River activists are patriots!


AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha delivered this keynote speech to the River Alliance of Wisconsin’s annual dinner on November 9, 2002.


I’m honored to be here this evening, and really grateful to Scott Froehlke and all of his board and staff for inviting me to speak to you. It seems like a long time ago that Scott first called me, way back in the spring. I remember detecting in his voice more than a wee bit of curiosity about what this most peculiar of speakers—this notorious Republican environmentalist—might have to say on the subject of rivers.

Fortunately, I was able to tell him that I personally have extensive river-related experience. My husband and I have long enjoyed canoeing rivers in Illinois and other states where we’ve gone on vacation, with me hauling my camera along and Bernie toting his traveling watercolor setup. We’ve explored the streams in and around Wisconsin’s Horicon Marsh and other natural areas as far north as the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

And on top of that, I’m a county commissioner with ten years of experience dealing with the flood-prone, ecologically challenged watersheds in my northeast Illinois county. I’m an acknowledged leader in the effort to bring a multi-county, multi-state watershed approach to solving flooding problems along our Des Plaines River, which starts in Wisconsin, runs through my Lake County and on through Cook County, before it joins up with the Illinois River south of Joliet. The watershed approach, which we Lake County activists finally got the Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to accept, emphasizes land acquisition, restoration and stabilization along rivers and streams for natural flood control, rather than the old style big-bathtub, concrete-and-steel-and-levees-and-dams approach.

So yes, as I told Scott, I do have considerable hands-on-the-paddle experience with rivers.

But still, I have to hand it to Scott. It probably took some courage to invite as his keynoter a Republican environmentalist … a walking, talking oxymoron.



Isn’t that a wonderful word? So rich with quirky, imaginative connotations. I use it to get a laugh, of course, but also to break the ice and clear the air. And you know what? It always works!

I’m fortunate as a speaker to be able to trot out that wonderful joke about being president of the world’s funniest oxymoron—Republicans for Environmental Protection. Not for me any scrambling around, trying to find some clever story to start my talk with. Nope. This particular speaker comes with a built-in set of 100% guaranteed chuckle lines.

Of course, after all the chuckling dies down, I make it a point to remind people that Republicans for Environmental Protection is most assuredly not a joke. We’re a group of flinty-eyed realists willing to look hard at our party and point out the warts we find. And we do find a lot of warts. We grit our teeth, tell the truth, point out the warts, and work hard at our mission of “greening up” the GOP. Some folks in our party wish we’d just sit down and shut up. Some folks in the other environmental organizations think we’re just Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

But we REP members don’t for a minute believe that ours is either a treasonous activity or an impossible dream. We have our own special ways of thinking and talking about what we do. We like to say things like…

Conservation is conservative.

Or… There’s nothing more fundamentally conservative than conservation.

Or… Conservatives should conserve, not squander, our natural resources.

Or my own personal favorite… If conservatives won’t conserve, who will?

It’s sad that the very notion of “Republicans for Environmental Protection” is laughed at today as an oxymoron, because it didn’t used to be a joke. We at REP don’t think it should be one now.


We like to point out that conservation is rooted in a whole constellation of traditional conservative values…

  • Prudence
  • Stewardship
  • Personal responsibility
  • Thrift
  • Patriotism

In other words, as John McCain wrote a few years back: Nature is not a liberal plot.


Once upon a time, Republicans were actually the leaders of this nation’s fledgling environmental movement. Republicans of another era led the fight to establish and protect our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges… and some of us still fight hard for those special places. Republicans of another era led the fight to clean up our lakes, our rivers, our streams… and some of us still fight hard for those irreplaceable resources. I’d be willing to bet there are even some Republicans sitting out there in this gathering of river activists.

Because even today, true conservatives care about conservation.

Because nothing is more conservative than conservation.

And because nothing is more essential to conserve than our nation’s rivers.

Rivers give us life.

Rivers sustain us.

Rivers inspire us.


Rivers matter.

And I don’t mean that in some fringy “enviro-wacko” sense, either. Rivers are woven into the very fabric of America’s history, culture, and heritage. From this nation’s very beginnings, rivers have driven our economy, guided our explorations, inspired our hopes, and lifted our spirits.

Rivers have a special place in our hearts as Americans. Sure, rivers are enormously valuable ecosystems… home for trout and otters and mussels and kingfishers and crayfish and dragonflies and herons and eels and dozens of other critters that don’t get much public attention but are no less essential for the ecological roles they play. Rivers provide millions of Americans with fresh drinking water and—like my husband and me—wonderful places to relax and recreate and restore our souls.

But rivers have a powerful call that goes much deeper than that into our collective psyche as a nation. When we Americans see a wild, flowing river, we intuitively experience a connection to the spirits of our forebears, to the wildness of nature, to the sense of place that most all of us hold dear.

The very names of our rivers evoke powerful emotional images: the Mississippi, the Wisconsin, the St. Croix, the Wolf, the Fox, the Chippewa, the Peshtigo… to name a few right here in Wisconsin.

It was a river that played a central role at a pivotal battle of the American Revolution. In one of the most famous river-running expeditions in American history, George Washington led his rag-tag army of 2,600 patriots across the ice-choked Delaware River and defeated the surprised British and Hessian mercenaries in the Battle of Trenton. The date was December 26, 1776, and those guys ran the Delaware without Gore-Tex… or even dry bags!

I could talk all evening about the role of rivers in American history and culture… about Lewis and Clark, about Huck Finn on the Mighty Mississip, about John Wesley Powell’s explorations, which—among other things—opened America’s eyes to the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. So much of our 19th Century history revolves around our rivers. But there are other things I want to spend my time on tonight.

I do want to say this, however… during the last half of the 19th Century—long before anybody knew much about hydrology or aquatic ecosystems—the American conservation movement was beginning to stir. Early patriots were already starting to seek protection of this nation’s mountains, forests, wildlife… and yes, its rivers.

And ever since then, we Americans have fought to protect and defend our rivers from foolish development schemes. We’ve lost a few battles, unfortunately, and those losses have taken their toll. Perhaps the most famous example of a heartbreaking defeat for conservationists was the drowning of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. Can you imagine? They dammed a river inside an existing national park! That was in 1913, and even then it created a huge outcry from the public, including early conservationists like John Muir.

I wish I could say that no one today would dare think of damming—and thus destroying—a river in a national park, or in a state park, but I can’t. And I wouldn’t encourage any of you to bet on it either, especially in these bottom-line driven times. We who love our rivers wild and free must be forever vigilant. Because, as the common wisdom holds—and it’s true!—developers need only be successful once. We conservationists must win every time, over and over again.

But we conservationists can win the battles to save our rivers and other natural treasures. We can win those battles by ourselves, although it helps to have a few friends in high places. And we can win them under even the most daunting of circumstances.


I’m going to tell you a couple of true stories that I think will inspire you in your river-protection efforts.


My first true story is about a unique historic site, a wild river, and the monumental battle that grassroots activists just like us once waged to save them both from a federal dam.

But before I tell you that story, let me ask… how many of you have ever heard the name of John Saylor? Well, my fellow conservationists, you should, and I want to tell you a little about John Saylor along with my tale of that river and that damn dam, because Saylor deserves to be remembered at a gathering of river lovers and activists.

John Saylor was a congressman who grew up in the Allegheny hardwood region of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. John Saylor was a Republican—a very conservative Republican, a truly conservative Republican—and probably the most dogged defender of wilderness and wild rivers who ever occupied a congressional suite in Washington. Although he was a congressman—and a Republican, of all things—he was also one of us: a dedicated, diehard conservationist. It was largely through his efforts that the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 became law.

You see… John Saylor loved rivers. He loved to canoe them. He loved to sit and watch them. And he wasn’t afraid to fight for them. He loved them so much that he fought his colleagues in Congress —including his own friends from Pennsylvania—to protect what was at the time America’s most threatened river.

For roughly twenty years, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, the federal government was pushing a plan to dam the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument—which stretches between Utah and Colorado. If you aren’t familiar with Dinosaur National Monument, you should know that it contains the richest deposit of Jurassic remains ever discovered on earth. Well, never mind all that, said the Powers That Be, and plans were laid for what was to be called Echo Park Dam. Echo Park Dam was designed to turn the beautiful Green River into a vast lake, and by golly, wouldn’t you know… a huge resort complex—costing the then-unheard of sum of $2.5 million—was to be built on the shores of that lake.

Now remember… this was the 1930s, the Great Depression, the era of massive make-work federal projects like the Hoover Dam, and hardly anybody saw anything wrong with them. This Echo Park Dam project was different, however, since it threatened the very mission of the National Park Service, which is to protect individual parks and the integrity of our public lands system as a whole. From what I’ve read, the in-fighting must have been dreadful. Entire federal departments were split down the middle between pro-dam and anti-dam factions, as the controversy raged over two decades. Absolutely everybody weighed in on the matter. Representatives of the State of Utah insisted that creating an oasis in the desert was an essential element of the Mormon Mission… a manifestation of God’s will, making the desert flower. In 1950, a new Secretary of the Interior, Oscar Chapman, weighed in with his support, which finally broke the logjam. And at that point, in our modern lingo, you might have said the Echo Park Dam was a done deal.

Well folks, turns out it wasn’t a done deal after all. Because, you see, this was the fight in which the post-World War II conservation movement cut its teeth. It was during the protracted battle over the fate of Dinosaur National Monument and the Green River that the conservation community first invented the outreach, organizing and media techniques that we modern grassroots activists have since honed to a fine edge. And by using those brand-new tools, the conservation community discovered in their reaching out that they had a champion in Congress… conservative Republican John Saylor of Pennsylvania.

Once Saylor entered the battle against the Echo Park Dam, his opposition was tireless. He lambasted the dam as a pork barrel project taking money from the many to subsidize the few. He invoked the old conservative ideal of responsibility in fighting to keep America’s heritage safe for future generations. He warned that the Echo Park Dam would be a crude violation of the entire national park system. Sounds very much like our current ongoing battle over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, doesn’t it?

The conservation community had rooted around in its collective brain and come up with exactly the right techniques to stave off that threat from special interests with narrow, self-serving agendas. And so, thanks to the growing political savvy of a bunch of people who were pretty much just like us, those grassroots activists found a friend in high places, and together they stopped the Echo Park Dam. So much for done deals.

And you know, the conservation community repeated that victory a decade later when they stopped two proposed dams in the Grand Canyon. Can you imagine… somebody thought it was a good idea to build two dams in the Grand Canyon! We owe a debt of gratitude to David Brower’s genius, to his imaginative use of the media, namely his famous NY Times ad that tore apart the Bureau of Reclamation’s flaky argument that reservoirs would bring tourists closer to the canyon walls. Brower the genius asked:

“Should we flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”

So much for that done deal.


The second true story I want to tell you is about The Fox. How many of you have heard about The Fox? Well, you should.

The Fox was a schoolteacher who lived near the Fox River in Illinois—west of Chicago—during the 1960s.

Like John Saylor, The Fox loved his river. He canoed it, walked along it, enjoyed it. But over the years he began to notice that the Fox River wasn’t quite what it had been. The fish were dying. Bird life wasn’t so abundant. There was a lot of black gunk floating around that hadn’t been there before, and the river was beginning to smell. The Fox couldn’t help but notice the huge pipes that jutted out into the river, dumping vast quantities of black slop from factories and municipal plants along its banks.

Well, in the 1960s, there was no Clean Water Act to force those factories to change their modus operandi, so The Fox decided that he needed to do something. He began going out at night and blocking up those outfalls with concrete, so that instead of flowing into the river, the heavy black gunk would back up into the factories and municipal plants. Everywhere he did this, he left his calling card: a small drawing of the head of a fox.

He did this for several years, all up and down the river, and although the FBI was looking for him, he was never caught. Local legend says that plenty of people knew who he was, including several policemen… but nobody ever ratted him out. And through his well-publicized efforts, he helped raise the public’s awareness of bad practices that needed to be stopped.

In 1972, citizen pressure—like the actions of The Fox—led to bipartisan action that produced the Clean Water Act, one of the signature laws that protect our quality of life. Once that law was passed, the factories and municipalities were forced to clean up their act. The Fox quietly faded into history… anonymous to the end, and never caught.

Now, I want you to fast forward with me 30 years, to 1998.

I was sitting at my desk one morning when the phone rang. “Mrs. Marks?” an old man’s voice said on the other end of the line. “This is The Fox.”

He went on to ask if I had ever heard of The Fox, and I said, yes, I remember hearing about somebody who had blocked up factory pipes decades ago on the Fox River. Was that him?

Yes, my caller said, and he added: “I’ve been watching you. I’ve been a member of your organization for the last year, and I’m impressed with what you’re doing. I’d like to meet you. Could I take you to lunch?” He wouldn’t tell me what his name was, so while we talked I pulled up REP’s database and scrolled down through the long list of Illinois members. Couldn’t figure out which one he was.

Now, I’m not in the habit of going out to lunch with strange men who call on the phone and won’t tell me their names, but I agreed to meet him in a popular Chicago restaurant the next week… and of course my husband knew exactly where I was going.

Well, folks… that turned out to be one of the most memorable lunches of my life. For over two hours, I listened as an elderly man recounted his adventures of three decades earlier. He drew the face of a fox on the back of an envelope, which I still have. And by the time we parted, I was totally convinced that he was, in fact, The Fox. He finally told me his name too, and yes, he was a REP member from 1997 until last year.

One morning in 2001, I woke up to read in the newspaper that Jeff Phillips, better known as The Fox, had died of cancer. They ran his photo too, and yes, it was the same Jeff Phillips who had taken me to lunch three years earlier. Even the conservative Chicago Tribune ran an editorial praising The Fox’s success in raising awareness of the point-source pollution that was killing our rivers. And one evening the television news shows ran footage of local river activists holding a vigil for him on his beloved Fox River.

I think about Jeff Phillips, aka The Fox, when people say there’s nothing one person can do. Because I believe Jeff Phillips had a lot to do with making the Clean Water Act a reality.

We still have a long way to go to make all our nation’s waterways fishable and swimmable. But thanks to the Clean Water Act, citizens have the tools to hold corporations and governments accountable. And we’re using them to full advantage, too. Look around the country at all the riverkeeper organizations that recruit volunteers to watch over our rivers and other bodies of water. The Clean Water Act works, which is why would-be polluters, often using my party as a tool, are always trying to weaken it.

Recently, thanks to activists just like you and me, and with the support of enlightened politicians like New York Governor George Pataki (another “green Republican,” by the way), the General Electric Corporation finally agreed to clean up its own mess and get the PCBs out of the Hudson River.

Thanks to tough, persistent activists right here in Wisconsin, and with the support of enlightened politicians, your state recently took the laudable step of enacting protections for isolated wetlands following a questionable Supreme Court decision. We did the same thing last year in my Lake County. Unfortunately, right now the developers are working overtime to convince our state legislature to overturn the wetlands-protection ordinance that our County Board passed.

I wish I’d gotten here earlier on Friday, so I could have taken the field trip out to the site of the former Nelsonville Dam. I’m sure it was inspiring and instructive to see how the river is recovering since the dam was removed. That same thing is happening elsewhere, too. Thanks to the sweat equity of grassroots organizations like those assembled here this weekend, old dams are being removed from rivers around the country. Last year I visited the Kennebec River in Maine where a dam had been taken out. Shad, alewives, and striped bass are coming home after a long absence. The Kennebec is alive again, thanks to the hard work of local activists who made it happen.

From what I’ve heard about your wetlands protection initiatives and dam-removal projects now underway, you river activists in Wisconsin are leaders in the field of rivers protection. Good for you!

And that’s appropriate, given that your state was the home of America’s conservation forefathers: John Muir and Aldo Leopold. They were just ordinary people like us, products of their time, who made their way into the history books by rising up to champion the special places that they loved.

And that brings me to the message I want to leave with you tonight. You and I—we rabble-rousing grassroots activists with little time and less money, but a whole lot of heart and a passionate love for rivers—we are the thin but powerful blue line standing between our rivers and the selfish special interests. They look at rivers and see a commodity to be exploited. We look at rivers and see life, see history, see a place called home.


So please remember this, if you remember nothing else of what I say:

We who fight for rivers, for forests, for oceans, for deserts, for endangered critters throughout this great country… we are true American patriots. We’re patriots! We’re defending our homeland from assault by hostile forces just as surely as any army that ever assembled anywhere on the face of the earth. So be proud of what you do. You’re patriots!

Theodore Roosevelt said it best in a quotation that we at REP have all but made our own:

“Conservation,” TR said, “is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

I will leave that with you as your own patriotic battle cry.