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April 22, 1997

Stretched Thin, But Holding On

by Neil S. Milligan

There have been some changes since last we visited the RiverKeepers. For those not familiar with the history of the RiverKeepers and the Clean Water Project, a short introduction: Working with salvaged wood and fallen trees on the banks of the Tennessee River, Leaf & Cielo Myczack built their floating home, a 30 foot ketch christened "Broadened Horizons." (See also The Harbinger 1/20 - 2/2, 1992.) During the process, they were appalled at the contamination fouling this vital waterbody -- trash, slicks, foam and dead organisms floating past -- and they knew that "someone" would stop it as soon as "they" were made aware of the problem. Thankful for the timber provided by the river, Leaf & Cielo decided to devote six months to stopping the pollution from upstream before sailing away into the world.

Ten years and 22,000 miles later, our heroes are still at it, though wiser now, knowing that the agencies obliged to protect the network of life-giving waters are in fact the roots of its environmental problems. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) run various programs tacked on to what was originally a rural electrification and flood-control project. TVA was tasked with building earthen and concrete dams throughout the Tennessee River watershed. It was granted the power of eminent domain in order to obtain the private property in the path of the projects -- fertile bottomlands that are now under water -- paying only token amounts to the landholders. The agency has since sold off more than 150,000 acres of shoreline (of the "taken" 730,000 acres) to private developers and industry, with no further compensation to the displaced settlers. For this and many other reasons, the RiverKeepers insist on using the lowercase 'a' when referring to this government entity; they feel this abuse of authority deprives it of any respect. Devout watchdogs of the TVA and its extensive projects, the RiverKeepers are its greatest nemesis.

The Corps, like TVA, is another clearinghouse for district pork; like TVA, it is a government bureaucracy intent on self-preservation and mindless growth. Some of the rural areas in Appalachia benefit from the jobs provided, and Congressional representatives and senators get credit for funneling money back to their constituents. Unfortunately, many of these projects lead to undesirable long-term environmental and social consequences that many feel are not yet fully evident. Some projects primarily benefit big business -- prime waterfront land, cheap transportation, subsidized electricity, easy access to resources -- at the expense of local economies while a few crumbs are thrown to the general public -- bringing "civilization," boat ramps, and hazardous jobs making dangerous products.

The people setting these agenda are of a single mind-set: all growth is good and Man can subjugate Nature if enough money is spent at it. The executive boards appoint experts to committees that approve projects that spawn more projects: more mining and clearcutting in the hills means more dredging the resultant sediment from the channel; more dam-building means more locks and more lock-operators and -maintainers; more road- carving means more bridges; cheap power means more business and more business means more demand for power generation. Rather than look at need, it seems that they weigh only Congress' willingness to provide funds. Grassroots groups like the RiverKeepers play a vital role in oversight, and the TVA and the Corps are well-aware of their presence. (Municipal leaders throughout the region also know of them, since expedience and crisis-management rarely conform with sustainability and sensibility.)

Despite the dark and ever-widening gloom, Leaf & Cielo remain dauntless. They are not certain if it is too late for what they do to actually make a difference, but they know that it is too early to give up the fight for future generations. Though tired and slightly worn, they keep on with their mission as the burdens multiply. Increasingly, much of the work is behind-the-scenes stuff -- case-building for legal and administrative remedies, the nonglamorous tasks that don't grab headlines or bring in donations. A casual observer may envy the free lifestyle of the RiverKeepers, a less-tolerant spectator might even scorn their seeming lack of responsibility and obligation: no home mortgage payment; no daily commute through traffic; no time-clock to punch; no boss's whims to obey; no drab cubicle to report to; just living and working on the water among beautiful forests and mountains. But I have seen the dirty underbelly that more truly reflects their charge: two people living and working in quarters that are smaller than most walk-in closets; tied up to downtown industrial docks among the noise and stench antagonistic to human peace; struggling to finish daily tasks despite freezing weather in a craft short on creature-comforts; enduring the heat and humidity when the water is too filthy to offer relief; traversing the industrial- waterways with one always on watch while the other sleeps because inattention can mean catastrophe; having to adapt to the quirks of whoever is serving as their infrequent host. Suffice it to say that without spending some time in their moccasins, one can not get a true idea of the snags on their chosen path.

The work required to preserve their shelter, the "Broadened Horizons," far outweighs home maintenance. Boats require constant vigilance and upkeep, and working with epoxy and paint is neither easy nor enticing; minor maintenance is ongoing and major work is periodic. Add to this the real environmental work: constant reviews of permit applications, environmental impact statements, and proposed agency mission-shifts; the frequent public meetings, court testimonies, first-hand investigations and educational appearances; the time spent in transit, on the telephone, networking with other groups and explaining issues to media and authorities. Another task, one they both consider enjoyable and important, is compiling and editing the newsletter; they feel that this quarterly report serves to keep the sparse membership of stakeholders informed of the project's status. One might wonder how they manage to take care of their personal needs. That they take their duties seriously, I have no doubt. Both have explained to me the obligation they feel to their family of members: they know that people have to work hard, and probably forgo some small desires, in order to afford the contributions that keep the project afloat. Furthermore, Leaf & Cielo often perform outside labor as barter or to augment project funds. (Much of their personal needs are met from the generosity of their extended family and professional friends.) Part of what makes it so effective -- and enables them to keep on when funding is unsteady -- is its small size: annual budgets typically run between $4,000 and $8,000.

At present Cielo spends all day in a cramped basement pseudo-office, except most weeks when she is able to join Leaf for a day or two. Used to the tight space on the boat, she adapts better to these conditions than most people would. In this windowless, overheated roomlet, she wields the modern tools of telephone and computer. Her major thrust is organizing the Dogwood Alliance, a cooperative association of more then thirty regional groups banded together to fight the infestation of chipmills (see The Harbinger 1/21 - 2/3/97). Also on the front burner is the lawsuit being brought against TVA and the Corps by the RiverKeepers and co-plaintiffs the Bankhead Monitor, Heartwood, and Save America's Forests (see The Harbinger 10/1 - 10/14/96). And then there are the everyday environmental-activist tasks. The stress of so many high-pressure projects, and being stuck in downtown Chattanooga away from the natural world and her soulmate, should be taking a strain on Cielo. But this capable woman is made of sterner stuff: she ain't bending and she ain't breaking.

Still dealing with his portion of the familiar tasks, Leaf also continues the boat overhaul about 45 minutes north of the city at the Sale Creek Marina. His spirits sagged during the cold, low-light Winter days when visitors were few. The marina staff and regulars are friendly and helpful -- people involved with boats, like those aware of environmental degradation, respect what the RiverKeepers are doing -- but they aren't suited for certain discussions that other activist-friends are. Leaf says they are "pretty open and tolerant of us and the project, but they can't walk too far before they run into their myopic views on race, economics, development, etc." My spiritual brother got through these times with Cielo's regular visits and by befriending a scarred and scruffy tomcat, who now lives aboard the still high-and-dry boat.

Salvaged items from decrepit hulks are serving second lives in the project. Pieces of decay-resistant rainforest lumber replace dry-rotted wood in problem areas on the "Broadened Horizons." Donations from other sailors and boatbuilders include a LORAN unit, new stainless-steel rigging with heavy-duty hardware, and a fine anchor-windlass (a mechanical device for hauling in the anchor chain; useful and efficient, especially important for a small crew, it was always considered too expensive, so they did the job manually). Leaf was also given a bronze grounding plate that he expects will clear up some persistent electrical problems, and he incorporated several bronze fittings from a 40 year old Chris Craft suffering terminal entropy. The part he finds "uncanny" is that all of this stuff fits, even the pieces of wood, though some require "just a little trimming." His excitement with these additions is contagious; as someone aware of what the activist arm endures, I am glad for every obscure improvement. As the demands on the Clean Water Project increase, it is possible that a larger crew will one day serve where two barely suffice. For the long-term, the RiverKeepers would like to find a semi-permanent base with a centralized location accessible by river that will provide a home port of sorts. They are at work (as time and materials permit) on a flatbed trailer carrying a mobile office and housing unit that will hold the mounting accumulation of files and the tools and equipment necessary for sustainability. The structure was completely framed with new pressure-treated lumber found as flotsam on the swollen river. Besides the donated plywood, most of the other material came from dumpsters, construction trashpiles, and a junked RV.

So I got to spend some time with Leaf & Cielo again. I hope it was as good for them as it was for me. Getting away from urban-sprawl to less-development was nice, but by no stretch of the imagination can one call this area pristine or untrammeled. I was greeted by TVA's annual low-water period, when three to ten feet of lifeless gravelly slope lies exposed below the vegetation, what Leaf calls "ring-around-the-reservoir." (Artificial water-level fluctuations drain off finer soils and nutrients, expose submergent vegetation and drown emergent plants.) I used the kayak and dinghy to paddle around the creeks and inlets as much as possible before being driven away by fickle bass-boaters roaring in and out, annoying jet- skiers intent on covering as much area as possible while experiencing little, and mower-riders grooming suburban lawns to the water's edge. (Easter morning before 7 a.m. we were disturbed by an inconsiderate boater anchored in the river who had to run his raucous generator in order to watch TV. Leaf paid him a visit in the kayak and, though he considered Leaf "rude" for complaining, he reluctantly returned the quietude to us.)

I always come away from such a visit with recharged batteries, and this was no exception. The commitment of the RiverKeepers is almost tangible. Their chosen lifestyle makes my contributions seem pale in comparison; their dedication renews my purpose. While the trials they withstand sometimes seem for naught, they are making a difference. Their experience and wisdom are respected by people who live on and near the river system and by average people in the agencies. It is just the executives who see them as troublemakers. The Office of the RiverKeeper (P.O. Box 4826, Chattanooga, TN 37405-0826) remains a substantial force in protection of the biosphere.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL