When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the levees and flooded 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland, we were revisiting decisions made a century ago in the name of "conservation."
Breaching the levee on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River to lessen the impacts of the 2011 flood is more than a rural-urban conflict.
Flooding thousands of acres of farmland to lessen the pressures of raging Ohio River waters on cities such as Cairo, Illinois, and Paducah, Kentucky, was, at the moment, clearly about saving developed urban property at the expense of less developed and less populated rural areas.
But there’s a long history here, one that reveals big mistakes by leaders of the Conservation Movement during the twentieth century. They believed that wise use entailed controlling the nation’s rivers by building levies and draining wetlands to create farmland and promote other development.
The same principle applies to the massive irrigation projects that spurred farming and urban development in the western United States.
Sadly, in retrospect, these projects were called reclamation. People who claimed to want to preserve nature really sought to put our species above nature. They acted on misguided hubris that all of the gifts of the Earth were there for our use. Meanwhile, we made minor accommodations for plants and animals in the name of conservation.
Conservation was a good idea when it took a more balanced approach to managing and preserving natural resources, leading to reduced soil erosion and cleaner water and air. Many of our rivers, as well as our air, while still facing pollution problems today, are far cleaner now than they were a generation ago.
This is the brilliant side of the conservation legacy, even with its sometime failures to account for broader ecosystems.
The shadowy side of conservation was based on the idea that humans could engineer nature and natural systems without repercussions.
Various “improvement” projects opened land for farming, made river shipping easier, added power generation capacity, developed water resources, and protected and encouraged urban development, sometimes in the wrong places. Selling conservation through economic development built strange political and economic alliances that created a lot of uses, some not so wise.
In short, the technological solutions of the past made money for many of our forebears and salved their consciences in terms of their treatment of the Earth. But they also left a legacy of problems for the present. Use trumped wisdom, and now we pay for it.
The present human cost for the Missouri residents whose lands have been flooded should inspire empathy for their loss. This land, which will be damaged by the flooding, is part of their heritage and has been a source of their livelihood.
But what about the larger, deeper considerations? Should the levee that protected those farmlands have been built in the first place? How much wetland was destroyed when the levee was built and the land drained? Is there an opportunity here to compensate the owners for their financial loss and reclaim the land for its best ecosystem use?
These questions might upset some people. But from the perspective of sustainability, maybe we need to right something that went wrong.
Legal and financial mechanisms are available to help the individuals who have been harmed while doing the right thing for the Mississippi River Valley ecosystem as a whole. The result would not be much different from moving whole towns out of the floodplains after some of the recent flooding upriver.
Here’s an option that needs to be explored and considered: New opportunities can emerge from disasters.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.