Along the Missouri River: a new convergence

Linking recreation and preservation to restore the river

Drifting downstream in his 18-foot johnboat, "Tugboat Annie," Jeff McFadden looks out at a pretty stretch of river. The occasional bird flies from one stand of trees to another. The only sound is gurgling water. "You cannot get this on an eight-hour drive in any direction from Kansas City!" he exults, holding out his arms. Except here on the Lower Missouri - one of the nation's most endangered rivers and, in many ways, its most forgotten.

For 553 miles, it flows through northern Missouri, through the state's two largest metropolitan areas and rolling farmland inbetween. Yet, hardly anyone comes here. Except for the occasional barge, Mr. McFadden and a few other hardy recreationists have the river to themselves. McFadden would like to change that.

But his pleas have been drowned out as environmentalists and commercial interests battle over how the US Army Corps of Engineers should regulate the Missouri. Even river towns have largely turned their backs on the resource.

Can recreation tip the balance of the debate towards environmental preservation?

It's a question that's playing itself out in eco-tourism spots from Latin American rainforests to Asian jungles. Here in rural America, the arguments are just as pressing because economic problems loom large.

The road from the river's public-access ramp to Waverly, Mo., what's left of it, is a steep drive up a narrow road. Along Washington Street, once a commercial hive, all that remains of the stores are empty buildings and faded signs.

In the 1850s, Waverly boasted one of the busiest ports on the Missouri River between Kansas City and St. Louis, says Brad Hinz, author of a history of Waverly. Slave-owning farmers grew huge hemp crops to make rope and other products. But river traffic dwindled after the Civil War and the coming of the railroad and never recovered.

After the farming downturn in the 1980s, shops began closing and people moved out. Waverly has revived somewhat as a bedroom community for Kansas City 50 miles away. A new computer store and some new homes have sprung up. But the river? "It's just something that's been ignored," Mr. Hinz says.

Indeed, during a three-hour trip on the river, McFadden points out the birds and wildlife that grace the area. On a small island, he notes a beaver slide, giant blue heron tracks in the mud, and raccoon tracks. "This area is far richer than is widely known," he says.

There's just one problem. The swift current scares boaters. Even though this section actually flows slightly slower on average than the Mississippi River at St. Louis, the narrower channel and the semi-submerged "wing dams" of rock along the banks make a boat ride a little nerve-racking. Even McFadden, a self-proclaimed "river rat" eager to dispel notions that the Missouri is dangerous, keeps a constant vigil for tell-tale curtains of water.

"Uh-oh! Wing dam," he cries out at one point in mid-sentence. Scrambling back to the controls, he gets the engine running, backs up abruptly, and manages to avoid the underwater rock wall by a few feet.

To remedy the problem, river enthusiasts and environmentalists have joined forces behind a plan by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that would lower the river every July and August. Lower water levels would slow the current for boaters. It would also make breeding easier for the endangered pallid sturgeon, a native fish, and the interior least tern, which nests on sandbars, according to the federal agency.

But the plan has provoked sharp opposition from barge operators and farmers. The US Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dam that regulates the flow, says the plan would close barge traffic for three to four weeks during the summer. Farmers along the river also object because the plan calls for a higher spring flow. The idea is to mimic historic seasonal rises from snow melt, but farmers worry about flooding.

"It just goes against common sense to go along with what they're suggesting," says Fred Utlaut, who farms 2,000 acres of river-bottom land outside Waverly and Grand Pass, Mo. "We need a low river during the spring to dry [the land] out so we can plant it.... I don't see why we have to swamp the whole Midwest to make sure that sucker [the pallid sturgeon] has a chance."

The state of Missouri has also challenged the plan in court. Later this year, the US Army Corp of Engineers expects to make public its preferred plan for running the river.

"People want to put it in terms of human versus animals," McFadden says. But "these people have this resource in front of them, and it appears to me they should be able to maximize it for very little cost. That's the way! It's going to be saved as a biological asset if people see it as a recreational asset."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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