WisBusiness: Fish and Wildlife Service releases Upper Mississippi River plan

By Gregg Hoffmann

La Crosse – A Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge could cost $227 million to implement, but have financial and environmental returns for years to come.

The plan, released Tuesday by the Fish and Wildlife Service, is similar to a draft presented to the public in December of 2005. No exact financial impact was included, but during the course of the plan’s development it was reported that 3.7 million tourists, including more than 1 million fishers, visit the Refuge annually.

That’s more than Yellowstone National Park. The financial impact is spread among 70 communities that are in or border the refuge.

The procedure for the plan started in August 2002. Since then, 46 meetings on alternatives have been held. About 4,600 people attended the meetings and workshops, and 2,438 written comments were submitted.

Some of the earlier plans sparked controversy because of additional fees and restrictions on use of the refuge. Under this final plan, closed areas, where motorized use would be restricted and at some times of the year prohibited, would increase from the current 15 to 23, although the total acreage would decrease, from the current 44,544 to 43,764.

U.S. Congressman Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and others lobbied for a “voluntary compliance” model instead of mandating that boaters avoid closed areas.

“We looked long and hard at it, but at the end of the day it didn’t seem like it would work.” said Don Hultman, manager of the Refuge.

Kind held a press conference in La Crosse Monday, the day before the plan was released, to explain his rationale and also to make public some other efforts on protecting the refuge.

“The goal is to help us be better stewards of this vital resource,” Kind said. A top priority is understanding and reducing nutrient and sediment loss into the river, said Kind.

Those nutrients, mostly from fertilizer runoff, create an oxygen-depleted “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, a phenomenon the U.S. Geologic Service is monitoring.

Kind said his bill to monitor the sediment loss and create a model recently was approved by a House committee, with its next step a vote by the full House of Representatives.

Kind also is pushing for an E-Duck Stamp that would allow purchase of such stamps online and a bill to combat invasive species in the refuge. He said a federal farm bill “could become the next great conservation bill, if it has programs to help farmers conserve soil and prevent soil loss.”

During the debate over the Comprehensive Plan, Kind said he thought the FWS was trying to balance environmental protection with public access.

The plan will guide management and administration of the 240,000-acre, multi-state refuge for the next 15 years. The plan seeks to balance the needs of fish and wildlife with the needs of the public for recreation, according to the FWS. All current public uses on the refuge will continue, although the plan outlines several areas or zones where means of access and use would be affected.

The next step in the planning process is a decision by the Regional Director, Midwest Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on which alternative in the plan draft will become the final management plan for the Refuge. This decision will be made after a required 30-day minimum waiting period and recorded in a formal Record of Decision. A decision is expected in late August.

No public meetings will be held, although the public or agencies may provide information or comment during the waiting period.

The plan is available by going to http://www.fws.gov/midwest/planning/uppermiss/FinalEIS.html.

People on the project mailing list will receive a summary of the major changes made to plan. Paper copies of the Final EIS/CCP are available in libraries in communities near the Refuge.