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Bill Berry: Wisconsin has always benefited from old-fashioned cooperation

Bill Berry: Wisconsin has always benefited from old-fashioned cooperation

Fox River cleanup

Aerial view from Fox River cleanup project.

STEVENS POINT — Two recent Wisconsin-based virtual events served as refreshing reminders that it takes old-fashioned cooperation to get things done. Both events also underscored that protecting and appreciating our natural resources is well worth the effort.

In one event, the state Department of Natural Resources hosted a celebration recently to mark a milestone in the lengthy and costly effort to clean up the lower Fox River in eastern Wisconsin. Representatives of the many partners in the effort to abate PCB contamination of the lower Fox gathered to mark the end of a 17-year, $1 billion project — a milestone in the multi-year effort to heal what was once one of America’s dirtiest rivers. PCBs are toxic chemicals involved in the production and recycling of carbonless copy paper in the 1950s through 1970s. Three companies — NCR, Georgia Pacific and PH Glatfelter — remain active on the river to cover all current and future costs for dredging or capping sediments and other efforts.

It's significant that the DNR spearheaded the project. The Environmental Protection Agency entrusted the state with the job, and this celebration proved that was the right decision. The next time someone criticizes the DNR, remind them of remarkable accomplishments like this.

The PCB cleanup is one important chapter in a long struggle to clean up the Fox River and Green Bay. Gov. Tony Evers spoke at the virtual news conference, as did Preston Cole, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. Cole noted that outdoor recreation contributes $8 billion annually to the state’s economy. “Thanks to this cleanup work, people recreating on the Fox River will contribute to that bottom line this Labor Day weekend in a way that was simply unthinkable 20 years ago,” he said.

Oneida Nation Chair Tehassi Hill added, “Completing the PCB clean-up moves us one step closer in fulfilling our given responsibility by the Creator, to care for our waters. Soon, we will be able to catch and eat clean, safe fish from the Lower Fox River and the waters within the Oneida Reservation.”

“Soon” is a key word. Healing the river and bay from years of industrial, municipal and agricultural pollution has been ongoing since the creation of the Clean Water Act of 1972, one of the most important environmental laws in history. The work isn’t done. We still need to get a handle on pollutants like phosphorus and PFAS.

It took that Clean Water Act, championed by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, to begin the work.

Nelson’s name came up several times at the other virtual event, hosted by the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center near Ashland. The celebration marked the renaming of the center in honor of former U.S. Rep. David Obey, who played a big role in its establishment, along with Nelson, northern activists Martin and Louis Hanson, and many others.

Obey participated from his son’s home in Virginia. The stern-faced 81-year-old managed to crack a smile a few times as local, state, federal and tribal partners in the project lauded him. Among them was former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who saluted his old friend and cited the power of cooperation in a recorded message.

Thompson, now serving as president of the UW System, said, “I was proud to work with him on this project like we did on many, many others, especially Highways 29 and 53. Those projects transformed the economy and the culture of northern Wisconsin. This project was complicated, with several federal agencies at the table, along with the state. But the end result is a wonderful welcome to those visiting Wisconsin’s north coast up on the big lake.”

Obey riffed off Thompson’s comments, saying the center is a reminder that “cooperation and teamwork are still useful tools in the hands of public servants. This facility is here is a reminder that forces greater than humans have shaped the land we love.”

Tia Nelson, daughter of the father of Earth Day, spoke fondly of the times when her father, Obey and the Hansons gathered for good times and to cook up projects. Those days are part of local lore along the lakeshore. They’re also reminders that a key job of someone elected to federal office is to bring the resources of the federal government home, to serve local folks. As Evers noted, Obey embraced that concept. In doing so, he left his mark on education, health care, natural resources and other essentials for his constituents.

The David R. Obey Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center is an impressive edifice that combines historical and educational displays about the history and natural resources of the lakes region, walking paths and other attractions, including the Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge that protects part of Lake Superior's vast wetland complex.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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