Friday, February 1, 2008

The headwaters of this project

Back in 1994, I was managing a pair of radio stations in Bemidji, Minnesota. Winter was fading, and the staff and I were brainstorming promotional ideas for spring. I had heard of something called the “Adopt-a-River” program. Similar to the Adopt-a-Highway effort that is its’ namesake, the project involves identifying a segment of river that you’ll commit to cleaning for a period of at least two years. The group loved the idea, so as a radio station, we adopted a section of the Mississippi, very near the headwaters at Lake Itasca. It was to be the first event in a series that we called, “Project Planet.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a promotion unless we promoted the idea. So we went on-the-air, and told our listeners that we were going to meet down at the river, with canoes, garbage bags and work gloves. The audience was invited to join us, even though the only reward we offered was soft drinks and snacks at the end of the day, provided by a grocery store sponsor. We kicked-off the publicity on Earth Day, and announced that the clean-up would begin in early May.

We thought we’d be lucky to get ten or fifteen people to turn out. But the phones started ringing off the hook. Other community groups called to offer their additional manpower. The most strategically significant of these being the Headwaters Canoe Club, whose co-chair at the time was Bob Wagner. “We not only have the muscle,” he said, “our members have the watercraft to cover a lot of river in a short amount of time.”

John Fylpaa called from Lake Bemidji State Park, and suggested that we could tie-in with their “March for Parks” program… and multiply each others’ volunteer forces. John’s call was followed by an inquiry from Paul Nordell, the person in charge of the Adopt-a-River program in the state of Minnesota. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

Then, other calls started flowing in. The Youth Conservation Corps. Northwest Juvenile Training Center. Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Simply stated, things got out of hand, in a very good way. Ultimately, this diverse coalition of volunteers “adopted” nearly 150 miles of the Mississippi River, beginning at the very headwaters where the river is born. We fielded calls from reporters at KSTP-TV, WCCO-TV, CNN, and the Associated Press. Our little project in this little town had caught the attention of a lot of folks.

I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a more gratifying project, in professional terms. Not only because it was a success for our company, but also because it was a good thing for the community and its’ natural resources. And people knew it.

The late Senator Paul Wellstone offered his words of encouragement, by phone and with a personal letter, recognizing both the physical and symbolic importance of the project (see top left; if you like, you can click on any of the thumbnail images to enlarge any photo or document).

Similar letters of support--or official proclaimations recognizing the event-- came from Minnesota Senator David Durenberger, then-Governor Arnie Carlson, and Congressman Collin Peterson. (Congressman Peterson not only wrote... he showed-up on the first day of the event, rolled-up his sleeves, and joined in the dirty work of a trash pick-up near a place called “the Powerdam,” just downstream from Lake Bemidji.

As word spread of our work at the Mississippi headwaters, letters of thanks and more official proclamations were received from mayors Bonnie Cumberland of Brainerd, Sharon Sayles Belton of Minneapolis, and then-mayor (now U.S. Senator) Norm Coleman of St. Paul. Even Freeman Bosley, Jr., at that time the Mayor of St. Louis. And we heard from the cities of New Orleans and Mobile, too.

We received one other note, this time from Vice President Al Gore (see left). The letter said a variety of things… but more than anything, it said this: “You’re doing something that matters.”

I recently got back in touch with Bob Wagner, now retired from his career as an educator, and living in Turtle River, Minnesota. It was a wonderful call. This is the kind of experience that remains a vivid and gratifying memory for years and years.

The most exciting thing about that whole project? It wasn’t complicated. It was just a bunch of people cleaning-up a section of river that never deserved to be abused in the first place. The effort transcended its’ intended role as a radio station promotion. It humbled me, and it made me a better person. It drew a community together in ways that I could not have imagined. It felt good. And it accomplished something important.

Every idea has to start somewhere. There is a place called Lake Itasca, a beautiful, spring-fed body of water that nourishes the landscape of Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, between Park Rapids and Bemidji. At one edge, the shoreline is interrupted by a bridge of rocks, where the lake spills over to create the Headwaters of the Mississippi. The water is crystal clear. Kids walk over the rock bridge, almost always getting their tennis shoes wet.

I suppose the idea of has trickled down from that specific point, as did the first river restoration project I was ever involved with.

© 2008 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

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