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Photo by Shane Brown.

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In This Corner

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Posted 03.20.13

Fifty years ago, 5-year-old Edward Fite was playing with a cap pistol on a limestone ledge overlooking the Illinois River at his great grandpa’s place in far northeastern Oklahoma. He remembers the gentle lapping of the meandering stream beneath sycamore and willow, the cool damp rocks and warm sun, the cry of a kingfisher, a circling red-tailed hawk.

Then somehow the gun slipped from his fingers. Anguished, the boy could see the toy pistol, lying on river rocks that seemed just below the surface sparkling in the sunlight. Fite was certain he could reach in and pick it up.

He was shocked to see his father and uncle strip down and dive to retrieve the toy gun from what was, in fact, some eight feet of Illinois River water, icy cold and clear as glass.

That was the day Ed Fite began service to the love of his life, Oklahoma’s treasured Illinois River. You could call him administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, charged to manage the Illinois and its tributary streams, but he would be happier if you just call him servant.

Keep Oklahoma Beautiful in 2004 called him an unsinkable environmentalist, “the man responsible more than any other person for safer, cleaner, and healthier rivers in our state.”

“My dad wanted me to be a surgeon, like my father and my Cherokee great-grandfather who was the first surgeon in Indian Territory,” Fite said, “but I’ve always loved rivers. That’s what makes me tick.”

Watching a river is like gazing into a fi replace, he said; it touches something deep within us. “We can’t live without water. Whiskey is for drinking; water’s for fighting over. I used to just worry about water quality, but now I’m starting to worry that we don’t have enough. The next big wars will be over water.”

Near Sparrowhawk Camp, east of Highway 10, Fite spots a little girl in a red coat, picking up rocks on a gravel bar with her mother. “That,” he said, “is what it’s all about.”

Ed Fite went to work for free when he took over the embattled, nonfunctional Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission 30 years ago, recalled Ed Brocksmith, one of the founders of the river advocacy nonprofit STIR (Save the Illinois River). Brocksmith remembers “a young guy, a student, who would stand up in meetings and spout off about the river—but he knew what he was talking about. The commission was called a colossal failure. Ed volunteered to take the commissioner’s job for free, to get things straightened out.”

“Ed Fite is a man of few words,” a friend said, “and he uses them over and over.

It’s been a long fight on behalf of what Brocksmith calls “the finest river Oklahoma has to offer. It’s the apple of Oklahoma’s eye. They’re not making any more rivers like it, you know?”

The job description for river keeper turns out to require, in Fite’s case, a good share of controversy. His fight has stretched to the Supreme Court and back and includes countless skirmishes in the bushes of state and regional politics.

Three hard decades of Fite’s fight have dulled neither his affability nor his zeal. At 55, this Old Man River still approaches life with the quizzical charm of a kid and the disarming wit of a country politician. Fite is a fl int chunk wrapped in moss, first and foremost a river cop. Yet his words spill out as easily as the Illinois at flood tide, with the freedom of a man who is not afraid. “Ed Fite is a man of few words,” a friend said, “and he uses them over and over.”

Bending over to pick up a speck of trash, Fite laughed. “Well, I’ll never be popular, because I say what I think.”

* * *

Families for generations have been coming to this river to swim, fish, hunt, and enjoy the deer, elk, birds, and other Ozark wildlife. In a typical year, almost half a million folks flock to Oklahoma’s stretch of the Illinois River, many of them young people intent on lugging in a cooler, renting a canoe, and floating face-up to the sun on what has been arguably the most prized river in northeastern Oklahoma, if not the state.

Many are too young to remember the crystal clear river that was like a window to a rocky bottom traced by darting schools of minnows and bass. There were no flecks of nutrient foam floating on the surface 50 years ago, no algae scum on the rocks. Not so long ago, it was a river primeval.

If you are very lucky, Fite will take you in his pickup to the spot where he once dropped that toy pistol, on a foggy morning when the river is running silver and not just one but two bald eagles are perched on a nearby sycamore. He lives there now, on his great-grandfather’s place named Swannanoa.

Nearby is a graying barn, an old leftover movie set from the filming of Where the Red Fern Grows. The most recent big flood was up to the rafters.

Leaning over the limestone ledge, you can see the water is murky. The river is at low ebb. On a recent winter day, Fite calculated that half the river’s flow was from upstream wastewater plants.

“It’s so much better than when I came to work here in 1983,” he insists. He has numbers to prove it, but to an untrained eye, the water is still gray soup. Nobody really gives them credit. Since the 2003 agreement between Oklahoma and Arkansas, northwestern Arkansas towns have invested around $300 million to clean up this river, mostly for upgrading wastewater treatment plants.

“Once in a while, on a winter day when the algae growth is dormant, I can actually see the entire stream bottom here.”

Managing the river turns out to mean managing the land and, even more, those who people the land. Fite laughs at the idea of trying to control the river. “Rivers are powerful, relentless, and unpredictable. We need to be respectful of their ever-changing characteristics.”

Oklahoma’s Illinois River rises in a little spring near Hogeye, southwest of Fayetteville in the lush Boston Mountains of northwestern Arkansas. It flows west and south through  the Ozark Mountains, crossing into Oklahoma south of Siloam Springs, wandering through Adair, Delaware, and Cherokee counties, slipping around Tahlequah, then heading south through Tenkiller Ferry Lake to join the Arkansas River near Gore in Sequoyah County. 

All told, the Illinois drains around 1,640 square miles, roughly half of the basin in each of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Lush forest and undergrowth remain on the craggy hill-and-hollow landscape with its stubborn limestone outcroppings dotted with oaks and pines, dogwoods and redbuds. But more than half the watershed’s lands have been converted to modern uses, developed into buildings and shopping centers, ranches, towns and roads, or deforested into grazing savannah for cattle. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy, you can see how it used to be in the 17,000-acre J.T. Nickel Family preserve—the largest privately protected conservation area in the Ozarks—overlooking the river just off Highway 10 in Cherokee County.

“It’s a four-season river,” Fite said. “My best time to float the river is winter. It’s captivating with snow on the banks, floating around a bend to see hundreds of geese and ducks ahead of you, deer swimming in the clean, clear water with 70 different species of fish, and here comes an eagle swooping down from a sycamore towering over the river to snag a fish.”

Many enemies of the river lurk, some as simple as the kids who leave their trash after a fl oat. Enforcing the rules is part of the job of a river cop—the on-the-ground enforcement side  of the job. “I’ve mellowed,” Fite said. “I used to issue lots of citations. Now I’m more apt to make them work off community service on the spot by cleaning up a gravel bar.” Anguish is when he has to fish one of them out, usually without life vest and maybe after too much beer, and heave the body into one of the big bags he carries in his pickup—three times last summer, six times the summer before.

Many are too young to remember the crystal clear river that was like a window to a rocky bottom traced by darting schools of minnows and bass. 

* * *

Other enemies are more formidable, and the most dangerous are political, in at least two states. It has taken years to come to terms with upstream Arkansas sewage plants that dump into the river.

Oklahoma has gone to court more than once to protect the river, said Drew Edmondson, former state attorney general. In 1990, his father Ed Edmondson took a case (pro bono) all the way to the Supreme Court, challenging upstream towns in Arkansas who were dumping sewage into the river. “The municipalities won on the facts,” Edmondson said. “The court ruled that Oklahoma could not prove that the degradation to the river was because of the municipalities’ discharges. But the court also ruled that Oklahoma had the right to set and  enforce water quality standards. Th ere’s been improvement in the water quality because the municipalities have spent millions of dollars improving their sewage treatment.”

Oklahoma’s next legal step has stalled in federal court and become ensnared in politics. Drew Edmondson, then attorney general, filed the second case in 2005, this time about chickens. He sued several big poultry companies, alleging that chicken manure from their facilities was polluting the watershed.

In fact, chickens are a big deal. Fite says in any given year, there are more than 200 million chickens growing in confined feeding operations in the Illinois watershed. A quarter billion birds, more or less. A confined feeding operation means 20,000 to 50,000 birds are grown at a time in every one of the 1,800 chicken houses in the Illinois watershed, probably never touching the ground in their short, miserable lives. A typical grow-out house raises five or six flocks a year.  If you lined them all up, the chicks would more than stretch around the earth.

You could measure their chicken poop, if you wished, in the hundreds of thousands of tons. Ed says you could compare it to untreated human sewage from 9.7 million people. Imagine dropping all of Los Angeles on the Arkansas side and Fort Worth on the Oklahoma side, with little or no sewage treatment between. The eff ect, in terms of chemical pollution, is the same from a quarter billion confined chickens without waste management.

Chicken litter is a fi erce fertilizer. They say it can grow grass on a rock. So after the 1940s, when the big chicken processors began developing in northwest Arkansas and financing mom-and-pop confi ned feeding operations around the region, it was popular to spread the farms’ chicken litter on Oklahoma-Arkansas fields. Fine and good, except inevitably the nitrogen and phosphorous drain off and down, producing explosions of algae that can taint the water.

Nitrogen is good stuff except when there’s too much. The effect has been to foul the Illinois River and other streams in northeastern Oklahoma, turning them from crystal to cloud. Fowl and foul—at worst, the streams can become unsafe for human use. The fish can die, along with the river itself.

“I love to eat chicken,” said Fite. “People want a source of cheap protein. But if you do it wrong, the cost is very high.”

Another shoe is about to drop, this one from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which is conducting an extensive scientific study of pollution in the Illinois watershed. The EPA’s findings may, once and for all, set limits on what everybody has to do to protect water quality, said Ed Brocksmith. “You might think of it as a pollution diet, which we all have to follow to protect and preserve the watershed.

“In fact, I think the future can be bright for the Illinois River, if these things fall into place—with the EPA study and if we get a favorable verdict in the poultry suit—and with all the things that have been done, I think the water is slowly recovering in the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller.”

Last year, three Oklahoma lawmakers (United States Senators Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn and Representative Dan Boren) joined with their Arkansas colleagues in a letter urging the EPA to take an evenhanded approach. “We want to ensure that any regulation of the Illinois River watershed does not place an unnecessary burden on local economies,” Boren said at the time.

Fite believes that we, collectively, are snatching his beloved river back from the jaws of certain death. Now, he said, we know what needs to be done: upgrade sewage treatment plants (well underway), truck some of the chicken waste for fertilizer outside the basin (being done), and create vegetation buffers along streams (being considered but hard to sell).

“I say it’s better because we don’t have to work out a plan anymore; we have it, and stakeholders are working on it. After all these years and all these fights, I believe now the poultry companies are just waiting for us [the state] to tell them what they need to do.”

Political will is a precious and scarce commodity at best.

***

The jury is still out. Oklahoma’s current case against the poultry companies, languishing in federal court for three years, will eventually come back to the state attorney general, who will have
to decide whether to appeal a ruling adverse to river protection. Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt received thousands of campaign dollars from poultry interests; he and Governor Mary Fallin said in 2010 they would review the issues.

Political will is a precious and scarce commodity at best.

Change is hard. Nobody wants to hurt the farmers or the economy. Political solutions are always trade-offs. The future of the Illinois River lies in the hands of politicians who will decide, as
always, what priorities to give to preservation or exploitation of this priceless piece of our natural world.

In fact, said Drew Edmondson, the Illinois River has long been in the hands of political interests, at least since before the Scenic Rivers Commission was created. Ultimately, he said, public will is the key. “Politicians worry about next year’s election and this year’s appropriation,” Edmondson said. “The public has to worry about their kids and their grandkids. If they want that river for their kids and grandkids, they better get the attention of politicians.”

Ed Fite said protecting the river doesn’t mean stopping economic development. He also said what’s needed is a holistic approach to the basin, because it’s all interdependent. The river relies on the terrestrial community for its food chain and vice versa. He advocates, for example, establishing riparian areas and buffer zones to recharge groundwater.

“The world is changing, things are not the same,” Fite said. “What we assumed was normal isn’t normal any more. I have never seen our streams do what they’re doing today. We better start paying attention.”

As administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, Fite serves at the pleasure of a board. Some board members are elected from the watershed, others appointed by Oklahoma’s governor
and legislative leaders. It’s a political process, not always friendly to Fite’s fight, but thus far he has outlived or outwitted opponents.

One thing is certain about his future—it’s on the river. “I will never retire,” he said. “Here is my hope: that I will take my last breath talking about the river, and people will say, ‘Well, Ed Fite finally ran out of words.’


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 4. Feb. 15, 2013.