Duck Hunting photo

We’ve written a good bit on this blog about the loss of land in southern Louisiana due to the levees and other flood-control structures on the Mississippi River. We’ve covered some of the overwhelming problems with nitrate pollution coming from the corn boom in the Midwest, made worse by the draining of wetlands and channelizing of creeks that control the floods and filter the waters (and produce our ducks and fisheries). We’ve touched a little bit on how these combinations produce the hypoxic region of the Gulf of Mexico known as the Dead Zone (a lifeless saltwater desert as big as New Jersey this year, and growing with every new spring flood of pollutants from the heartland) that is killing our commercial and sport fisheries.

These troubles are not mysterious. We cause them. But what we cannot seem to do is connect the dots between the draining of wetlands along the mighty Missouri River in South Dakota, and the ruin or survival of a family-owned fish- and crab-packing house in the fast-sinking little town of Cocodrie, Louisiana. It’s not some oooh-man, oooh-wow New Age notion that all things are interconnected. It’s reality, and it is as clear as the connection between making a dollar to buy gas to put in a boat and then motoring upriver to catch fish. No work, no dollar, no gas, no boat ride, no fish, no supper. But in the case of the environment, we just don’t seem to get even the most obvious connections.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership aims to change that. In the new Barnyard to Boatyard Exchange, three South Dakota farming couples from the Missouri River basin country will travel south to the Cajun country of Cocodrie, Louisiana, to travel on commercial and sport fishing boats and learn about the wild place where their river goes, and the people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the quality of the water in it. In return, three couples from the Cocodrie area, from the worlds of commercial fishing, tourism, and sport fishing will head upriver to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to drive tractors, learn about the business of farming, livestock production, and water, and see the places where the water that provides their livelihoods actually comes from.

“It’s time to cross boundaries,” said Tim Kizer, the private lands field coordinator for the TRCP, “whether state lines or mental barriers, to gain a greater understanding of conservation in America, as well as the role that businesses at both ends of the Mississippi River play in the sustainability of our clean water, abundant wildlife habitat, productive farm fields, and fruitful fisheries.”

I’m proud to know and to have fished with Tim Kizer, and I can honestly say that there is no one who is better suited to run this exchange. Tim is a former U.S. Army paratrooper, a businessman and rice farmer from the Arkansas Delta who, depending on the season, spends every spare minute fishing for crappie and smallmouth, shooting ducks, chasing whitetails or training bird dogs. He’s a fanatical and very practical lifelong outdoorsman. In the past few months, he’s been travelling the Mississippi River basin, talking to his fellow farmers, to hunters and fishermen and policy makers and cafe-owners, trying to make the connections, to figure out how to solve these water quality, flooding, and wetlands-loss problems before they become a crisis. The idea for the Barnyard to Boatyard Conservation Exchange was born in those long conversations, between so many people who have so much in common and who depend on the same river system.

“These are some of the best people- on both ends of the river- that I’ve ever met,” Tim told me, “and we’re all pretty excited about this exchange. Nobody in Louisiana blames the farmers or anybody else for what’s happening upstream. Everybody knows that we’re in this together–and we’ll solve it together.”