WisBusiness: Alternative Mississippi River plan under development

By Gregg Hoffmann

La Crosse – Hunters and fishers undoubtedly are happy. Some enviromentalists aren’t.

Federal officials announced this week they will come up with a new plan for protecting the upper Mississippi River after the original proposal prompted a backlash over restrictions on hunting, camping and other uses.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which held 17 hearings and eight workshops up and down the river since announcing the original conservation plan in May, will now issue an “alternative” plan in October. The plan would then be finalized after 45 days of public comments.

Hunting and fishing groups protested the “preferred” plan floated in several hearings this spring and early summer. Officials said they were willing to work with all groups and held a series of workshops that just recently concluded.

Congressman Ron Kind, whose district included more of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge than any other lawmaker, said officials had to consider alternatives.

“They realize they have to do that or there will be a public outcry,” said Kind, who describes himself as a “river rat” and has a home on the Mississippi. “It would make enforceability very difficult if not impossible, and they certainly don’t have the money to go out and hire 500 new agents in the refuge system.”

Kind has tried to serve as sort of a liaison between FWS and the various interest groups. “I do believe Fish and Wildlife is trying to maintain a balance between public access, and preserving this wonderful resource we have.”

Tim Grunewald, regional director of Wisconsin Ducks Unlimited, saluted Fish and Wildlife for revising the original proposal.

“We are very supportive any time a government agency steps back when it hears critical analysis of a project, and is willing to re-evaluate and come up with an alternative,” he said. “It’s refreshing to know that they will take into account comments they received.”

Brad Redlin, Mississippi River coordinator for the Izaak Walton League of America, said the league supported the original plan.

“Seeking public comment on conservation plans for public lands is clearly the right thing to do, and responsiveness to those comments is appropriate and expected,” said Redlin, who is based in St. Paul. “But the resource base itself has no voice to comment. Habitat protection and scientific principles must be given priority over present-day public preferences.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal is to reduce human stress on the fragile river environment and improve wild habitats. Controversial elements in the original plan included limiting overnight camping to main channel islands and shorelines; restricting speeds on backwater areas to 5 mph; increasing no-hunting zones; and banning anyone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher from camping.

FWS’s conservation plan would lay out new regulations through the year 2020 for about 240,000 acres of Mississippi floodplain designated as a national wildlife refuge. The refuge stretches about 260 miles from southern Minnesota to northern Illinois and serves as at least a part-time home to hundreds of species of plants, fish and birds, including bald eagles.

The federal Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 requires refuges be managed according to their mission to restore fish, wildlife and plants. The act calls for every national refuge to have a plan by 2012.

Kind has pushed for the Bush Administration and Congress to also consider legislation and rules for the navigation plan for the Mississippi. The Army Corps of Engineers wants to build new locks and dams, or at least update the current ones.

“My concern is that the bricks and mortar part of these plans often get priority over the environmental parts,” Kind said at one of the hearings. “Navigation and the conservation plans should be considered in concert.”