Rebecca Wodder is president of American Rivers in Washington, D.C. She previously worked at the Wilderness Society and as the legislative assistant for then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.). Her career in conservation started with the first Earth Day in 1970.

Monday, 5 Jul 1999

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WASHINGTON, D.C.

I’ve just returned from witnessing the rebirth of a river. After 162 years of captivity, Maine’s Kennebec River is flowing freely again, thanks to a decade-long effort on the part of a dedicated crew of river activists.

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And what a sight it was! The church bells of Augusta rang out on July 1st while a huge piece of earthmoving equipment, the kind that is usually busy scarring the earth, dug away at a section of a temporary cofferdam. Within a few minutes, water was pouring through a 60-foot gap in the 900-foot-wide Edwards Dam.

The rest of the dam will be dismantled over the next five months. By Thanksgiving, the obstruction that has kept Atlantic salmon, striped bass, and nine other species of anadromous fish from their prime spawning grounds since 1837 will be no more.

The hundreds of people gathered to watch the Kennebec gain its independence witnessed something else as well. They witnessed the beginning of a new era for America’s rivers.

Thirty years ago, on June 22, 1969, the nation’s attention was riveted on the burning Cuyahoga River. That travesty inspired the passage of the Clean Water Act three years later. Thanks to this landmark law, terribly polluted rivers across America have been rescued from the worst abuses, including the Kennebec that was so choked by industrial wastes that the windows of the state capitol were closed in summer to keep out the stench.

The freeing of the Kennebec is connected to the Cuyahoga in two ways. First, if the river hadn’t been cleaned up, no one would have considered this next step in its rebirth. No one would have cared, no fish would have been present to benefit, no economic benefit would have been perceived.

The second connection is that by removing the Edwards Dam, we’ve made history, just as the burning Cuyahoga did in 1969. An indelible image has been created in the minds of the people who witnessed the act. Thirty years from now, the next generation will look back on July 1, 1999 as the day when a river regained its most fundamental right — to flow freely.

The hallmarks of this new era for rivers will be local acts of repair and restoration. As a society, we are entering a time when communities rediscover that their hometown river is one of their most valuable assets, that restoring it to enhance the quality of life is the highest and best purpose to which the river and riverside lands can be put.

Thankfully, rivers are resilient and have a tremendous capacity for self-healing. A little effort on our behalf will be rewarded many times over. What was achieved for the Kennebec will be an inspiration for other communities across the nation. A new era in the making.

Tuesday, 6 Jul 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

A big part of my job as president of American Rivers is raising the funds we need to do our river conservation work. This is on my mind today because our fiscal year began on July 1 and today is my first day back at the office in FY 2000.

American Rivers has been growing steadily since I joined the organization in 1995. Then, we had 22 employees, three offices, and a budget of about $2.5 million. This year, we expect to spend (and raise) about $4.5 million, supporting seven offices and a staff of 40 working hard to rescue rivers across the nation.

Many of my colleagues at other conservation organizations consider fundraising to be the worst part of a president’s job. I don’t share that feeling. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for it.

First of all, interacting with other folks who care deeply about rivers and wildlife as I do is “soul food” for me. I like nothing more than a stimulating conversation with someone who wants to make a difference by supporting an effective conservation organization. Whether motivated by a concern for improving the quality of life for inner-city kids, protecting habitat for fish and wildlife, restoring whitewater rafting or fly-fishing opportunities, or enhancing the economic potential of a riverside community, the people I meet easily see how relevant healthy rivers are to their goals and often they want to help.

Second, successful fundraising requires thinking strategically and acting effectively. There are so many organizations doing such important work. Foundations, individuals, and even corporations must choose among a growing array of charities needing support. Each charitable dollar must be stretched as far as possible. This challenge keeps us sharp, forces us to think critically, to work in partnership with other groups, and to ask ourselves before we begin each new effort — “Can we make a difference for this river? And can winning this fight make a difference for many other rivers?” If the answers are yes and the financial support is there, we’re there too.

Third, providing the means for good people to do great work is the best reward of all. When a foundation grant is received, a whoop goes up in our offices and people celebrate the work that the new support makes possible. When our membership climbs up a notch making our “voice” for rivers that much stronger, we are grateful to have the camaraderie of other people who care about the same things we do.

One thing that continually amazes me is how many folks think that American Rivers and other “watch-dog” groups are funded by Uncle Sam. People assume that at least some of their tax dollars are supporting our conservation work when, in fact, their tax dollars are much more often being spent on actions that conservation groups are fighting tooth-and nail to prevent — actions like building dams and levees, draining wetlands and diverting rivers, dredging channels and lining riverbanks with concrete.

Thankfully, at least 25,000 people across America understand that it is “river lovers” who make our work possible, through their individual (and tax-deductible) gifts of $10, $25, $50 dollars, and more. Our goal is to see this group grow to 50,000 strong over the next three years. Many are joining after seeing news reports on major “wins” like the removal of the Edwards Dam that I wrote about yesterday. Others are surfing our website and liking what they find. One individual recently wrote to me:

“Thank you for the great work that you do keeping us informed. I sometimes feel helpless, and hopeless, but becoming informed is the first step toward action. I appreciate your effort to let us know what is going on and then it is up to us to do something about the situation you have advised us about!”

If you’d like to be part of American Rivers’ nationwide efforts to protect and restore rivers, you can join us by visiting our website.

Wednesday, 7 Jul 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

In 1804, 195 years ago, Thomas Jefferson sent two daring young men, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, out to explore the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase and find a water route to the Pacific Ocean.

Many people view this expedition as America’s epic story. Charles Kuralt (who was on American Rivers’ board until his death on the Fourth of July, 1997) planned to write an epic poem about the journey, but died before he could do so. Stephen Ambrose, a current board member, wrote a wonderful history of Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage, which has captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. Together, Charles and Stephen, along with another great writer and former American Rivers’ board member, Tom McGuane, inspired an American Rivers campaign to restore the rivers traveled by Lewis and Clark in time for the bicentennial of their “Voyage of Discovery” in 2004-2006.

We launched this five-year campaign on May 22 of this year, the 195th anniversary of the explorers’ departure from St. Charles, Mo. Stephen Ambrose, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) spent the day pounding fence posts along a “wild and scenic” stretch of the Missouri River in Montana. The fences will keep cattle off parts of the riverbank while cottonwood seedlings have a chance to take hold. By the time of the bicentennial, the cottonwoods should be big enough to recreate scenery that Lewis and Clark would recognize.

Unfortunately, along the lower third of the Missouri, there is little sign of the river the explorers traveled on so much of their journey. The river below Sioux City, Iowa, has been completely remade by the Army Corps of Engineers as a barge canal (albeit one that carries very little traffic). The river is one-third of its original width and nearly all of the islands, sandbars, and backwater channels are gone. As a result, one-fifth of the river’s species are threatened with extinction and what should be a wonderful recreational resource is of very little benefit to the communities along its banks.

One key goal of our campaign, which we’ve dubbed “Voyage of Recovery,” is to restore 40 or 50 places along the river to a natural condition, like beads on a string. We are urging that dams along the river operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation be operated to benefit recreation and wildlife. And we are assisting Missouri River communities in revitalizing their riverfronts to show tourists attracted by the bicentennial a little of the wonders that Lewis and Clark saw nearly two centuries ago. In the words (and spelling) of William Clark:

We camped in a plain, one of the most butifull Plains I ever Saw, open & butifully diversified with hills & vallies all presenting themselves to the river covered with grass and a few scattering trees, a handsom Creek meandering thro.
— journal entry, July 4, 1804, Independence Creek

To learn more, visit the American Rivers website. Or get yourself a copy of our natural history travel guide to the expedition — Passage of Discovery: The American Rivers Guide to the Missouri River of Lewis and Clark, by Daniel B. Botkin — which describes what the rivers and landscape were like 200 years ago, what changes have occurred since then, and what can be done to repair the damage we’ve caused.

Happy trails.

Thursday, 8 Jul 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

The question I’m most often asked by reporters is “Why are rivers getting so much attention now?” I attribute this renewed interest to the success of the Clean Water Act, in the same way that I view the freeing of the Kennebec River from the Edwards Dam last week as a direct result of cleaning up the river (see my July 5 entry).

Rivers are gaining popularity because they are no longer dirty, dangerous eyesores in our communities. Because wildlife is returning to them. Because mayors and local business leaders see a very valuable asset where once they saw only a scar. Because clean, flowing water has a magnetic effect on people of all ages and backgrounds. Because people want easy access to high quality open space and close-to-home recreation.

Like most conservation organizations, American Rivers has public education as a primary element of its mission. From the lessons I’ve learned in my 30 years in the conservation field, I’ve concluded that rivers have some qualities that make them a wonderful medium for teaching people about the importance of conserving as much as possible of our country’s natural heritage.

First, they have tremendous reach. Practically every community in America can trace its founding and development to the presence of a river. Local history is a history of the hometown river — the advantages it provided to early settlers, the role it played in industrial development, and the abuses it suffered as a result. Each community’s story is unique to its river and yet river stories are ubiquitous across the land. As a conservation teaching tool, every community has a “classroom” close at hand.

Second, rivers have tremendous relevance to top-of-mind issues like health, welfare, and quality of life. Half of our drinking water comes from rivers and we want it to be safe. We don’t want the most vulnerable members of our society — young children, older people, individuals with immune system deficiencies caused by cancer treatments or AIDS — to be placed at greater risk by exposure to waterborne diseases.

In the 21st century, a community’s welfare and competitive ability to attract and retain businesses, retirees, tourists, and other economic benefits will depend on the quality of life it offers. In moving from the industrial age to the information age, the role of rivers is evolving, but it is still central to the economic welfare of our communities. Where once rivers powered the economy by turning turbines, now they power the economy by enhancing the quality of life in the community.

Third, rivers are resilient — give them a bit of assistance and they will heal much of the damage we’ve inflicted on them. Local projects to repair and clean up rivers and riverside lands will produce visible, tangible results in a period of time and on a geographic scale that the average citizen can see and comprehend. And, as any teacher knows, the best incentive for continued learning is success. Rivers give quick and positive feedback to their rescuers.

So, if you are looking for a way to instill a conservation ethic in your children, your boss, your mayor, or your friends, you don’t have to look very far. A river is a great teacher.

Friday, 9 Jul 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

This has been fun, writing these daily diary entries. I haven’t kept a journal in years and don’t expect to begin one now. Being the CEO of an environmental group is pretty time-consuming, or at least the way I approach the job, it is. But it has been nice to take some time each morning to ask myself, “What am I thinking about today?” and share the answer with an unknown audience. This morning, I’m thinking about the future, my own and the future of the conservation movement.

Grounded by weather at Boston’s Logan Airport last Thursday night (on the way back from witnessing the freeing of the Kennebec River), I picked up a book I’ve been seeing everywhere I turn recently — Jimmy Buffett’s A Pirate Looks at Fifty. I picked it up because I’m getting pretty close to that magic number myself and thought I might find some useful advice. I also picked it up because one of the best people I know, author Tom McGuane, is a friend and relation of Buffett’s and I figured I might find a little bit of him in there (I did).

I’m about halfway through the book today (almost missed my Metro stop this morning because it’s such a good read), so maybe it’s premature to draw any conclusions. But this is the wide-open web, so I will. On one level, Buffett’s philosophy about life could be summed up as “don’t worry, be happy.” Not bad advice. But there are deeper facets. One is his “worst case scenario” approach to preparing for adventure — thinking through what might happen if something goes wrong and being ready wit
h the right supplies and training in case it does. Another is his clear sense of purpose and the enthusiasm and energy with which he does the things that are important to him. Taken together, this seems like good advice for life and for the conservation movement.

What will the conservation movement be like in Y2K+20? I’m confident there will be a strong conservation movement in 2020 and I hope to be around to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I think following Buffett’s advice could improve the odds on both.

“Don’t worry, be happy.” For most of my adult life, I’ve made worrying an art form, both as an executive in conservation organizations and as a mother. As an executive, I’ve made a commitment to stop worrying (about whether we’ll make budget, win the “floor” vote, etc.) and instead, focus on making my organization a great place to work, a place that attracts and retains talented and dedicated people who want to spend their time saving rivers, and then let them go at it. As a mother of two teenagers, I’m interested in hearing any suggestions on how to implement the “don’t worry” prescription.

I think the conservation movement is often perceived as the “doom and gloom” folks, as people who are never satisfied (aka “happy”) and always critical, negative, even uncaring. That’s why the Earth Day celebrations are so important. And why we must spend as much time recognizing environmental successes and their sponsors as we spend identifying environmental problems and their causes. This ability to see some progress, even in the face of seemingly impossible environmental issues, is critical to sustaining the movement in the future. At some point, after too many negative messages, people turn off. We need to provide reasons to be hopeful and ways for people to be involved.

Spinning “worst case scenarios” might appear completely inconsistent with the “don’t worry, be happy” prescription for life. But, used as a planning tool that helps one be prepared for what might happen, it gives the “be happy” approach a realistic foundation. On a personal level, for a natural worrier like me, naming the worries, visualizing the worst that could happen, and then making a survival plan really lightens the load.

The same goes for the conservation movement. It’s been our job, since the beginning of the movement, to identify and name the consequences (often unintended) of society’s choices and then to gather the right supplies and training to avoid or at least minimize the worst case (the Alaska pipeline being a case in point where environmentalists forced industry to face up to the possibility of a disaster and redesign the pipeline to minimize the chances of a major failure). As we enter the 21st century and make the transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, we will need to be very open to changing our mix of supplies and training so that we have approaches that will work in a rapidly evolving world.

Finally, there’s the importance of having a clear sense of purpose and bringing enthusiasm and energy to it. This is a gift that most of us in the conservation movement bring to our work and I think it’s why the movement has been so incredibly successful in its first 30 years. And yet, it can be too much of a good thing. The most serious occupational hazard we face in the conservation movement is burnout. Too many of us run as fast as we can until we drop (dead or out, take your choice). We need to take time to take care of ourselves. And those of us in the movement today need to invest in those who will inherit our jobs. We need to be mentors and friends to the next generation of conservationists, to share what we’ve learned and ensure that what we hand over is a vibrant, diverse, and well-connected community.

It’s an incredible privilege to serve as a leader in this community. When I’m done, my hope is that America’s rivers will be a little bit healthier and a whole lot better appreciated for what they bring to the quality of our lives. I also hope to have contributed to making the movement stronger and better prepared for the challenges it will face in the years to come.