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Strong opposition to Mississippi plan at Winona hearing
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A poster showing the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Roughly three million people spend time on the refuge each year. Whether they're hunters, anglers, boaters or campers, they take a toll on the river's ecology. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
There are a lot of angry people along the Upper Mississippi River. More than 400 folks attended a public hearing in Winona Tuesday night, opposing new regulations proposed for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the 261 miles of river and surrounding area that make up the refuge. Agency officials have decided it's time to revisit some rules that have been on the books for decades.

Winona, Minn. — Ken Rackow says the Mississippi River defines his life. He's a long-time fisherman and an avid hunter. What's more, Rackow makes his living as a taxidermist, preserving all varieties of game captured along his slice of the Mississippi in Winona.

When Rackow talks about proposed changes to how the river is regulated from Wabasha to Rock Island, Illinois, he says he gets angry. And the subject of his anger these days is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"They didn't think it out clear enough for the public, and I think they need to turn around and rethink this situation a lot better than they already have," Rackow said. "They took a lot away from the people and we're not getting anything back."

Rackow says an extensive report produced by the agency details a series of new restrictions that he believes would keep many recreation enthusiasts off the refuge.

Rackow is especially concerned about plans to convert some traditional hunting areas into hunting-free zones. He says the proposed restrictions would unfairly hurt many of the area's older hunters, who are no longer comfortable heading out into fast-moving water.

Renee Walz says she, too, grew up on the river and continues to spend plenty of time out on the Mississippi. Stretching her legs in between presentations, Walz says she's worried about a proposal to take some of the area's beaches and islands out of commission. Walz says the proposal flies in the face of local tourism efforts.

"Camping is certainly an issue on this river," Walz said. "Our state ... and Wisconsin spend millions of dollars to bring tourists to our communities, and now what are the limitations going to be?"

Other attendees spoke against proposals to limit the use of loud motors in backwater areas. Many questioned restrictions on trappers. Still others voiced fears that the plans signaled an effort to keep people away from the Mississippi.

Daniel Burt drove over to the meeting in Winona from his home in Fountain City, Wisconsin. He says he's an avid water skier, and noted that at least one part of the plan would prohibit waterskiing in a spot where he's always waterskied. Burt says the Fish and Wildlife Service's eagerness to make large changes makes him uneasy.

"I think we probably need some things, but probably not everything," Burt said. "Sometimes it seems that the birds and animals and insects are more important than what the people want."

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the plan is all about balance. Roughly three million people spend time on the refuge each year, more than visit Yellowstone National Park annually. And those visitors, whether they're hunters, anglers, boaters, or campers, take their toll on the river's ecology.

It was a message that resonated with a representative from the National Audubon Society, who spoke in favor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed changes. But he was clearly in the minority.

Instead, most of those who had a chance to speak into one of the roving black microphones sounded a lot like Ray Heidel.

"There's a refuge that sits on our river. And some of the regulations that they are trying to bring through with the preferred alternative takes the use away from many areas of our river," he said.

Heidel's rally cry led to a round of applause. He carried a folder filled with comment sheets, encouraging everyone to make their opposition known.

Another large crowd is expected at a hearing in Wabasha Wednesday night. The Fish and Wildlife Service will also hold a series of public workshops on the subject.

Comments will be accepted through the end of August, and a new plan is expected to be adopted early next year.

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