Odd Ducks

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

Not present is James Thomas Blair IV, grandson of former Missouri Governor James Blair, who held office from 1957-61. Blair is so keen on ducks that he proposed to his wife in a duck blind on opening day, hiring a plane to tow a banner asking her to marry him. Save for a stint on the state conservation commission, he eschews politics and earns his living as principal at the Moneta Group, a financial-planning firm.

Despite their pedigrees, alliance leaders consider themselves underdogs. Developers have the upper hand, Busch insists. "They can influence the politicians because they've got a ton of money," he says, without a trace of irony. "I thought we'd have a life span of two years and people would give up."

This cocktail party is as much a getting-acquainted session as anything else. For all their money, alliance board members know they can't accomplish their mission by themselves -- and so they are cultivating allies.

After a half-hour of munching hors d'oeuvres and mingling, the crowd turns its attention to Musick, who gives a brief tutorial on the alliance, its goals and its finances. In 2000, the alliance raised slightly more than $114,000, according to its tax returns. The alliance hasn't yet filed a return for 2001, but Musick says the group has raised about $500,000 since its inception, with the single largest chunk coming from the James and Aune Nelson Foundation, an Illinois conservation fund that has contributed at least $100,000. The audience applauds politely when Musick announces that Anheuser-Busch has also made a $25,000 donation. Someone boos when Musick announces that a representative is present from the Corps of Engineers, which issues permits to fill wetlands and sets 100-year-flood thresholds low enough to make development possible.

For months, the alliance has been talking quietly with environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. Tonight, they're going public with their grand vision: a national wildlife refuge that would put 55,000 acres of St. Charles County floodplain off-limits to development.

The proposed Confluence National Wildlife Refuge would be the state's tenth and one of the largest (the Big Muddy refuge, a scattering of parcels along the Missouri River stretching from Kansas City to St. Louis, is less than 10,000 acres, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife plans to expand the refuge to 60,000 acres).

It would also be the closest to an urban area.

And it will be hugely controversial.

The alliance wants to do more than freeze things as they are. By purchasing development rights or buying land outright, the alliance hopes to protect thousands of acres of farmland and property already zoned for commercial use. The fate of the duck clubs varies. In some cases, club owners would either donate or sell development rights. In others, the alliance's map shows that some clubs will continue as they always have, with preservation dependent on the noblesse oblige of landowners.

The map isn't set in stone. Musick says he and other alliance members will forfeit development rights, and he expects that other club owners will eventually do the same. Farther from the river, the game gets tougher. By surrounding commercially zoned land with refuge property, Musick hopes to cool the fires of development and persuade construction companies and municipalities to retreat. Although the alliance's written plan says all land and development rights will come from willing donors or sellers, Musick doesn't rule out the acquisition of property through eminent domain. "There's always a possibility," he says. "I can't rule anything out at this stage of the game on what might happen. I think that you're going to see an awful lot of push-back from a couple of municipalities. This doesn't have to be a war. It has that potential, I grant you."

So far, there isn't a war chest. The alliance has set a preliminary price tag of $150 million for land acquisition and another $45 million for habitat restoration, with $25 million coming from private sources. "That's a lot of capital, but compared to one flood, it's nothing," says Freeman. As far as he's concerned, taxpayers will save in the long run because they won't have to pay to rebuild homes and businesses that would otherwise spring up in the area.

Musick says the real cost isn't known. "I can't even begin to guess [what it will cost] at this stage of the game," he says. "I would expect it's going to be a multimillion-dollar effort under any circumstances." Ever the developer, he wants to move quickly. "I'd like to organize this thing and do it like any other development project, frankly," he says. "This isn't anything we're going to allow to drag on for ten years. It may take us a couple years to do it."

Establishing a national wildlife refuge requires an act of Congress, a presidential declaration or approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some environmental groups are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"From a personal standpoint, I like the idea," says Len Meier, president of the Greenway Network, which promotes open-space and clean-water projects in St. Charles County, "but without the organization having actually seen the proposal, we can't say anything yet."

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