Monday, November 7, 2011

A Polluted Little Creek

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) fishing.Image via Wikipedia
By David Mann
Journalism Major, University of Missouri-Columbia
[contact Dave @]

There is a seventy- acre tract of public land just about four miles from my dorm at the University of Missouri. I first came across this area early this fall, when I was running on a trail just outside of town. I saw the yellow sign indicated Missouri Department of Conservation ownership, and promised myself I would check it out the next day.

So the next morning, I took my schoolbooks out of my backpack and replaced them with an ultra-light spinning rod, a small tackle-box, and a light lunch. An hour or so later, I arrived, and found a pretty little stream that wound around the entire boundary of the conservation area. I had heard the name of this creek mentioned before, but not for its fishing potential. Rather, I’d heard about its chronic problems with pollution, caused by a nasty mixture of agricultural chemicals and urban run-off. Here, the creek showed no visible signs of being so impaired, but looked deceptively pristine, flowing slowly and gracefully in a winding channel past bluffs and through thick riparian habitat.

So I decided to try a few casts. To my pleasant surprise, I soon caught several smallmouth bass. Smallmouth bass normally need relatively unpolluted water and good, moving current. This stream had a decided shortage of both, but as a fisherman you eventually learn to accept the gift without asking too many questions.

I kept walking out to this area to fish over the next couple of months, checking out new water, trying to figure out exactly what this stream had to offer.  What I found was that this polluted little creek was shockingly full of life. The areas with steady current held smallmouth bass and the colorful longear sunfish. In the deep, rocky pools, I found largemouth bass and green sunfish. The shallow, muddy flats boiled with surfacing carp. This stream, so damaged that most people passed it off as little more than a barren ditch, supported an entire diverse ecosystem. I found this to be incredibly satisfying; there’s nothing quite like finding a stream that is hiding in plain sight.

Lately, as the weather has cooled and the fishing has begun to wind down, I’ve taken to exploring this area without a fishing rod. I find this to be nearly as rewarding. Just as this stream supports a vast quantity of aquatic life, it also allows wildlife to thrive. Few outings have gone by where I haven’t seen deer; the area is also home to a large number of turkey that love to hide in the thick brush along the creek. Smaller animals are abundant as well. I always see countless squirrels, rabbits, and various songbirds. Often-times I will see a Great Blue Heron perched on a rock just above the stream, waiting for a careless carp or creek chub to present itself. What makes this poignant is that this small conservation area is an island in a sea of development. It is surrounded on almost all sides by subdivisions, land that has been mowed, paved, and built-over to the point that it cannot support wildlife in a meaningful way.

Spending so much time in a place like this has allowed me to see conservation in a different light. The conservation movement has so often been focused on wilderness protection, on keeping the roadless, intact back-country  well preserved. This is a noble and worthy effort, but we should not forget about these little pockets of wildness in and around areas that are heavily developed. These places must be protected, not because they are pristine or extraordinarily beautiful, but because they are the only chance many will have to experience and learn about nature. These are the places we can go to and relax and unwind after a particularly difficult day at school or work. Places like this are perfect to teach people about the value of the outdoors, about the healing qualities that come from spending time in the woods and fields, out of sight and sound of the busy city streets that so many call home.  The only way that the general public is going to actually care about protecting true wilderness is if they have experienced nature before, close to home. These little pieces of wildness must be protected, because in them lie the future of the conservation movement.