corps: Preservation is now key
Report on the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers
WEST ALTON, Mo. - Patrick McGinnis
waded into the pond, oblivious to the water soaking his shoes and
trousers. Waving his hands exuberantly, he pointed out and named the
pond's plants and birds as though they were his own children.
In a way, they are.
A little more than a year ago, this thriving marshland was an ordinary
soybean field on the banks of the Mississippi River. McGinnis, a wildlife
biologist, supervised its transformation into 1,200 acres of wet prairie,
restoring an ecosystem that virtually disappeared a century ago.
"There are people here in the Midwest who have never seen water
like this," McGinnis said. "My father's father probably never
saw water this clear."
All the more remarkable is that the wetlands project is the work of the
Army Corps of Engineers, better known for draining swamps than building
"The corps always thought of water resource development as
development - you know, industrial development," said McGinnis, a
13-year corps veteran. "It was rape and pillage, cram a project into
the land without regard for its long-term effects."
But a fundamentally different corps - an increasingly "green"
organization - built the Riverlands Demonstration Project near the
confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, about 20 miles north of
"The corps has gotten religion now, and in good faith is trying to
do a better job," said Steve Moyer, a lobbyist for the National
The corps is touting its new mission to protect the environment. And it
is doing so first with a confession that its past practices damaged
sensitive ecosystems, and second with the claim that only the corps has
the engineering expertise to correct the problems it created.
The corps' $9.4 billion budget next year includes more than $1 billion
devoted to environmental projects, ranging from hazardous-waste cleanups
at military bases to creation of wetlands.
The budget also includes reworking some corps projects that are
notorious for the environmental damage they caused: increasing water flow
into the dying Florida Everglades, restoring wildlife areas along the
Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and rebuilding fish habitat along the
"It is we engineers who hold most of the keys to the solutions of
the world's environmental problems," Lt. Gen. Henry J. Hatch, the
commander of the corps, told the American Society of Civil Engineers last
"We have a common concern with environmentalists: the health of
our planet and the health and prosperity of our people," he said.
The corps has gone so far in some regions that its enforcement of
wetlands regulations has created a backlash among private property owners,
farmers and developers.
"They are very much going overboard," said Larry Mitchell,
assistant director of the American Agricultural Movement in Washington,
whose members complain that the corps has blocked them from building dikes
and drainage systems to protect their fields.
The corps' metamorphosis demonstrates how much environmentalism has
entered the mainstream.
But the transformation is also rooted in pragmatism. With the Defense
Department curtailing construction projects, the corps faces massive
budget cuts and needs to find other work for its 42,000 civilian
Moreover, the corps acknowledges that it is running out of the mammoth
civilian projects that have been its bread and butter since the 1930s. Few
rivers remain that the corps has not dammed, dredged or channelized.
Corps officials say the agency has been quietly evolving during the
last decade as younger, more environmentally aware engineers, who are
known in-house as the "bird and bunny" types, replaced
traditionalists, known as the "dam-it, ditch-it and dredge-it"
But environmentalists say the changes are profound since President Bush
came into office. In his first State of the Union address, in 1989, Bush
declared a national goal of "no net loss of wetlands."
Assistant Army Secretary Robert W. Page and Hatch - who began his
four-year hitch as head of the corps in 1988 - have since issued a stream
of directives underscoring the corps' environmental mission.
"The whistle has blown and the army has wheeled," said Hope
Babcock, legislative director of the National Audubon Society. "And
now it's marching off in another direction."
Hatch's message is that the corps, throughout its history, has altered
its mission to be "relevant" to popular concerns. When the
public wanted to control floods and improve navigation on the nation's
rivers, the corps built massive lock and dam systems.
The time has come for the mission to change. "Nation building no
longer automatically means large construction and maintenance
operations," Hatch said last fall.
The corps' new environmental ethic is being carried out with varying
degrees of enthusiasm in the agency's 38 district offices, as the agency
undergoes an internal shakeup that frequently pits the new-generation
engineers against the old.
"Some of the grayheads are still sitting around," said
William H. Dieffenbach, assistant environmental administrator for the
Missouri Conservation Department, who added that he had butted heads
frequently with the eight corps districts whose jurisdictions overlap his
state. "They take some changing and convincing."
Col. James E. Corbin, the district commander in St. Louis who is
regarded as one of the more environmentally enlightened commanders, said
it was only a matter of time before the changes became more widely
accepted by his staff.
"It's not right or fair for you or me to walk out there, turn the
world upside down and expect them to understand immediately what the
change is," said Corbin, who assumed command in St. Louis two years
One of Corbin's primary duties in the district, which regulates the
Mississippi River basin between Hannibal, Mo., and Cairo, Ill., was
supervising construction of Lock and Dam 26, a $980 million navigation
project on the Mississippi River.
As part of that project, the corps bought 1,200 acres of farmland that
became saturated by the dam's impounded water.
The corps' real estate office wanted to lease the land to farmers. But
Corbin went along with McGinnis' idea to build the Riverlands
"I said to hell with the real estate brokers, let's go create an
environmental demonstration area," Corbin said. "It's a unique
place for it, sitting right there by the largest structure in the
McGinnis and his staff designed a wetland prairie. Corps equipment
operators sculpted the land into a mosaic of ponds, swamps and islands
where the water level can be controlled with a system of valves.
The corps planted 7,000 pounds of prairie grass seed, plus other native
weeds and flowers. Once the plants came up - plus hundreds of other
species that were lying dormant - waterfowl and shore birds arrived in
droves. The corps even introduced a pair of endangered peregrine falcons
into the plot.
In order to plan and complete the project in less than two years,
Corbin and McGinnis stretched the corps' rules. They wanted public nature
trails through the area. But footpaths are "recreational
activities," which regulations say must be financed with matching
private funds. So McGinnis instead called the paths "fire
trails" - and the corps paid.
"For basically $500,000, we took a 1,200-acre area and got it well
on the way to being what it was 200 years ago," said Corbin. They
maneuvered the money from the budget for the lock and dam construction.
McGinnis is unabashed about his intention - he wants the demonstration
to become a model for the new corps. "It's a marketing chip for Gen.
Hatch," he said.
So far, the project has won over a few converts to the corps.
"For years the St. Louis corps district was known as the
environmentally worst district in the nation," said Jim Bensman, a
Sierra Club official in Alton, Ill.
But Bensman was so impressed by the Riverlands project that he
immediately removed the bumper sticker that had festooned his car for
years - "Damn the corps, not rivers."
He mailed it to McGinnis as a peace offering.