Mississippi River Blues by Al Sikes


I grew up just miles off the Mississippi River, blissfully unaware of the vast economic consequences of living or farming in or close to a flood plain. I do, however, remember my father telling me that we lived in an area which once had been a swamp. The drainage ditches that crisscrossed the farm land just outside of Sikeston, Missouri had been part of “land reclamation” (euphemism for fighting nature), and I enjoyed both hunting and fishing in them.

Awakenings happen; mine was early and occurred in Missouri’s state capitol which was on the banks of the Missouri River. It was circa 1973 when the newly minted gubernatorial administration of Kit Bond found itself face-to-face with widespread flooding shortly after the new governor took office.

My awakening happened because the Department of Community Affairs, my responsibility, had among other programs statewide land use planning.  After the flood waters receded, we began to plan for lessening damage potential by restricting building or rebuilding in the Missouri river floodplain.

Landowners were outraged as were the construction, agriculture, and real estate industries. It seemed at the time that every state legislator, regardless of which river valley they were in, was incensed. Cautionary planning was not a hit in 1973.

This was not my only brush with political extinction. Later on, my responsibilities included statewide implementation of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If a river, and there are well over a dozen spring fed ones in the Ozark region of Missouri, was designated under the program then a land buffer was required along its shores, and the State had to enforce it. Many landowners fought each river’s inclusion.

In short, Americans, or should I say most who either live on or exploit environmental features, do not want to be restricted. They do, however, want the government involved in their affairs. They want financial protection to lessen their risk. All other Americans pay the bill through a broad spectrum of reclamation, insurance, dam building, flood relief and water quality, programs.

Now I know this sounds unsympathetic to those who have just suffered damage. But, all those who are concerned about America’s balance sheet, and that should be all of us, need laws that don’t fight nature. America’s private and public relief organizations are often heroic—better that we don’t need quite so many heroes while actively reducing avoidable and unfunded risks.

We cannot afford, through a range of subsidies, to shore up lands that often redefine where shores stop and start. Attention needs to be paid to natural sponges such as marshes, swamps, and bogs which have often been paved over to make way for the latest development. And, the problem is not limited to flooding; in the West this summer wild fires have been especially destructive to homes built on the edge of the woods.

President Trump is a real estate developer whose properties populate environmentally sensitive areas including the island of Manhattan. I would not expect him to take leadership on this issue. But, I for one find a Trump hotel in Washington much less threatening than the ownership of much of the political class by those who have an economic stake in fighting nature.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 


Letters to Editor

  1. Hugh (Jock) Beebe says:

    Mr. Sikes’s editorial makes a cogent argument recognizing the importance of the economics of land use and establishes his credentials from front line experience in the swamp lands of Missouri. The subject is very complex, as all matters that co-mingle cultural, legal, financial and inter generational factors must be.

    We admire the fortitude of those who sustain a hardscrabble life of offshore islander fisherman, as did their forebears, but we disparage spending government money to subsidize rebuilding poorly sited beach houses on barrier islands of the Carolinas after multiple collapses from storms. And such thinking becomes more intense as the inevitable progression of climate change inflicts changes in Chesapeake Bay country. It is now apparent that the insurance industry participating in both commercial and residential markets of coastal lands will become stressed irrespective of governmental subsidizing.

    Don’t let the invidious commentary about Trump at the end distract from recognizing the value of Sikes’s distilled and clearly stated perspective on “laws that fight nature.” It’s about the economics, surely, and it’s as relevant to the Eastern Shore estuary as to Missouri river country.

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