done that, but also flooded habitat, wetlands and even islands within the refuge.

New Survey Needed

“There is a tendency for adjacent development and use to creep over refuge lands and waters,” reads the public review draft of the plan. “This encroachment includes tree cutting, dumping, construction, storing of equipment and materials, and mowing of refuge lands.

“In addition, there are a few boundaries between refuge and Corps-managed lands that remain unclear, leading to mixed messages to the public using these lands via permits, leases or out grants.”

The wildlife service is proposing that a new refuge survey be done and that the two agencies enter into a new agreement.

Land acquisition always sparks controversy because private ownership is such a sacred right in this country. Hultman emphasized that his agency does not use condemnation.

The draft plan calls for buying about 1,000 acres per year up to 2020, from willing sellers. Additional land is needed for more habitat, but the additions would not actually expand the refuge and would stay within the 1987 boundaries.

Water level management would require lowering pools in the refuge. Some of that has already been done, with the results being better water quality, a return of wetlands and marshes. But, draw-downs also do restrict where boaters and others can go.

Additional fees are not popular.

Citing the fact federal duck stamps generate an estimated $11 million to $20 million, Garold Becker complained at one hearing, “Now you’re going to charge us more?”

Becker said hunters were being asked to subsidize other recreational uses of the refuge.

The hunting, fishing and trapping lobbies are strong and were well represented at most of the public hearings. The popularity of waterfowl hunting has resulted in over-crowding and conflicts along firing lines at the edge of restricted areas.

Alternative D proposes a managed hunt in an area of Lake Onalaska known as The Barrels, and fees for some of the hunting spots. Restricted hunting areas also would be expanded to reduce the impact on migratory birds’ feeding and flight patterns. Those proposals have been hot topics.

“Again, we are willing to work with hunters and fishing groups on these, and have already received some good suggestions,” Hultman said,

Hultman also said that, contrary to some early reports about the plan, trapping of fur-bearing animals will still be allowed in the refuge, but that the plan for it would be revised.

Trapping and the use of dogs for hunting are traditions along the Mississippi, though they are prohibited in other refuges and national parks around the country. Hultman said his agency is sensitive to those traditions and therefore is not proposing elimination of them.

Kind said he is very interested in making sure federal funding is available for any plan. “There is a tendency for bricks and mortar to get priority, but the environmental aspects of this are very important. I want to make sure funding for it is a chief component” he said.

Navigation Plan and Workshops

A navigation plan, which has been rumored to include additional locks and dams, also has created controversy. So far, however, no proposal has been formalized.

“Nothing is happening with the navigation plan, yet it would have a significant impact on this comprehensive plan,” Kind said.

“The focus in the past has been on expansion, but the existing lock and dam system is badly in need of maintenance and updating. Some of these structures go back to the 1930s. If we wait too long, that could get very expensive and have environmental impacts. We have been using a Band-aid approach in some areas.

“The (Bush) Administration has not taken a position (on locks and dams or the navigation plan in general). We need to start considering this.”

At conservation plan workshops, the public will sit down with agency officials to work out the final details of the plan. The wildlife service will also work with the Corps and natural resources agencies from the four states that border the Refuge.

People wishing to participate in the workshops are asked to register at least three days in advance by calling 1-888-291-5719 or 505-452-4232 or sending an e-mail to lee_donahue@fws.gov. If a workshop reaches the capacity of 120 persons, an additional workshop will be scheduled. All workshops will run from 5:30 to 9 p.m.

A schedule of the workshops follows:

June 13 – Winona Middle School Cafeteria, 1570 Home Road
June 14 – Wabasha/Kellogg High School Cafeteria, 2113 Hiawatha Dr.
June 16 –Prairie du Chien High School Cafeteria, 800 E. Crawford St.
June 21 – Savana Illinois House of Events, 108 Main St.
June 22 – Stoddard American Legion Post 315, 414 Broadway
June 23 – Onalaska Middle School, 711 Quincy St.


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