Odd Ducks

The fight to preserve St. Charles County floodplains makes for some strange bedfellows

The ducks appear minutes before sunset.

A half-hour ago, there was only the odd duck -- a mallard here, a widgeon there. Flying high and out of range, they had ignored decoys and calls here on the outskirts of O'Fallon, Missouri. Judging by the paucity of shotgun blasts on surrounding land, hunters elsewhere didn't have much luck either.

Now that the hunting has ended -- shooting must stop 30 minutes before the sun goes down -- ducks are everywhere, countless black dots stretching as far as the eye can see against a red-and-purple sky. They have come from nowhere, as if answering a casting call from Alfred Hitchcock. Wheeling in flight, birds by the hundreds drop into flooded cornfields, where they will gorge and rest before continuing their journey south.

Roy Tompkins
Great Rivers Habitat Alliance executive director Wayne 
Freeman (left) and member Glennon Jamboretz 
search the skies for meat.
Jennifer Silverberg
Great Rivers Habitat Alliance executive director Wayne Freeman (left) and member Glennon Jamboretz search the skies for meat.

"See that?" says Glennon Jamboretz, owner of these fields. "They're landing right where we were."

A half-dozen mallards join decoys placed in a baseball-diamond-size pond less than a pitcher's throw from a blind built into a levee. Jamboretz and his hunting companion, Wayne Freeman, knew that this would probably happen. The weather is just too darn nice, in the mid-50s with not a cloud in the sky. Ducks like to travel at night, especially in conditions like this. "You get colder weather, they get antsy," says Freeman, executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. "They have to eat -- they need those carbohydrates."

All Jamboretz and Freeman can do is watch. They've seen this many times before, but the sight of so many ducks flying so close is mesmerizing. They can't keep their eyes off the sky. "It's a wonderful sight," Freeman says. "I wish they would have come in twenty minutes earlier."

The day isn't a total loss. In the space of two hours, Freeman and Jamboretz have seen marsh hawks circling in search of prey. Killdeer have flown past their blind so close you can identify them by the shapes of their beaks. They have watched a flock of red-winged blackbirds, hundreds of them, rise as one a stone's throw away. Hidden by cornstalks, they had been invisible.

You need connections to see this. Like his neighbors, Jamboretz has posted his 86 acres with "No Trespassing" signs. If you can find a willing landowner, permission to hunt on such a place for one 60-day season can cost $6,000. Although Jamboretz calls his land Mallard Farm, this is a duck club. Jamboretz and owners of other nearby duck clubs let someone else plant, harvest and sell the crops. Their return is perhaps the best hunting land in the state -- and they want to keep it that way.

Alarmed by encroaching development, Jamboretz and other duck-club owners, who include some of the region's richest and most prominent residents, have formed the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. They're against raising levees. They're asking landowners to either donate land or put property in trust to protect it from development. They warn of catastrophe if development continues on land that was under water nine years ago. They're asking for millions of public dollars, but what's good for ducks, they insist, is good for taxpayers.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Rich folks have long been a cornerstone of conservation in the United States. A dozen years before Theodore Roosevelt created the first national wildlife refuge in 1903, Benjamin Harrison, who was a lawyer before he became president, established the nation's first national forest in Wyoming.

Leaders of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance see themselves as saviors of the floodplain, but for all their money, they know they can't save the earth by themselves. And so they're enlisting the support of environmental groups that had barely heard of these guys two years ago.

In short, the alliance wants to change the face of St. Charles County by creating the state's largest national wildlife refuge area -- and they may just have the juice to make it happen.

Just two years old, the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance is hardly a fledgling organization.

Board members include Jamboretz, who owns an advertising agency -- his daughter, Kathryn, anchors the nightly news on KPLR-TV (Channel 11). The biggest name is Adolphus Busch IV, heir to a beer fortune. His family is known for its commitment to conservation -- witness the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area near Weldon Spring, purchased by the state in 1947 with a $70,000 donation from the widow of the late brewery baron.

But some alliance leaders seem out of place in an environmental group.

Garth Fort, for example, is a former executive at Monsanto and its spin-off company Solutia. While at Monsanto, Fort was chairman of the Chemical Manufacturers Association's State Affairs Committee, which tracked and fought legislation deemed hostile to the interests of such companies as Dow Chemical, Du Pont and Exxon.

Don Musick III, a developer who's made a fortune putting up shopping centers and office buildings, acknowledges that he's not your typical environmentalist. He's building a $180 million office-and-retail complex at the intersection of Hanley and Eager roads.

Musick confesses past sins, admitting that he's built in Earth City and other areas on floodplains -- sometimes as a contractor, sometimes as lead developer. The last time was about ten years ago, he says, and it won't happen again.

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