-- For generations, people such as Les Goetzinger, a carpenter, and Pam Walhovd, a screen printer, have used a little stretch of the Mississippi River near here as a refuge, fishing and relaxing.
The tiny islands in the backwaters have been perfect for overnight camping trips. There is peace and quiet. And, for the most part, using the river is free.
But soon, those who live along 261 miles of the upper Mississippi River from Wisconsin into Iowa could see their boating, camping and hunting options heavily restricted under a proposed plan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"This is our Virginia Beach," said Goetzinger, 50, who lives in nearby Freeburg, Minn. "This is the home away from home. These proposals would limit the quality of life out here."
All of the nation's wildlife refuges are developing plans to protect and manage their animal life and habitat. But here at the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the proposals are stirring angry resentment from many residents who have long seen themselves as good stewards of the land.
Furthering the controversy is the fact that the 240,000-acre refuge itself is unusual in that it stretches through four states -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa -- and has drastically different needs and concerns from one end to the other. In the north, there are the sandy backwaters, but farther south below the Wisconsin line, the Mississippi flows more freely. Recreational use of the refuge varies from north to south, with more camping, hunting and jet skis in the northern backwaters. In the south, there is less camping and more boating.
Residents say a one-size-fits-all plan, which would govern the land for the next 15 years, does not accommodate the refuge's diversity. A public comment period on the proposal ends in August.
The proposal, priced at about $216 million for land acquisition and other improvements, would also limit duck hunters to 25 shotgun shells a day during the fall season and keep jet skis to the main river channel. Camping would be allowed on islands in the main channel for a fee, but campers would have to bring costly portable toilets and would not be allowed to drink alcohol.
Refuge manager Don Hultman said limiting access to specific islands and placing shell limits on duck hunters, among the other limits, are the best ways to ensure the environment can remain available to the public and to the million waterfowl and other migratory birds that rest at the refuge each fall.
"The backwaters are the most important areas for wildlife," Hultman said from his office in Winona, Minn. "There haven't been any changes like this made here in 45 years, and if you don't change anything, you really need to do that."
But locals say the changes are too intrusive. "It seems like the government pulls a little more away from you all the time," Goetzinger said, readying his boat for a short fishing trip on the Mississippi, where he searches for walleye. "But I do know a few fishermen who wouldn't complain about jet skis being off the backwaters."
Walhovd, 42, a lifelong resident of Brownsville, population 517, said she relies on the sandbars and beaches for camping. The shallow backwaters are perfect for running jet skis, and, for the most part, people police themselves on the water and respect wildlife, she said.
But on beaches where alcohol and overnight stays are prohibited, people have bent metal signs posting the rules -- a signal they don't want more limits here on what they can do. More government regulations to reduce recreation would foster even more conflict between residents and government officials, she said.
"People feel like they own the river in this area," Walhovd said. "I think it's because when you look around, it's a pristine area, a great place to live."
Hultman insists the regulations on the backwaters -- home to at least 500,000 canvasback ducks (about 50 percent of the world's population) and 20 percent of the planet's tundra swans -- are fairly mild. More than 136 bald eagles also nest in the refuge, as do about 5,000 herons and egrets. The refuge gets about 3.7 million visitors each year, he said.
"With these proposals," Hultman said, "we are just trying to minimize the disturbance. People have relied on this river for livelihoods for generations, so any little change is like a big thing here. They will still be able to make a living off the water."
Debate over the regulations has spurred at least one Web site, UpRiverRats.org, and has attracted hundreds of people to the few public hearings held up and down the Mississippi River.
In Stoddard, Wis., directly across the Mississippi from Brownsville, Ronald Nicklaus, 56, a retired biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said he is joining the fight against the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed limits. The regulations, he said, are too tough on people and are not focused enough on restoring sandbars in the river that create diverse habitat, or tending to sick wildlife.
"This isn't just a grass-roots rebellion [of people] who hate the government," he said. "But there's nothing in these plans to regulate the environment, it's to regulate the people. You can't regulate this refuge like other traditional refuges where the boundaries are clearly defined."
From Wabasha, Minn., to near Rock Island, Ill., the refuge runs through 70 municipalities and is lined with a mixture of private property, power plants and state parks -- different uses that complicate what regulations should be in place.
"The officials want to swat the fly with a sledgehammer to make everything illegal so everyone will just go away to make it like other refuges," Nicklaus said. "You have to work on tougher problems to fix the environment. Kicking these guys off sandbars and checking how many shells they have in their pockets won't work."
Hultman says that under the proposal, people will still be able to camp on some main channel islands and boat in specific areas of the river, and they will still be able to enjoy the Mississippi.
"If you read [the proposal], it's not very extreme," he said, "but it's change and people do not like that change."