Wisconsin has beautiful rivers, curving through thick forests, running over boulders left by glaciers hundreds of thousands of years ago. Last week, as we canoed down the Namekagon in the northwestern corner of the state, we enjoyed some natural encounters uncommon in central Illinois. Turtles the size of serving platters sunned themselves on dead logs until we approached too closely, then slipped into the water. A bald eagle watched us approach and then swooped overhead for a closer look. Most of the time the loudest sounds were leaves rustling and water rushing past rocks. During two hours on the river, we saw only a group of three kayakers.
At the other end of the state, the Wisconsin River runs through a sandstone gorge, also created by glaciers, called the dells. About 5 million people every year visit this area, which calls itself the Waterpark Capital of the World. To keep these millions coming back, new attractions are constantly being invented. For 2013, you could forget you are a thousand miles from the ocean by surfing an artificial wave at Noah’s Ark Waterpark, the largest outdoor waterpark in America. For more thrills, you could ride 70 miles per hour on the Hades 360, billed as “the world's first upside-down, underground, wooden rollercoaster.” To relax, you could jump into the 1000-square-foot hot tub at the Kalahari Resort and swim up to the bar at the Mud Hut.
The Namekagon and the Dells represent two different approaches to the interaction of humans and nature. Namekagon is derived from an Ojibwe word meaning “the place abundant with sturgeons.” It is part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, whose mission is to “preserve, protect, restore, enhance, and interpret the riverway's exceptional natural and cultural resources for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” This and many other protected areas were created by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The system preserves 12,600 miles of 203 rivers, less than one out of every 400 of the nation's rivers. The rivers are protected from us, from the kind of human intervention which created the Dells. Not only is building not allowed along these rivers, but existing buildings have been purchased and removed. Campsites along the Namekagon are accessible only from the river. Entertainments are provided by nature itself.
It is all too easy to romanticize nature. In northern Wisconsin nature can be intrusive and annoying. Swarms of tiny insects, often called no-see-ums, just hatched on July 4 and covered every white surface they could find, including our sinks and bed sheets. More dangerous are the much larger animals with which we share this region. Recently encounters between black bears and people have increased, as the bear population of Wisconsin more than doubled over the past 25 years, and their range has moved into the more populous southern part of the state for the first time in a century. Although bear attacks on people are rare, they can be devastating. If we want to coexist with nature, we must exercise caution and discipline.
The contrast between the Namekagon and the Dells is not only between natural and artificial, but also public vs. private. Preservation of wilderness as a public good requires political will, which was manifested throughout the 20th century by the gradual creation of our system of national parks. That bipartisan will remains strong among Americans: 92% of Democrats, 90% of Independents, and 81% of Republicans believe it is quite or extremely important “for the federal government to protect and support” our national parks. But much of that will has disappeared in Washington. The last Congress was the first since 1966 not to protect a single additional acre of wilderness. Even after the sequester cut the budget of the National Park Service by 5%, Congress cut another $30 million in March. That means more cuts in staff, longer lines to get into parks, shorter seasons, fewer campsites and nature programs, locked restrooms and overflowing trash cans. Our national parks are a bargain: while 5 million tourists spent a total of $875 million in the Wisconsin Dells area in 2011, the 280 million visitors to our 401 national parks, memorials, lakeshores, parkways and historic sites cost the taxpayers only three times that much, $2.6 billion.
Some people prefer waterslides to watching bald eagles, riding artificial waves to spotting a snapping turtle. It’s less effort to swim up to the Mud Bar than to carry a canteen of water in a canoe. That’s fine, but we also need the less commercial, more natural experiences. Anti-government ideologues say they want to protect future generations from a debt disaster. In fact, posing as deficit alarmists, they are destroying our children’s chances to enjoy America’s unique natural heritage. Instead they will only be able to ride the world’s tallest looping waterslide, and see eagles in the zoo.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 9, 2013