SUPERIOR-DULUTH — As members of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) from Wisconsin and Minnesota circled the recently acquired Clough Island in the heart of the St. Louis River Freshwater Estuary, they were wondering if such projects would be feasible if the slashes to conservation budgets proposed by Republicans in the House of Representatives go through.
Clough Island, a 358-acre gem of bio-diversity on the Wisconsin side of the huge estuary here, was purchased for $1.4 million by the conservancy late last year after a golf and residential development failed to materialize.
Thank the aftermath of the Great Recession for that.
Pre-settlement, the estuary received the waters of multiple rivers, streams and creeks and included 9,000 acres of wetlands. Dredging and filling for docks, terminals, paper and steel mills reduced it to about 2,000 acres. The white pines were decimated on the island, like they were across the rest of Great Northwoods of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
(The Torinus and St. Croix Lumber Companies, run by my great-grandfather and grandfather, were among the loggers who thought the pines would last forever. I’m atoning, as a TNC member.)
“This river stunk,” said Bill Smith, the regional director for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which now owns and manages the project. People built their homes on the bluffs instead of near the fouled waters.
Bob Cragin, a machine shop owner and longtime conservationist, hunter and angler, said he had experienced many fish kills in the estuary as a result of the industrial pollution.
”You dreamed of reversing that situation,” he said.
Smith updated, “Well, we’ve come back in this estuary.”
The steel mill is gone. Taconite from northern Minnesota still flows through the Twin Ports on its way to the mills in Indiana. Ships still unload and re-load western coal to serve the Heartland. They also move grain and limestone. But many of the big docks stand idle, testaments to the boom times of the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s.
Cragin said water clarity had remarkably improved. Smith reported that lake sturgeon were naturally reproducing again after a 20-year restocking effort.
Clough Island had been used as a get-away and farm by the affluent Whiteside family until the 1950s, but nature has reclaimed most of the remnants of that farm. The DNR plans to let it revert to a pre-settlement environment.
The previous owners had allowed “tolerant trespassing,” Smith said. Now it will be open to the public for passive recreation, hunting and fishing.
The island is important because it is smack dab in the middle of the estuary, serves an extension of the 4400-acre Superior Municipal Forest, harbors 230 bird species, half of which breed there, and supports 45 species of fish in its surrounding shallow water.
Only the wild rice beds have been slow to rebound, and that is being studied at Northland College.
The economy and the environment got out of harmony in the Twin Ports during the boom years for mining, lumbering and shipping. Now they are moving back into harmony, to the benefit of each and the people who live there.
Gaylord Nelson, one of a long line of Wisconsin environmental prophets, was fond of saying that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. But the reverse is also true. A healthy economy allows for a clean environment.
The improvements in the St. Louis River fresh water estuary make that case in a very real way.
That brings us to today’s politics. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund in Wisconsin and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service funded the Clough Island acquisition 50%-50%. Republican leaders in Wisconsin did some deep cutting to balance the state’s budget, but kept three-quarters of the Stewardship Fund in place.
It’s a different story at the federal level. House Republicans, in their understandable zeal to reduce the federal deficit, are proposing devastating and disproportionate cuts in a wide range of conservation programs, ranging from about half to almost 100%. Conservationists understand the need for austerity in these economic times, but can’t fathom the virtual elimination of so many productive programs.
For the first time in its 60-year history, TNC is opposing a federal appropriations bill.
Most Republican voters are conservationists. It’s part of being conservative.
Why, then are their leaders in Congress anti-conservation?