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A Refuge for all of us (10/24/2007)
Over 3.5 million people visited the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge last year creating an economic impact of about 255 million dollars to the adjacent counties. To put the number of visitors in perspective, that is more visitors then most of the National Parks.

Winona, our "historic island city" is bordered by the 240,000- acre Refuge, which stretches 261 miles along the Mississippi River from Wabasha to Rock Island, Illinois. In the Winona area, residents have enjoyed the lifelong benefits of industry, quality of life, recreation and interactions with Mother Nature that are rarely found in other places. Our public access to the river channel, backwater sloughs and marshes, islands and woodlands, is available to all who wish to experience the real Mississippi River.

The relatively untouched resource that makes for such unforgettable images and experiences is due to the vision of people like John Latsch and Will Dilg, both members of the Izaak Walton League of America when they proposed in 1922 that the federal government spend the unheard of sum of 1.5 million dollars to create the Refuge. The large numbers of sportsmen who lived here or traveled here from larger cities were a significant political factor in gaining the support needed to convince Congress that protection of the Upper Mississippi River was in the best interests of the entire country. With a lot of effort and persistence the Ikes, Congress and President Coolidge made the Wildlife Refuge a reality in 1924.

Since then, the Refuge has been primarily managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The Corp still owns about half of the Refuge lands managed by the USFWS and is responsible for the maintenance of the commercial navigation system that runs through the Refuge and the entire length of the river. There are numerous other federal and state agencies that also have a responsibility within the Refuge. This is necessary due to the federal waterway status and the various states' rights, but can be a hindrance to Refuge operations. We again are fortunate to have the headquarters and Winona District offices of the USFWS in the Exchange Building at 51 E. 4th Street, with over 30 permanent staff of the Refuge working out of our city of Winona.

During the past four years the USFWS has undertaken a planning process called the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), which was mandated by Congress in 1997. The process involved many public meetings and culminated in a set of objectives and strategies for this Refuge over the next 15 years. Although the primary function of being a fish and wildlife refuge will not change, the public uses have evolved and the habitat is suffering from human disturbance and invasive species. Implementing the new plan will still focus on the six main public uses: environmental education, fishing, hunting, interpretation, photography and wildlife observation. Many of the objectives involve habitat improvement like a pool-wide water level drawdown to improve vegetation and mimic the historic natural summer river process. Pool 6, the Winona section, will have a one foot drawdown from June to September in 2008.

These actions are important. A healthy and functional refuge is as valuable to the people who live here in the Winona area as it is to the wildlife.

Mike Kennedy is the owner of Bird-Song, www.bird-song.com



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