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The greening of the Corps.

Recently the associate chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers introduced me to his staff as "the woman who crucified the Corps." Fortunately, he was smiling.

He was referring to a book I wrote 10 years ago in which I took the Corps to task for channelizing the Mississippi River. The army engineers, I wrote in The Father of Waters, are transforming Old Man River into the kind of straight, concrete-lined canal dreamed of by the barge industry.

The nation's greatest river, instead of meandering through wetlands and bottomland hardwoods, would become a narrow, deep channel through mudflats. It would be a far cry from Huck Finn's river--but ideal for barges transporting corn, chemicals, and petroleum.

My book attracted the attention of the editors of Reader's Digest, who decided to publish a condensation. But first they sent it to the Corps for comment. The response was an angry, 10-page letter. The Digest published the reprint anyway-- unchanged.

Needless to say, a decade later I was skeptical when told that the Corps is ready to do an about-face, shed the epithet "dam builders," and lead the charge to save the environment.

Two men were ready to convince me that the Corps is turning over a new leaf. One is Lieutenant General Henry J. ("Hank") Hatch, chief of the Corps, and the other is Bill Robertson, the agency's chief strategist. Robertson is the associate chief who put me on the hotseat when he introduced me to his staff.

The Corps' brass has succeeded in convincing me of their sincere commitment to the environment. But the job ahead--the task of transforming a 40'000'person, 200-year-old bureaucracy--is indeed a herculean one.

General Hatch's visage is stern and totally military-- until he smiles. The transformation is striking and, if I'm not pushing it too far, symbolic of the night-and-day metamorphosis he's committed to pulling off. Not only does he look the part of the good guy, he says and writes all the right words. "Environmental ethics and values," he penned, addressing his words to the Corps, "must be a bone-deep part of our way of doing business."

The sincerity and charisma Of One man, however, cannot produce change of the needed magnitude unless the ground has first been plowed. In fact, the seeds may have been planted 20 years ago, back when the Corps began adding a "subversive" element to its workforce--biologists and environmental scientists.

It was about then, the mid-1970s, when Hatch--at that time head of the Corps' Nashville district, which was embroiled in a major water-resources battle"saw for the first time that engineers and environmental interests could in fact work together."

But then the Reagan years came along, and the changes at the Corps ceased. Bill Robertson, who had joined up in 1977 as an attorney, recalls, "Those of us who were corning up in the organization and bringing with us an environmental consciousness had to work within--quietly within--to keep these notions alive."

General Hatch's long and distinguished career, which began at West Point, culminated with his appointment as Chief of Engineers in 1988. A native of Florida and grandfather of four, Hatch is a marathon runner. He does not claim any personal commitment to the environment, but instead attributes his interest to a recognition that the Corps' future lies in its becoming the nation's environmental engineers.

In a lengthy interview in which he wore a comfortable sweater with minimal insignia instead of a chestful of medals, Hatch told me, "The profession has a pragmatic reason as well as a broad philosophical and moral reason to take on the environment."

Being practical men, the army engineers recognize that today's clients are less likely to request flood control and navigation improvements than they are to seek help with environmental restoration.

Cleanup of toxic wastes is one prime example of the opportunities available. In fact, the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency have enlisted the Corps in cleaning up hazardous wastes left on military bases and civilian Superfund sites.

At this point, projects like these that are strictly environmental are few and far between. Still, the Corps can point with pride to the restoration of a 1,200-acre wetlands 20 miles outside metropolitan St. Louis. The land, adjacent to a new dam, was drained years ago for agricultural use. The new dam raised the groundwater level so that farming is no longer possible.

Rather than letting the land sit idle, the district engineer and his staff came up with the idea of bringing back a wet prairie ecosystem. Seeds were uncovered that had lain dormant for years, and today the area is a major stopping point on the Mississippi flyway for piedbilled grebes, which hadn't been seen near St. Louis in generations.

That same district is the one that cooperated with Global ReLeaf to stage a mammoth tree planting on Earth Day 1990. (See "Decade of the Tree," AMERICAN FORESTS, January/February 1991.) More than 10,000 trees were put in the ground by thousands of volunteers.

Of particular interest to me, the Corps also is revitalizing some of the wetlands along the Mississippi by cutting through levees and dredging old meander loops so fresh water can flow in and nourish dying marshes.

The Kissimmee River in Florida is another example of an attempt to restore natural meanders and wetlands to a channelized fiver. Still another involves bringing back some of the natural water flow to the nearby -an especially challenging job. (See "New Hope for the ' River of Grass'," on page 38 of this magazine.)

Thus the Corps is trying to undo some of what it once pointed to with pride. Apart from the fact that restoration of wetlands is expensive and not always successful, you would think that trying to fix what you've spent your life accomplishing would be terribly demoralizing.

Bill Klesch, chief of the Corps' Office of Environmental Policy, admits, "We've got a tougher fight internally than we do externally. The feelings in people's minds are, 'What the hell are we doing? We're engineers, not environmentalists.' There are pockets of resistance, and that's to be expected in an organization as big as ours."

Nevertheless, a Gallup survey that sampled Corps employees for their reaction to the new environmental direction indicated a positive response rate of 90 to 96 percent. Not that the change is going smoothly. Bill Robertson says, "I guess I have spent as much time thinking about how you accomplish organizational change as I've done anything. I'm convinced that a change of this magnitude in an organization like the Corps could take five to seven years." Some think even longer.

On the other hand, two awards presented in May and June in Washington, DC, are the kind of good press that can speed up the image-changing process. One of the 25 prestigious Chevron Conservation Awards for 1992 was given to James E. Corbin, known as the "Green Colonel," for his efforts as director of the Corps' St. Louis district. Corbin helped establish the 1,200-acre wetland (mentioned earlier) adjacent to the Melvin Price lock-and-dam project, and directed the design and construction of nursery ponds and the enhancement of wildlife habitats. And General Hatch won the Natural Resources Council of America's Chairman's Award for his environmental work over the past year.

The pairing of Hatch and Robertson was a stroke of luck--or genius. Bill Robertson, a big bear of a man who rose from backwoods Tennessee poverty by dint of a razor-sharp intellect, is described by a colleague as "the wizard who stands behind the throne and whispers in the king's ear."

When Hatch took office, he asked Robertson to help plan the transition. The Tennessean recalls, "I said, 'Well, boss, you got to sit down and make some notes to yourself about your vision of the future.' "Hatch kept procrastinating, and Robertson kept pressuring him. Finally the general jotted his thoughts on a scrap of paper, and near the top of the list was environmental engineering.

After that tentative start, the two began an intense campaign to lay a solid groundwork before the end of Hatch's tour of duty. First came weeks of conferences and workshops with 90 or so members of the Corps' leadership-colonels, other officers, and senior civilian personel-to refine a new vision for the army engineers. Hatch told them, "Don't sign onto this unless you really can put yourself into it. This needs to be our collaboralively developed new direction for the Corps of Engineers."

In February 14, 1990, Hatch sent out a letter that conservationist Lawrence Jahn, chairman of the Wildlife Management Institute's board, calls "a turning point in history."

Hatch in his own words says that the letter "tired a shot across the bow to those who might think we were equivocating." In it, he wrote that the environmental aspects of everything the Corps does "must have equal standing" with sound engineering and economics (favorable cost/benefit ratios) as "part of the 'go/no-go' test" that all projects under consideration must undergo.

The notion of equal standing was later written into law as part of the Water Resources Development Act of 1990, which mandates environmental protection as one of the primary missions of the Corps.

Hatch and Robertson then proceeded to restructure the Corps to ensure that environmental activities will be integrated into the planning and execution of future projects. An environmental coordinating council pulls together all restoration activities, whether dvil or military.

In predicting the future of the Corps, these structural changes may be more important than immediate accomplishments. The Wildlife Management Institute's Jahn says, "in a decentralized organization like the Corps, it's important for the top person to lay out what he wants, but don't be impatient if it takes time for implementation to work down to district offices."

Edward Osann, director of the National Wildlife Federation's water resources program, agrees: "The Corps is saddled with completing a number of projects that have been mandated by Congress that are of dubious economic value and carry some environmental costs."

Osann mentions the Red River channelization in Louisiana as a project that "should not have gotten out of the starting gate to begin with." Others include Louisiana's Ouachita River project, "which will have a negative effect on bottomland hardwoods"; the American River near Sacramento, California; the Passaic River project in New Jersey; and the Oregon Inle coastal erosion project in North Carolina.

Reactions among environmentalists range from skepticism to outright distrust. The Corps' Bill Klesch understands those reactions: "Environmentalists know that we want to become part of the choir, but they're not sure that we're even in the church yet."

In the February 14 letter, Hatch anticipated this reaction: "We will be measured by what we do, not what we say."

Until the Corps puts its money where its mouth is, the environmental community will remain skeptical. The Corps' fiscal year 1991 budget earmarked $299 million--a little less than 10 percent of the total budget-for what Hatch calls "strictly environmental work." In fiscal year 1992 the figure rose to $329 million--a little more than 10 percent.

Hatch admits that he wouldn't "want to put out a bumper sticker that says we're there." But he maintains that eco-engineering has re-energized an organization that one senior Senator accused of being "brain dead."

The critical question is whether Hatch's work will be carried on by his successor, who takes office this June (the person had not yet been named as this article was being written). But the future of the Corps also depends on the public. Even one of the Corps' harshest critics, Dr. Orrin H. Pilkey, professor of coastal geology at Duke University, says, "In the Corps' defense, we set things up this way. Congress funds its porkbarrel projects. It's basically our fault."

Jahn agrees it is essential that "citizens constantly encourage the Corps to do what is right."

Hatch, asked how the Corps would react to my book today, credits "the consciousness-raising that people like you provided" for helping bring about change. In fact, he says that he found the Reader's Digest condensation to be "factual and fairly benign."

So, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, you've come a long way. But at this point-- and General Hatch and Bill Robertson might well agree--the jury's still out.

Only time will tell whether we're in the same church. We can only hope that we have enough time left.

Norah Davis has worked for the last three years as managing editor of this magazine. With this issue, she leaves the AMERICAN FOREST staff to become director programs for the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation.
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Title Annotation:US Army Corps of Engineers changes its image from dam builders to eco-engineers
Author:Davis, Norah Deakin
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:2100
Previous Article:Global ReLeaf casts historic shadow on Moscow peace parade.
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