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
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.