My backyard slope down to the Mississippi where it is a small stream narrow enough to toss a stone to the other side if you have a good throwing arm, sufficiently shallow to wade across if you know where to sidestep the sinkholes. It is a wild and wonderful country, in northern Minnesota, and I love the space and burgeoning tree plantation of my 200 acres, the resurging wildlife and flowers responding to 20 years of conservation. But now the feds are coming and my neighbors want me to join in fighting the dragon which promises to spew regulations, restrictions and interference.
In my halcyon days as a federal official I dealt blithely in national initiatives which then affected the daily lives of people "out there" -- all for the betterment of the common weal, of course. I am no longer a federal official residing in Washington; I am "out there," about to be enveloped by a "national initiative" and not very comfortable about it.
"What does Washington hknow about the north woods anyway?" asks one of my neighbors.
"Too much government, interference by outsiders," is a commonplace complaint. But the people aren't nihilists or anarchists as so many who spout the rhetoric. There years ago one of the crossroads grocers donated a valuable parcel to commemorate his pioneer father; it was a Bicentennial gift to be made a vest-pocket park.
But a Federal Scenic Waterway for the upper Mississippi that would control construction and development, that would seek to preserve what beauty was left and perhaps add to it through purchase of private land? "too many bureaucrats already, getting fat off my taxes."
My sitting tree on the river bank affords a regular view of blue herons, eagles, osprey and waterfowl; the muskrat den is 10 feet downstream, a new beaver trail opposite and upstream a bit. I know every nuance a mood of the place, and sit there perplexed, cogitating on the potential intrusion. A National Scenic Waterway would, as they have done down on the St. Croix, introduce a devilish amount of regulation and interference. It would bring fellows in Smoky Bear hats checking and inspecting, and restrictions on what I could do.
But is there anything that I want to do near the river bank? I'd built the house a half mile back and well away from the wild areas. I can't think of anything I would be prohibited from doing. Score one for the Scenic Waterway.
Wait. A Scenic Waterway, in addition to conservation and protection, provides public access and recreation areas. Would this, could this proposal bring hordes of people? That motorized army with blaring stereos and crashing tin cans? Land on either side of me could lend itself to camping, recreation and similar development. What would happen to my little Walden then? Perhaps I should join the opponents who are now groping for some organization to give heft to their views. I wouldn't have to agree with the rabid American Partiers or John Birchers who've been beating the drums.
A pair of loons wings overhead, hooting and ululating, and it is a nice sound as they head upstream and toward one of the many little lakes. But upstream four miles is where the suburban sprawl of Bemidji, our nearest town with a population of 10,000, has leap-frogged to the tree-lined river bank. The town is 11 miles away, but a shrewd neighbor of mine made a small down payment on some acreage there, subdivided it, sold the lots with a bit of hoopla and made a tidy profit.
"Ah, there's lots of land around," he said when I remonstrated. "I like the woods and hunting and all that good stuff. There's enough woods and wilderness to last forever."
I have driven through the subdivision with its tacky houses in sight of each other. Leech Lake Indian Reservation downstream has threatened to sue the City of Bemidji upstream for polluting the river and the lakes fed by it, the result of dumping sufficiently treated sewage. The city is now being forced to build a new treatment plant. This should cure, or at least alleviate, about half of the originates in the burgeoning subdivision, in resorts and unregulated private systems along the river. The water used to be clear the year around; now it is green and crusted with algae by midsummer as the prime fertilizer produces an organic rush. If the river were made a Scenic Waterway there would be an end to more developments, and tight regulation of sewage disposal from the sources that now exist. It's something to consider, particularly since my profiteering neighbor is said to be casting about for more river frontage.
Last summer public hearings were held on the proposal, and the screams of outrage from my neighbors, from relators, from political activists scuttled it for the time being. My congressman is Arlan Stangeland, and a fairly conservative Republican. Our next-door congressman to the east, James 1oberstar, is equally conservative. Both of them said then, and seem to feel now, that the Park Service ought to come up with a detailed master plan defining the boundaries of the waterway corridor, the extent of condemnation authority, and long-term use and development plans. This, they feel, should come before any other steps are taken.
It makes sense in a way. Yet I fear that in the long interval more river frontage will be developed, more houses will be built, more sewage sources will be created which will leach into the water. I want the further development embargoed even in the absence of a master plan, which would be subject to periodic revision anyhow. But am I ready to plump for a Scenic Waterway, for a national presence in my backyard? It sounds to me as though I want it the way it was 10 and 20 years ago . . . and that cannot be.
I hear the school bus stop on the country road three-quarters of a mile away from my sitting perch on the river bank, the wind carrying fragments of childrens' voices across the woods we have planted. I so much want them to have a good earth, a good life. Which is the right course for our little stretch of river, for the forest we have replanted?
Which is the dragon -- Washington management of the river, or the natural consequence of private ownership, population pressure and development?
Left uncontrolled, going in the direction it has been, the waterway will only deteriorate further; there is nothing to stop the inexorable progression of events [was it last week, or the week before, that I received yet another postcard from a realtor asking if I wanted to sell?]. I might not like government interference, and might disagree heartily with the actions of administrators, managers, officials. Yet I have a voice, and I have a vote, and it is my government in 200-millionth part. I am disfranchised vis-a-vis laissez faire. Having to make a choice, mine must be for the Scenic Waterway.
My private conclusion is the same as the one reached by the federal officials, as I perhaps might have reached a few years ago in a different life and a different role. Except as it seems to me now, on the receiving end, a much more complex and anguished process, nowhere near the clear-cut black-and-white of my bygone days in that farway town; nor did I have to live with the daily presence and consequences of my decisions then, as I do with this one now. CAPTION: Picture 1, Robert Treuer in his north woods retreat.