As Washington struggles over how to cut a $600-billion-plus budget, out here it is the time of the year for the annual Township Meetings. We will be emerging from our northwoods sanctuaries, our little farms, hideaways, and the growing number of just plain residences as suburban sprawl punctuates what used to be pristine woods. We will be congregating in our clapboard town halls. The parking areas will have been plowed, the cobwebs blown out of the antediluvian heating units, dust wiped off the benches.
Friends and neighbors will be congregating, vowing to seem more of each other and wondering why there isn't time to get together for whist as we used to in the days before television. Folks will be friendly, accommodating the new faces, secretly wondering whence all these new people are coming. They are not all different, these newcomers -- a teacher, a telephone company employe, a retired military person -- it's just that there are more of them. More people willing to surrender the graces, culture and comforts of the corporate limits for the privacy of the countryside, the very numbers defeating the purpose.
The agenda will include perennial topics. Some township roads and bridges need work, but there is no money. The township zoning ordinance requiring a minimum of 5 acres per subdivided lot is under assault, besmirched by the grandfathered smaller lots some developers carved out before the ordinance was passed. The coffee urn in due to expire any moment, same as last year. That, at least, is one thing that can't be blamed on the bureaucrats in the capital.
A week before the annual meeting the township zoning board convenes at its regular session. The country commissioner drops in. It appears something different will enter the equation at next week's annual meeting.
New agenda has crept in over the years. Newer even than the growing demand for more than town roads to serve the growing population, more snowplowing, maintenance and services.
The Upper Mississippi runs through the township. There is a move afoot, and has been since the Wild and Scenic Rivers Bill was passed by Congress in 1968, to so designate the river. This would lead to sections set aside for wildlife, others yet for recreation, and a few perhaps left out of the plan since they are too build up to warrant inclusion. Our congressman has been fighting it, delaying the process of designation with demands for a Park Service master plan before allowing the matter to be considered again. Meanwhile a state senator has come up with a proposal that the eight counties involved set up a consortium to manage the river, preempting the federal effort. How do we feel about it? Would we go to a public meeting to be conducted soon by the feds to declare ourselves? Discuss it at the annual meeting? The county comissioner reports on all this, gingerly feeling out sentiment.
"I don't want some idiotic bureaucrat telling us what to do," someone around the table says. It's good for a laugh. Jibes at the federal government are always good for a laugh; it's so far away. Shots at the state government are good for a chuckle. The county commissioners are taboo, since their financial aid has direct bearing on township roadwork.
"Who will pay for maintenance and upkeep, and services, of the multicounty river system?"
"There won't be any," the commissioner says. "It would just be a cooperative zoning effort."
So the preemptive plan would not achieve the same purposes of preservation, protection, furnishing of services and reclamation, as would the Park Service Wild and Scenic Rivers plan. Nor would there be any means of acquiring land to be put in the public domain for access, camping and other uses. Would it even halt or slow down the riverbank real estate development? The inexorable, mushrooming pollution?
"There's another item," the commissioner says, hoping it will be added to the annual meeting agenda. Since the 1930s the old Harold Ickes proposal for a "Palms to Pines road system has been kicking around. The notion is to enable motorists to drive from New Orleans to Lake Itaska, with side trips to pretty places. When first proposed it was a good WPA project, would have aided commerce and agriculture; the highways of the 1930s were a far cry from what they are today. Now there are plenty of farm-to-market roads in most places, and the idea of a superhighway so gas-guzzlers can zoom the length of the Mississippi should bring joy only to the hearts and pocketbooks of OPEC and the oil companies.
The questioning becomes sharp, the commissioner becomes defensive.
"Nobody wants new roads," the commissioner explains. "This is just a way for the county to get financial aid we couldn't otherwise get to make road improvements we'd have to make anyway."
There is silence. The pocketbook has been reached, wrung, wrenched. We'll have to pay for fixing that road anyhow; why not use the Great River Road money so tantalizingly tossed out way and save ourselves some bucks? Why not spread the cost among 200 million taxpayers to help pay what otherwise a few thousand of us would have to finance? State highway money might be a few decades away. It is tempting, though we all know the arguments against enhancing automobile travel.
"Among how much Great River Road money would be available in the county? In the township?"
Nobody knows, but the educated guesses are in the range of several million dollars. Again there is silence, a mental patting of wallets and checkbooks.
"That much money would be a good start to get us passenger rail service again!" It used to be our lifeline, now reduced to freight service.
"I'm all for getting back passenger train service," the commissioner assures. "But this River Road money is available now, and we have to move on it if we want it."
"Are these two, the Wild and Scenic River designation, and the Great River Road, coordinated?" a questioner speaks up. "Or are we going to build a road where some time later there is going to be wilderness?"
"They are not coordinated. There is no coordination between those two, or the eight-county plan," the commissioner says. "None of those feds work together."
But isn't the County Board, which must act on all these things, a point of coordination? Aren't we, in township meeting, a point of coordination? Even if the feds and the state officials in various departments are not?
"Those bureaucrats sure don't know what they are doing," someone says. "Wasting all that money, trying to tell us what to do. But we sure could stand the help fixing up the old road . . ."
And there you have it. Washington is "them," absurd wastrels whose geriatric budget cycles regurgitate ancient projects to be paid with tommorrow's taxes. And we "just plain folks" are smart, enthusiastically spending money thus available, denouncing our very selves for making it available -- for the "them" is really "we."
The truth is that the road is not even in need of repairs, and will not be so for many years to come. The new spur roads that will radiate from it, accruing benefit only to real estate speculators, may have to be torn out when the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation comes about.
Could it be that the wasteful idiots who don't know what they are doing are not only in Washington, but also at our own annual Town Meeting?