June 9, 2013

The Great Mississippi River Greenway & Wildlife Corridor

I might be coining a term here: The Great Mississippi River Greenway and Wildlife Corridor

There are municipal greenways on the Mississippi, research shows a few, around St. Louis, Minneapolis, and even Memphis, good natured nature projects by civic groups and governments that try to make the riverfront a common area for recreation, tourism, and nature,
and there is even a National Trail of sorts:
but its a driving route that links all the good spots.
I am unable to find any evidence that anyone has thought of the whole river, 'The Land Between the Levies', as what it has very well become, which is a sort of massive greenway and wildlife and nature corridor through the heart of the United States, accidental at that.

The Army Corps of Engineers might cringe at the thought, since they have enough political pressures on them without having to worry about the environment more than they already voluntarily do, increasingly so as time has progressed and their mandate to control floods has been more and more successfully met.
This idea first occurred to me during a drive up The Mighty Mississippi about a year back. As I am sadly want to do, and you readers are the victims of it, I started researching the ecology around me as I came down the Natchez Trace Parkway, on nights in brick hotels and plywood motels, or even squirreled back in some odd spot to camp in the back of my car like an empty field near Oprah's hometown, or a clear cut in what I think were called the Liberty Hills of the Highland Rim of NW Alabama, with a belly full of Bar B Q, and an imagination full of Rock and Roll and the Blues, in places like Tupelo and Jackson and Muscle Shoals.
While driving, I had spotted a snake on the parkway, a copperhead, and spun around just in time to watch a local run it over for good riddance, so wanted to know what was really around me, almost out of mourning and anger. I stumbled upon a pieces about how the last remaining Black Bears in Louisiana and Mississippi tended to be along the banks of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and Vicksburg.
what I saw here were these concentrations along the river, since so many other parts of these states, if not heavily populated, are heavily hunted, and also given over to agriculture.
By this point I had crossed at Natchez, and gone in search of Angola State Prison, of Monster Ball, Rodeo, and Dead Man Walking fame, on a long days loop south from Natchez on the west side before I had to turn north and head for a wedding back in Yankee territory, which would allow me to follow the whole river until St Louis where I would turn off the blue highways and head east on Interstates. I ended up finding the Angola Prison Employees Ferry on a lark left turn off the Louisiana side two lane that runs right on top of the Levee, onto a dirt road, hoping to just find he river, and maybe a short cut to Angola.
I was genial refused access to the ferry (although told about a bridge about an hour south), as it runs right into the prison (you don´t want to go there, brotha!), but I had a chat with the big ol' bull of a guard about whether he ever sees black bears around. I was a bit amused to hear him gripe about how the state of Louisiana was actually protectin´ them and trying to increase their numbers. The guy was a guard at one of the scariest prisons in the US, was the size of two of me, and I am not small, but he seemed truly intimidated by the idea of wild bears roaming the woods that stretched along this side off the bank for miles. He also seemed to see them as a bit of a pest. As we talked, I looked around me, and other than some visible buildings on the prison side across the way, the view from here on the bluff bank that was just a bit of a parking area with a guard post, was so satisfyingly primordial in all directions that I could not help but think I was seeing what De Soto might have seen, or Marquette and Joliet. It was starting to dawn on me that the land between the levees was all wild. It is left to grow, since it would help flood control, and not many farmers wanted to deal wit' the high probability of crop loss from not only possible but probable flooding for anything short of algae. All the farm land was outside the levees, and people only built on the bigger bluffs in places like Nachez or Mempis or Vicksburgh or St. Louis. the further south you got, the less bluffs there were, and the wilder and wilder the land between the levees became, and likely wider as well, because the river drained more and more the more tributaries that entered, adding volume measured in tens of thousands of cubic feet per second:
So the levees could either be even taller, or even further apart if the water was to be tamed.. I found them to be sometimes a mile or more from the river channel in places south of  Natchez, areas that felt and were wild and in some places impenetrable...
This picture, of the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi and the namesake of that state, perfectly exemplifies the phenomenon I was seeing:
That strip of forest is between the levees, and undeveloped, and a corridor likely almost as long as that river, barring a few towns.. running all the way from St Louis to just about Chicago in this one instance, let alone the other rivers of the system, because the Levees aren´t just on the Mighty Miss herself, but on so many of her tributaries where they border farmland or populations, which is just about everywhere in The Great Midwest, perhaps the worlds greatest combination of climate and soil.
Take a look at this area north of Vicksburgh, Ms, for instance, incidentally, the area of the Famous Teddy Bear Naming Incident:
this whole area is wild because it´s where the Yazoo River meets the Mississippi. You are five minutes out of Vicksburg and you feel like you are 400 years back, not 100 years back like I feel in Vicksburg already!
And everywhere on the river, here seems to be one side or another where they is this almost begrudging gift to nature by the local farmers so that the river has some capacity to withstand the floods, which unannounced to me until now, since I am writing far far from the Mississippi, are occurring as I write, having hit it´s 4th largest crest in history in St. Louis just nine days ago. We´ll see if it registers on the kind of honorary official gauge down in Vicksburgh, which is just a few blocks for the Army Corps office for most of he Main Portion of the River south of the Ohio and Missouri inflows.
to make this more stunning, you can see that we were setting records just two years ago in 2011, and not on the gage, low water level records last year... not to venture off into another discussion of world weather extremes which you are all likely quite familiar with.
So where am I going with this?
Click for Background Music Song 2
I am not defending the levees per se.. I know they have bad effects:
but if you know about the flood of 1927, you know that people wanted to move into the area, and they didn't want to die for the sake of picking cotton or living a life in what they had by then considered to be, for better or for worse, their homes.
Few people know that were it not for the Levees, and The Old River Control Structure, the river likely would have moved over to the Achefalaya and be draining out the Achefalaya Basin by now near Houma, especially given the last few huge floods, 100 miles from it´s current outflow into the gulf of Mexico near Venice, Louisiana, leaving both Baton rouge and New Orleans high and dry, more worried about what to do for water and money than floods.
You see it´s a classic story of people moving to a place that is wild, and taming it, and that is kind of what Environmentalists are against in principal, living in places that are inhospitable, that nature has another plan for, and bending them to your will at the detriment of the natural ecology, but it happened, and man did it happen under King Cotton and the creation of the Corn and Grain Belt! and maybe this is why so many people go the blues down there, because they were worked over hard as he nature there was, but there is a beauty in that resilience, and we now have communities one would consider old communities living there, 200 years old and counting in some cases, and thrivin' cultures, and it would be termed Radical Environmentalism to just tear out the Levees, even if it would be the best for the plants and animals, but this is how things are, the Blues is about accepting, and the compromise is the levee system, and the upside is that it left this scrap of sorts, these river bottoms that are no doubt preserving the biodiversity of this once savage land that was only the home of human natives since the Clovis Man for 12,000-14,000 years, and then was explored by the Spanish, then the French, then the likes of Daniel Boone and later Jim Bowie and the like. it´s been in the last 200 years that man stopped moving for the River, and his effects are obvious from looking at satellite photos now. The Levees could be holding back some of he endless fertilizer and pollution that is part and parcel with intensive cotton farming and so many of the other crops that are the economy of this massive basin, which is creating a dead zone in the Gulf as we speak, oil spills just icing on this foul tasting cake..
  The Hope is that in these bottom lands, perhaps sediments are being stored and used to create life and forests and cypress swamps, instead of flooding out into the gulf and creating toxicity, perhaps the Mountain Lion will make his next breeding populations East of South Dakota, the Black Bear might be joined by the Grizzly Someday, the Elk, or maybe a few wolf will find a way past Minneapolis to trot down into the big bottom lands and wooded hills along the river in areas like Winona, MN, or follow it further south, into the River areas of Wisconsin, and if they can hop a lo of farm land, fat with Deer you might imagine, maybe all the way to the wilds near Muscatine or Cairo and Southern MO where the new Elk Population is waiting to be dinner!
Click for Background Music 3
If no one has put this idea together, I now offer it.. maybe its time to take the idea of a contiguous Mississippi River Greenway seriously, and not just the after-effect of other policies.
turns out it has been thought of..
Mississippi river corridor Study 1996
Read the Study
and perhaps I finally found an advocacy group for the whole river, not just one little area like this one in the Minneapolis area:
These guys seem to be takin the macro approach:
Ha.. there's more than one!
Further research shows that the land between the levees is known as Batture, much of it is privately owned, just usually kept fallow and wild, and here is a lot of case precedent to it:
Places to Start... or maybe we just keep it informal the way it is, laid back Southern Style...
Maybe things are lookin' up for the Old Black Water after all, and meanwhile, the critters in the land between the levies will keep on actin' the way they have been since the days of the land of the lost.. one slither, shiver and growl at a time...
Click for Closing Credits Music

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