[b]Feds revamping plan for Mississippi River [/b]
Frederic J. Frommer, Associated Press
July 13, 2005 RIVER0713
WASHINGTON -- Federal officials are coming up with a new plan for protecting the upper Mississippi River after the original proposal prompted a backlash over restrictions on hunting, camping and other uses.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which held 17 hearings and eight workshops up and down the river since announcing the original conservation plan in May, will now issue an "alternative'' plan in October. The plan would then be finalized after 45 days of public comments.
Federal officials say it's too soon to say how the new plan will differ from the original one, but they say it will take into account public comments which included objections to restrictions on hunting, boating and public access.
Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who objected to some of those restrictions, said officials will back off on them in the new plan.
"They realize they have to do that or there will be a public outcry,'' said Kind, a duck hunter with a house on the Mississippi. "It would make enforceability very difficult if not impossible, and they certainly don't have the money to go out and hire 500 new agents in the refuge system.''
The Fish and Wildlife Service's goal is to reduce human stress on the fragile river environment and improve wild habitats. Controversial elements in the original plan included limiting overnight camping to main channel islands and shorelines; restricting speeds on backwater areas to 5 mph; increasing no-hunting zones; and banning anyone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher from camping.
The conservation plan would lay out new regulations through the year 2020 for about 240,000 acres of Mississippi floodplain designated as a national wildlife refuge.
The refuge stretches about 260 miles from southern Minnesota to northern Illinois. It's home to hundreds of species of plants, fish and birds, including bald eagles.
The federal Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 requires refuges be managed according to their mission to restore fish, wildlife and plants. The act calls for every national refuge to have a plan by 2012.
Scott Flaherty, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman based in Minneapolis, said more than 2,600 people attended the public hearings. Some were against any change, while others supported the proposed changes in the original plan, he said.
Most of the discussion focused on hunting, fishing, beach use, closed areas and motorless areas, he said.
"The new plan will probably be a hybrid of options presented in the original plan plus recommendations from workshops,'' Flaherty said. "It will reflect the input of a lot of people up and down the river.''
Tim Grunewald, regional director of Wisconsin Ducks Unlimited, saluted Fish and Wildlife for revising the original proposal.
"We are very supportive any time a government agency steps back when it hears critical analysis of a project, and is willing to re-evaluate and come up with an alternative,'' he said. "It's refreshing to know that they will take into account comments they received.''
But Brad Redlin, Mississippi River coordinator for the Izaak Walton League of America, a conservation group, said the league supported the original plan.
"Seeking public comment on conservation plans for public lands is clearly the right thing to do, and responsiveness to those comments is appropriate and expected,'' said Redlin, who is based in St. Paul. "But the resource base itself has no voice to comment. Habitat protection and scientific principles must be given priority over present-day public preferences.''
He added: "The mission of wildlife conservation is to perpetuate natural habitats that will support abundant wildlife populations, not to preside over the allocation of a vanishing resource.''