Thursday, April 22, 2010

Creating the Flowage

As I mentioned in the previous post, it was a superb weekend on the Chippewa Flowage and the Flowage is a superb body of water. Over 15,000 acres, 150+ islands, bays, tributaries, passages only a kayak can squeeze through, world class musky fishing, and a true wilderness flavor with minimal development. Yet the Flowage didn't exist until right about the time my parents were born. Many times I have driven through the village of New Post, not really knowing where the name came from. I learned, relatively recently, that there was a village named Post a bit northeast of there, originally named Pahquahwong. It had just under 200 full time residents, a trading post, a Catholic Church, and a cemetery. It's residents were forcibly relocated and it was flooded when the forerunner of NSP, now Xcel Energy, constructed the Winter dam and closed the gates in 1923. It is now under approximately 20' of water.

In a fairly typical land grab of that time, the power company, then Wisconsin-Minnesota Light & Power, purchased the rights to develop the dam from a consortium of lumber companies and then helped lobby for the passage of the 1920 Federal Water Power Act. This piece of legislation basically let them build the dam without the consent of the Lac Court Oreilles tribe and allowed the Federal Power Commission to determine appropriate compensation for land that was flooded as a result of the dam. Eminent Domain at its finest. The power company was supposed to build a new village, replant the wild rice beds, pay a yearly fee, and most importantly, move the graves out of the cemetary to New Post. Most of those things they didn't do and the others they did in a half assed fashion. The tribe and the poor whites got screwed, NSP received a 50 year lease to manage the dam, and the state of Wisconsin got a big brand new lake for outdoor recreation and to generate income for the businesses that sprung up around it.

My personal encounters with the Chippewa Flowage began when I was about 5 years old. There is an old black and white photo of me and my sister standing in front of my grand uncle's cabin where Hay Creek entered the Flowage. Those were the days of catching big muskies and eating them (catch and release was a long ways off), shooting them so they didn't destroy the inside of the boat when you landed them, and visiting the town dump at night to watch the black bears. Grand uncle George was an employee of NSP and I suspect got a sweet deal on the land somewhere around WW II. My grandfather, who I was very close to, would head up with his brother in law to fish muskies and 'ground swat' partridge while hunting on the gravel roads, constantly trying to elude either the game warden, state troopers, or the county sheriff. As a kid I liked eating both fish and partridge and thought nothing of it. My grandfather would drive through New Post on the way home to Eau Claire and make comments about the lifestyle and work ethic of the inhabitants. Nothing was ever mentioned about the Winter dam, even though he and George were both young men in their early 20's when the dam was constructed. We visited the Winter dam frequently, mainly to watch the water spill over it and because it was at the end of a gravel road that partridge frequented.

As I got older and more mobile, I would jump in the my 1966 Econoline van, the Blue Max, ('three on the tree', purchased for $110) with my buddies and head up to the Flowage to fish and deer hunt. At about the same time, AIM, the American Indian Movement, was founded in a church basement in Minneapolis by Clyde Bellecourt and others. NSP's 50 year lease was expiring as well at this time and the BIA and NSP were prepared to rubber stamp the lease renewal. Clyde and AIM had other ideas. We kinda ran into one another at the Winter dam.

The Mad Dog, Kuehner, and I left Eau Claire in August of 1971 with our fishing poles and crudely altered fishing licenses. These licenses were used to prove that we 16 and 17 year olds were actually 18 so we could get into Bob & Pearl's bar in Ojibwa, WI to drink 35 cent shorty Pabst's. We left Bob & Pearls barely conscious one evening and, being both cheap and nicely intoxicated, decided to drive the short distance to the end of the dirt road at the Winter dam and sleep there in the van. Shortly after midnight I was rousted by the Mad Dog who called my attention to the drumming that I hadn't noticed in my sleep, and pointed out that, "We're surrounded by a pile of goddamn Indians with guns!" Surrounded may have been too strong of a word, and the triple whammy of it being midnight, relying on a faded 40 year old memory, and me full to the brim with shorty Pabst's, makes remembering the exact scenario difficult, but I do remember one thing. I jumped in the drivers seat, fired up the Blue Max, and we got the hell out of there.

In the end things worked out pretty well. In 2000, after 12 years of negotiation, the Lac Court Oreilles tribe, the US Forest Service, and the Wisconsin DNR signed the Joint Agency Management Plan for the Chippewa Flowage. Xcel Energy is prevented from making the massive winter drawdowns of past years and the agencies have so far preserved the wilderness character of the area by putting the kibosh on a plan for houseboat rentals, a big condo development, and (you can't make this up) a business that wanted to offer scuba diving tours of the flooded tribal burial sites. In my opinion, getting these three groups to agree on approving any changes to the area would make the health care debate look like a slam dunk. That is a very good thing in this case. The Chippewa Flowage is a special place that needs to be protected and this would seem to be the perfect inter agency trio to do just that. Eminent Domain is still alive and well however, as evidenced by the Kelo case in 2005 where a bunch of lower income folks had their homes seized and condemned so that some rich guys could build a development and increase the taxes going into the City of New London, CT's coffers.You certainly don't need to be a Native American to have your land expropriated these days, just watch when they decide they need a new freeway for the 'public good'.

I enjoy the Flowage immensely and will continue to do so. Otto Von Bismarck said, "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them made". The same could apply to the Chippewa Flowage. Enjoy it, savor it, and do what you can to help preserve its unique character, but understand and respect the duplicity and suffering that created it.




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JoPears5 said...
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