Monday, October 15, 2012

Great River, Great Lakes

The Confluence 
When I started this quest and this blog, I wanted to add more places to my set of outdoor achievements (you can read my first blog post here).  I look at my shelves and certain books I keep as touchstones to learnings and life moments.  How too to keep the experience of a day in the dunes, a week in the woods, a summer on a lake, or a lifetime in a place?  A nature preserve is a defined place, with a sign and legal boundaries, and usually something that can be comprehended in a day or two of exploring.  But more and more, I am confronting the existential challenge of how to know a place that is too big to experience in any easy or accessible way.  Recently, I found myself beyond the familiar Great Lakes, and I pondered anew what it takes to know a place.

The Mississippi River is perhaps the single most defining geographic feature in the middle of North America.  The waters from 32 States and two Canadian provinces, about 40 percent of the continental United States, drain down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.  As it passes by New Orleans in mid-October, the River carries an average of about 400,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs).  This is 3,605 times what the Shiawassee River carries through my hometown on a given day this time of year.  After almost 50 years of knowing and canoeing and working to protect the Shiawassee, I am beginning to have a sense of it as a place (read more here), but trying to know the Mississippi is not possible.

Still, I enthusiastically said "Yes" to a chance to experience the Mississippi and spend a day traveling on it from Alton, Illinois to St. Louis Missouri with a group of volunteer conservationists like myself, as well as some well-informed experts.  I came away with a rich natural experience, and while I still can't think of the Mississippi River as a place, I can now think of its a "whole system" that deserves our appreciation, care, and serious attention.  So too is the Great Lakes system.

Whole System Conservation has become the current leading edge of work at The Nature Conservancy and other agencies and organizations who are thinking about the protection of natural places and the promotion of a sustainable economy.  For 60 years The Nature Conservancy has evolved in its mission to protect nature and preserve life, starting with the application of new tools to take land protection to a bigger scale through the use of easements, leveraging limited public dollars, and by creating the world's largest conservation organization to identify, acquire, and steward the most important natural places.  Always guided by the best science, The Nature Conservancy undertook eco-regional planning to protect a network of preserves throughout first North America, and then other continents, and oceans.

It has become clear that to protect one place, we need to look beyond the boundaries of a preserve, park, or otherwise set-aside land.  Water and air, as well as flora and fauna, are not constrained by lines on a plat map, nor is pollution, invasive species, or threats that come from incompatible development.  We must think about the entire ecological--and economic and cultural--systems that encompasses each preserve we care about.  To keep a place healthy, the system it is a part of has to be healthy.

The confluence of the Missouri (left) and Mississippi (right)
Note the barge, a key service provided by the River
To be effective at whole system conservation one must keep three things in mind.  First, one needs to look at the dominant ecological functions and geographic features that define an ecosystem.  The Mississippi River is defined by the flow of water, its interaction with and from the surrounding land, and the movement of species up, down, and through the system.  Second, we need to think not just about places and species, but ecological services, such as clean water, that keeps the system healthy.  Finally, whole system conservation must keep the needs and role of people foremost in the development of any strategy or plan of action, because humanity now can have the biggest impact, good and/or bad, on any natural system.   You can read more about this conservation approach and download a concept paper at this link.

The Great Rivers and the Great Lakes are the types of whole systems The Nature Conservancy is committed to protecting.  The Mississippi River supports not only unique and diverse life forms, but also a thriving economy.  Barge traffic moves essential commodities up and down the River, and the level, course, and flow of the Mississippi has long been managed through dams, levees, dredging, and other massive engineering interventions.  The River has also always been a source of life, not only for aquatic and terrestial species, but also for human culture long before, and through, several waves of Euro-American settlement.  The challenge is to know and understand all of these many needs and factors, which are sometimes competing and sometimes complementary, and manage the whole system for the benefit of both nature and people.

Since 2005, The Nature Conservancy has worked not only on the Mississippi, but on several large river systems throughout the world.  The Great Rivers Partnership has developed better knowledge about these multi-factored systems, brought together stakeholders to address conservation needs, and allowed for a higher level of policy work and attention to protect these large water flows that define our homes.  The same approach is being taken for other large systems, most notably for me the Great Lakes, that cross state and national boundaries.  The goal is not necessarily more protected places, but a healthier system that protects more places.


The Confluence.  For me, a former geography student, amateur historian, and committed conservationist, the highlight of my recent trip was to pass by the confluence of the Missouri and  Mississippi Rivers, some 10 miles north of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.  Having spent several years now thinking about watersheds, seeing the waters of so much of North America converge at one spot made a great impact, intellectually more so than visually.  On our journey we heard how the fertility and geography of the region of the confluence led to the development of a major pre-Columbian cultural and community centered on nearby Cahokia, that in 1200 AD was probably larger than any European city.   As well, I thought much about this one particular place as the preparation and starting point for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery that they led west from here in 1804 up the Missouri, across the continental divide, and then on to the Pacific Ocean.

It is difficult for one particular place to embody the larger geographic and cultural significance of a region, but the confluence did it for me.  The particular good news about this place is that many private and public conservation groups, including the Army Corps of Engineers, have worked to protect thousands of acres of wetlands, floodplain forests, and surrounding grasslands.  But we will not be successful if we work to save only the immediate places, even as compelling and valuable as the confluence is.  Instead, we need to think about the one place as the embodiment of the whole system we seek to protect and preserve.  The whole system must get our affection as well as the small place.


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