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MINNESOTA CITY, Minn. – Sabrina Chandler spent much of her life on the other end of the Mississippi River.

Growing up on the Gulf Coast near New Orleans, where levees wall the river off, she had to work to see it. Near the delta, the river is a big, scary, powerful thing. People fear it.

Now the manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, Chandler recounted those days as she drove to one of her favorite places. She pulled up to Verchota Landing, where the river opened up in front of her, expansive and calm. She pointed to a pile of felled trees — a beaver's calling card — then to an arc of pelicans flying overhead, and a muskrat poking its head above water before disappearing under the surface.

"There's not really a bad view anywhere," she said.

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge protects more than 240,000 acres of floodplain along the river from Wabasha, Minn., to Rock Island, Ill., including much of Wisconsin's geographically unique Driftless Region. It's one of 571 such refuges across the U.S., which garner less love from the public than the country's national parks but have an equally important mission. It's the land system managed first and foremost for wildlife conservation.

This month, the upper Mississippi refuge is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Dozens of events this summer are aimed at getting people out to explore its beauty and unique value.

Much of the rest of the Mississippi River floodplain has been developed to serve human needs. Levees in Iowa and Illinois restrain the river as it courses through high-production farmland, and further south, it's lined by fossil fuel and petrochemical plants.

It was the specter of such development more than a century ago that led one impassioned fisherman, Will Dilg — a Chicagoan who co-founded the Izaak Walton League — on a crusade to protect the stretch of river he loved most.

On June 7, 1924, he got his wish: the creation of a refuge on the upper Mississippi, which to this day provides hundreds of miles of river habitat to fish and wildlife and gives people the opportunity to enjoy it for free.

But the refuge faces new threats. Habitat degradation, made worse by climate change, is threatening this protected place as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is tasked with taking care of it, has fewer resources to do so. It means the next 100 years of the refuge's lifetime will be critical.

"We're thankful for conservation advocates like Will Dilg, who were just stubborn enough to make it happen," Chandler said. "We are hoping for a new generation of those kinds of folks."

A muskrat swims in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in April in Winona, Minn. Established in 1924, the refuge stretches 261 river miles from Wabasha, Minn., to Rock Island, Ill. It is a haven for migratory...
A muskrat swims in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in April in Winona, Minn. Established in 1924, the refuge stretches 261 river miles from Wabasha, Minn., to Rock Island, Ill. It is a haven for migratory...

Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dilg makes a stand to stop the 'drainage crime of the century'

In July 1923, subscribers to the monthly magazine of the newly formed Izaak Walton League found a fiery plea from Dilg in its pages.

"The drainage crime of a century is about to be committed and you can stop it," he wrote. "Will you do it?"

Dilg was talking about a plan to drain Winneshiek Bottoms, a tranquil riverside channel on the Wisconsin-Iowa border. It was part of a larger push by developers who were frustrated by farmland near the river getting flooded, and who proposed building levees to hold the river in.

Dilg had every reason to ignore the plight of the Mississippi: His young son had drowned in it during a family vacation to a houseboat near Winona. Instead, he sang the upper river's praises as paradise on earth for animals, birds, and most importantly, fish and the fishers who loved to catch them.

He implored the League's members, already tens of thousands strong, to write to President Warren G. Harding to stop the drainage of Winneshiek Bottoms and ask Congress to purchase the land along the river from Wabasha to Rock Island so that it could become "forever a National Preserve."

"'Let George do it' won't do this time," Dilg wrote, referring to the idea of foisting responsibility for solving a problem onto someone else. "You have got to do it yourself OR IT WON'T BE DONE."

Dilg meant business, and his words galvanized an impressive cadre of sportsmen across the country, as well as the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Eleven months later, Congress passed the Upper Mississippi River Wild Life and Fish Refuge Act, which authorized the acquisition of land for the refuge.

Steve Marking, a river historian and guest performer for American Cruise Lines on its Mississippi River cruises, said Dilg's name should be remembered along with other great environmental conservationists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

"He sold our modern conservation movement to the American public," said Marking, who this year debuted "A Visit from Will Dilg," a documentary and live performance about Dilg's work that he scripted, filmed and starred in. "Nobody else did that kind of sales job and got them to buy it."

Dilg's leadership style was divisive, and a few years later, he was ousted from his role as president of the Izaak Walton League. But the legacy he left with the creation of the refuge and the love he inspired for the land remains.

Refuge protections facilitate connection to the river

For Marking, the refuge was the playground he grew up on, one he was taught to cherish by his father, who worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

After leaving for college and a singing career out east, he'd take a canoe out on the water each time he returned, noticing how quickly his stress melted away.

"So many people I know moved away for a decade, two, three, and always find their way back to the Mississippi River," Marking said. "It's in your blood."

He's not alone.

Barry Allen, senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited in southwest Wisconsin, hunted on the refuge with his father near their home in Wabasha all through high school. His favorite part is searching through bays and backwaters for groups of birds, often a wide variety of species, undiscovered by other hunters.

Allen said it's "unbelievable" how many duck hunters use the refuge. On last year's opening weekend, he arrived at his previously scouted spot at 2 a.m. to find the parking lot completely full.

"Having access to a place like the river and the [refuge] has shaped me, and I know it's shaped … hundreds of thousands of people," he said.

Although it's difficult to say exactly what this corridor of the river might have looked like had it been leveed off for farmland, it's fairly certain that access — for both people and wildlife — would be restricted.

Today, the refuge is designated as a Wetland of International Importance and a Globally Important Bird Area. Such large tracts of relatively undisturbed habitat are increasingly hard to find, to the detriment of birds that need them, said Nat Miller, senior director of conservation for the National Audubon Society's Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Flyway regions.

Cutting off the river from its natural floodplain and constraining its flow through narrower levees also makes it rise higher and flow faster during floods, which can cause worse flooding downstream. For a long time, the answer to that was to build levees with higher walls, although some communities are now pursuing levee setbacks to make room for the river instead.

Communities along the refuge don't have those decisions to make. And they have the luxury of being able to launch a boat or take a walk directly by the water.

It's something that Brenda Kelly, Mississippi River wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, takes full advantage of.

She takes her hunting dogs, Harper and Reno (both named after places on the river near De Soto, where she lives) swimming in the Mississippi often. She fishes, kayaks, hunts and hikes. She also leads a paddling field trip annually to entice people to the area who may have never explored it before.

Once people know about it, "They'll be sure to be right back," Kelly said.

And that's important, she believes, even on a river like the Mississippi, which is so massive that people might think it simply takes care of itself.

"The answer is, no, it doesn't," she said. "It needs the refuge. It needs those protections in place."

A shrinking refuge staff tackles urgent challenges

The effects of degrading habitat and climate change are showing themselves on the refuge, and funding to address them hasn't kept up.

Dying floodplain forests have become one of the refuge staff's chief concerns these days, Chandler said. More severe and longer-lasting flooding, caused by a warmer, wetter atmosphere as well as land use changes that make water run off the landscape faster, is killing off trees that would otherwise perform important ecological functions.

The trees on the refuge are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns more than a third of refuge lands that it acquired for the creation of the locks and dams nearly a century ago. The Corps, the Fish and Wildlife Service and an Audubon forest ecologist work together to take care of the trees and control the new problems that can arise when they die off, like the spread of invasive reed canary grass.

The river's backwater channels, a favored spot for many fish species, are also getting shallower as sediment from upstream washes downriver and settles. That's also causing problems in the main channel, where the Corps must dredge large amounts of sand to allow shipping traffic to pass through, but in the backwaters, it's hurting vegetation growth and driving out fish.

Kelly worries about an influx of road salt, the presence of PFAS — the so-called "forever chemicals" that threaten human health — in the water, and the possibility of train accidents and pollution as a result of more frequent flooding.

"As great as this resource is, it's not like we marked it with the refuge" and shielded it forever, she said.

The urgency to fix these problems comes at a time when the national wildlife refuge system is seeing budget cuts and staffing shortfalls. The system has lost over 800 permanent positions since the 2011 budget year, according to the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and a 2019 High Country News story reported the system's budget had decreased nearly 18% since 2010 when accounting for inflation.

Chandler said on the upper Mississippi refuge, she's lost about a third of her staff since she took over as manager.

"There are a lot of things where we just have to say, 'You know what, this is not a priority,' and we have to let those things go," she said.

Inspiring the next generation of refuge protectors

Still, there are opportunities ahead that could lighten the load. The refuge received $10 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to build up resiliency to the impacts of climate change and restore its ecosystems.

Chandler said she's also focused on acquiring more privately owned land for the refuge. In the last 10 years, close to 8,000 acres have been donated to, or acquired by, the refuge.

The staff also relies more heavily today on the work of volunteers — something that could get easier as its 100th anniversary has prompted interest in new chapters of the Izaak Walton League.

During the premiere performances of Marking's "A Visit from Will Dilg" in La Crosse earlier this year, more than 50 people said they'd be interested in forming a chapter to tackle environmental challenges they're concerned about, said Jodi Labs, the League's national president, who's based in Wisconsin.

That investment in the future resonates with Brian Vigue, freshwater policy director for Audubon Great Lakes. A member of the Oneida Nation, Vigue sees parallels between the creation of the refuge and the Seventh Generation principle that many tribes hold, in which today's choices should be made to benefit those who will live seven generations later, and people should live in the world as if they are borrowing it from future generations.

Though the refuge isn't quite seven generations old, "can you imagine if somebody hadn't had the foresight to plan ahead?" Vigue said. "Who knows what we would have there right now."

What's there now is beauty that astounds him. On a fall trip up the Great River Road with his wife, they stopped in the refuge, admiring the colors and the ducks that still hung around before flying south. They climbed a bluff to look down at the Mississippi, a view that "puts you in your place," he said, thinking about how long the river has wound its way through this part of the world.

Like Kelly, Vigue has been struck by the thought that the river is so big that it feels impossible that humans would have any impact on it. But its struggles have proven that untrue.

That makes the rallying effort behind the creation of the refuge — long before communication through social media — all the more remarkable.

"If people look at how that actually all took place, it really could be a great template for modern conservation advocacy," Labs said. "Just think what we could accomplish today."

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The Izaak Walton League, Ducks Unlimited and Audubon Society, all sources in this story, also receive Walton funding.