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Repairing Backyard Rivers

September 22, 2008
By Rebecca Williams, The Environment Report

American rivers have gone through a lot in the last century. Their twists and turns have been turned into straight channels. Their banks have been washed away. And pollution is still flowing off farm fields and city streets. Fixing these rivers is a big challenge. A lot of the land that rivers run through is privately owned. So that means - to fix a river, you often have to work with landowners. Rebecca Williams has the story of one group that thinks they've found the secret to winning people's trust:

Di Rau is the fourth generation of her family to farm this land in Northern Michigan. Her grandpa homesteaded the land and set up a sawmill.

“It was the primary industry – I mean there was logging camps just everywheres you turned.”

Back then the rivers were the only way to get those logs downstream. But years of rolling logs down the bank into the river were causing serious erosion. Huge trees were crashing into the water.

Rau says she didn’t know any of her family’s legacy until one day, when a local group gave her a call. The more she learned about the problems, the more she felt, well…

“Guilt! (laughs) Because of my ancestors. It’s like practicing medicine. It’s always evolving and you don’t really know lots of times what you’re doing wrong until another generation comes along and tells you this is what you’ve created. Then it’s like okay let’s do something about it.”

So Rau let construction workers on her land. And now, ten years later, she says it’s beautiful.

“Go down and just listen to creatures. You have deer come splashing through, we have a bear around here, he likes to visit, couple bobcat. There’s a lot of wildlife – it’s pretty cool.”

The woman who won Di Rau over is Kim Balke. She’s a biologist with the group Conservation Resource Alliance. She says working with Di Rau was pretty easy. But not everyone opens their doors so quickly.

There was the divorced couple who still owned land together, the fighting brothers, the neighbors who nobody liked.

“Other people have said you know don’t go to their house they’ll greet you with a shotgun!”

So far, no shotguns. Balke says she’s learned not to listen to what neighbors say about each other. She approaches each person one by one, and talks to them about what’s at stake. Her sales pitch? We’re just here to help – and hey, we’ll pay most of the bill.

“You know a lot of our projects are erosion control, when banks are completely falling into the stream – landowners, it’s not hard for them to realize they’re losing property.”

But Balke says, still, you can’t just rush in and tell people what to do. She says it can take months or even years to warm homeowners up to the project.

That’s because fixing rivers is serious work. If a riverbank is eroding or an old bridge is falling into the water, we’re talking about heavy construction equipment. You have to be willing to have bulldozers and port-a-johns on your lawn for a long time. And you might have to lose a tree.

“Things can look a little rough when you’re doing construction and some people are a little worried about change.”

Balke says she just takes her time. She sends letters, sits down for coffee, lets people think it over.

And it’s not just homeowners who Balke’s group needs to win over. There are road commissions, tribes, sportfishers, and environmentalists. People who sometimes just don’t trust each other.

Amy Beyer directs Conservation Resource Alliance. She says her group has gotten all those people together.

“Yes they have been historically mortal enemies and that doesn’t mean all of the baggage falls away but I can tell you it feels awfully good to go around the circle when we complete a project and hear all the different voices and how they’re celebrating that success.”

Beyer says this is not a quick and easy process - it can take years to get people to actually find some little thing to agree on. But she says you can fix a river without ever going to court.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

To listen to this story follow this link: http://www.environmentreport.org/story.php?story_id=4169


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