Sunny skies, calm winds and temperatures in the low 40’s represented unusual end of November weather but a good opportunity to review the proposed frac sand mining site in the Town of Bridgeport, Crawford County, as viewed from the river during leaf-off conditions. I paddled from Millville to Bridgeport mid-day on November 29th.
Within 100 yards of putting in, I saw a pair of eagles, which was the theme for the day. A total of 21 adults and juveniles, some of which may have been repeat customers but a lot of eagle action nonetheless. Three nests were sighted, including two in the immediate vicinity of the proposed frac sand mining location.
The proposal to create a frac sand mine in the area is one of the most challenging issues the LWSRB has faced in the past 23 years. Of the 200 acre site, spread over four farms, less than ˝ is located within the Riverway boundary. Therefore, with or without a Riverway Board issued permit, it is likely the mining activity will move forward, assuming the other local and state permits are obtained. The Pattison Sand Company has offered a proposal that will locate the mine outside of the viewshed of the river, which means the activity will comply with the applicable Riverway performance standards as pertaining to scenic protection.
An unprecedented number of messages and public comment have been received by the LWSRB on this issue. Frequently, commenters will point to the board’s mission statement, which indicates the mission is to “protect and preserve the scenic beauty and natural character of the Riverway…” However, the statement goes on to say that that “due consideration shall be given to the rights of landowners…” The next paragraph adds, “The challenge facing the LWSRB is to maintain the fragile and delicate balance between protection and preservation of the scenic beauty and natural character of the Riverway and protection and preservation of the rights of landowners and local residents within the boundaries of the Riverway.”
For 23 years, the LWSRB has walked this tightrope in a manner akin to the Flying Wallendas in terms of skill and grace. Only once has a case gone to court. For the frac sand mining proposal, I personally made it clear to the landowners and to the Pattison Sand Company from the very beginning, at the first on-site meeting, that I felt the activity was incompatible with the objectives of the Riverway. But, I am compelled, until the board directs me otherwise, to assist landowners in understanding the Riverway law and the permit process. Indeed, the LWSRB Strategic Plan, under “strategies for implementation of goals and objectives” says, “…All reasonable efforts shall be taken to assure a landowner may achieve his/her goals and objectives within the constraints of the Riverway law.” As presented, the activity will comply with the scenic protection standards of the Riverway law. [There are other regulations for which compliance must be achieved at both the Town of Brideport level and at the state level. Approval of permits from those governmental jurisdictions hasn’t been granted as of yet (12/03/12).]
As I paddled past the proposed mine site, there were many profound moments. I listened intently and, in addition to the raucous cry of the rabblerousing crows, I could hear the whistle of the Burlington Northern Sante Fe train several miles away, which made my concerns about noise from mine site return. I heard the kingfisher announce my arrival well before rounding the toe of an island and heard a juvenile eagle on the right bank just below the mine site give a piercing cry reminiscent of a young calf in the pasture separated from Mama for the first time; lost and afraid. Across the river were two adult eagles, one responded to the cry with a strange whistling call, one I hadn’t heard from an eagle before. I took it as a sign to tell the juvey to “be cool” and “everything will be okay in a minute.” A short distance later was a large eagle nest without any activity around, not sure if it was vacant, but the empty eaglet nursery made me think of the future and wonder if the mining activity will change the sentience of this place by making the area bereft of nesting eagles.
Lots of other thoughts came to mind as well. The frac sand mining boom in Wisconsin is linked to the hydraulic fracking industry which is focused on slaking Americans thirst for cheap and abundant fossil fuels to power our cars, heat our homes and drive our industry. Many Americans consider it in a geopolitical context of less reliance on foreign oil and the desire to give a Brooklyn salute to OPEC…but, at what cost. I don’t blame the landowners or the mining company for pursuing these permits. They understand the regulations and are playing by the rules as they currently exist. Doesn’t mean I have to like it though.
I also thought of the precedent setting nature of the board’s action on these permit applications and shuddered at the specter of other similar frac sand mines peppering the landscape from Prairie du Sac to Prairie du Chien. While the scenic beauty of the Riverway may escape unchanged, the character of the valley will change, if not forever, certainly for the foreseeable future.
As I approached the bridge, with eagles soaring above and the famed Wyalusing bluffs towering over the mouth of my beloved river, my reverie was broken by the site of tires dumped at the boat landing. Someone who didn’t want to pay $4/tire for a disposal fee and chose to make it someone else’s problem. Hmmm. I guess there is still a lot of work to be done.
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