Odd Ducks

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

The alliance briefed the Greenway Network on its plans in October, but it was a broad-brush description. Now ten years old, the network has learned to compromise. Unlike alliance board members, Meier praises the Corps of Engineers for what he sees as a serious commitment to the environment. Although the Greenway Network doesn't like development in floodplains, it has worked with municipalities to ensure that business parks such as Fountain Lakes include open space and trails. "We're not absolutist, I guess you'd say," Meier says. "I doubt if we would be pushed into that position. Any time you take an absolutist position on anything, you alienate people that maybe you don't want to alienate."

The American Land Conservancy is interested but wants to know more. The conservancy is working with landowners and governments along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to promote floodplain restoration and preserve habitat, but Jenny Frazier, the conservancy's Midwest-region project manager, says she's not sure that a national wildlife refuge is the answer in St. Charles County.

"We want to know more about costs," she says. "There's a lot of attractive things to the idea. There are obvious benefits to limiting development in areas that flood consistently and are costly in terms of disaster assistance."

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.

The wildlife refuge will remain a dream unless someone comes up with a lot of cash. And Adolphus Busch certainly knows how to raise money.

Three years ago, he and Blair organized a fundraiser for Ducks Unlimited at Belleau Farms, where Busch lives, near St. Peters. The $1,000-per-plate dinner party and auction marked what would have been the 100th birthday of the late Gussie Busch. "They got with Ducks Unlimited and said, 'We would like to put on the largest fundraiser ever held by Ducks Unlimited,'" recalls Ollie Torgeson, special assistant to the director of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

They succeeded, raising $4.5 million in a single night (the previous record was held by cable-television mogul Ted Turner, who once raised $1.2 million). The brewery was instrumental. "I think August III [the brewery chairman] sent a note out to all his distributors around the country and suggested they send some money in," recalls Torgeson with a chuckle.

Johnny Rivers provided musical entertainment to 400 guests. The menu included grilled breast of duck braised in port wine with shiitake mushrooms, smoked boneless breast of pheasant finished with Michelob Honey Lager and portobello mushrooms and flame-broiled pork tenderloin accompanied by a light green-peppercorn demiglace. Auction items, many donated by alliance board members, included a vintage Shelby Mustang, a ten-day African hunting safari and a Chevy Tahoe that came with a boat and trailer. Jack Nicklaus threw in a golf outing at Augusta National. At $4,000, a ball and bat autographed by Mark McGwire was one of the least expensive items.

Most of the $4.5 million was shipped outside Missouri, although the state conservation department received enough to close a deal for a wetland near Kansas City that was named for Gussie. "Now, it sure looks like it would have been better spent over here," Busch says wistfully, "but you'd end up getting too much criticism for that."

The shindig did pay some dividends for the alliance, which formed the year after the fundraiser.

Ducks Unlimited could hardly say no when the alliance applied for a grant. It gave $25,000 to help pay for a flood-probability study now being touted as evidence that development on the floodplain is foolhardy. "Ducks Unlimited does not get involved in highly controversial issues, but in this case we supported the study to help them," says John Belz, senior director of development for Ducks Unlimited. A former St. Louisan who worked as an executive at Hager Hinge, Belz says his social and business connections with alliance members had nothing to do with the Ducks Unlimited contribution. "The Mississippi flyway handles about 60 percent of all migratory waterfowl on the North American continent," he says. "This is an incredibly important area they're dealing with."

The study by Dr. Nicholas Pinter, a Southern Illinois University geologist, shows that floods on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers have gotten worse during the past century, with dire consequences in St. Charles County and the city of St. Louis, which lies downstream from the confluence. It's a mix of factors, he says. The weather is getting wetter, land-use practices are sending more water into rivers and artificial jetties built by the Corps of Engineers to create a navigable channel in the Missouri are preventing water from moving downstream as quickly as in past years. Pinter, who has analyzed river-flow and flood-level data collected by the federal government since the Civil War, argues that the rivers rise higher today with the same amount of water than they did decades ago, and that's a result of the river's being restricted with levees and jetties. He blasts development in the floodplain.

"The incredible illogic and insanity of what's going on in St. Charles County is beyond my ability to comment right now," Pinter says.

Pinter's findings aren't new. As long ago as 1975, scientists at Washington University and St. Louis University have used the same methods to reach similar conclusions. But Pinter's study is a big arrow in the alliance's fight to discredit the Corps of Engineers, which uses computer models to establish flood probabilities much lower than those estimated by Pinter. "It still comes down to the Corps of Engineers," Busch says. "They have to set the precedent. The Corps can pretty much write it any way they want to make it look."

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