Henderson, Kentucky’s Riverwalk Along the Ohio River Shows Value of Public Investment

Henderson's three-mile long Riverwalk spans the southern bank of the Ohio River three hours downriver from Louisville.
Henderson’s three-mile long Riverwalk spans the southern bank of the Ohio River three hours downriver from Louisville. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

HENDERSON, KY — The 981-mile Ohio River Valley, which extends from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. is full of surprises these days. Pittsburgh shed its sooty industrial coat of the 20th century to emerge as a center of engineering and biomedical innovation. Cincinnati, battered by race riots and disinvestment, is building a $1 billion riverfront neighborhood and a streetcar line.

Louisville’s days as a meatpacking hub are long gone. Now it’s the growing capital of the American bourbon industry, home to one of the country’s fine urban universities, and experiencing a boom in hotel construction to accommodate all the interest in its new stature as a hub of exceptional restaurants supplied with fresh locally grown food.

Further downriver, Owensboro, KY. passed a local tax increase to invest in downtown redevelopment that yielded a new convention center, rebuilt streets, two hotels, an office building, dozens of new residential units, restaurants, and a riverfront park complete with jet fountains designed and built by the same guys who shower Las Vegas in thrilling curtains of water.

Then comes Henderson, an Ohio River city of such grace and idealized mid-continent whimsy that you almost expect to see riverboats docked along the banks and trolleys at the center of the 100-foot wide Main Street. Tall trees shade the city’s residential streets. Beautifully maintained Victorian homes keep a vigil on the river and Henderson’s business district. In the early 1990s, film director Penny Marshall arrived with Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donell to use the three-story brick mansion with the lovely porch at 612 North Main as the set for “A League of Their Own.”

The newest piece of Henderson’s small town landscape is its three-mile Riverwalk, which spans the rolling bluffs of the Ohio River’s southern bank. The Riverwalk, in early evening, is bathed in the pink and purple of Kentucky’s characteristically beautiful setting sun. During the day the rumble of coal trains, and the vibrating bass of the big engines of river towboats form an attractive soundtrack for a city of 29,000 that was founded in the Kentucky wilderness in 1797. The city’s Riverwalk affords such views of the Ohio, the flat fields beyond, and the thick forests on the Indiana banks that it’s possible to imagine the stunning display of flora and fauna that drew John James Aububon here in 1810 to spend nine years studying and painting.

Henderson, KY., founded in 1797, offers an amazing collection of beautiful Victorian era homes. Photo/Keith Schneider
Henderson, KY., founded in 1797, offers an amazing collection of beautiful Victorian era homes. Photo/Keith Schneider

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The Society of Foolhardy Folly: Anglers and Hunters Against the Environment

Ice and snow make their final appearance this week in northern Michigan. Fishermen put their hooks in clean water even as their votes supported lawmakers devoted to dismantling safeguards. Otter Creek runs cold and clear in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore this week. Photo/Keith Schneider
Ice and snow make their final appearance this week in northern Michigan. Fishermen put their hooks in clean water even as their votes supported lawmakers devoted to dismantling safeguards. Here, Otter Creek runs cold and clear in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, MI — Days before ice crowded back into Lake Michigan’s Platte Bay late last week, the shallow waters opened and fishermen planted their poles in the soft sand at the mouth of the Platte River and waited for steelhead and maybe a brown trout. Clean, cold water is abundant in our region in large part due to the safeguards contained in the 1972 Clean Water Act, arguably the most important environmental protection statute in history.

The law set limits on multiple pollutants from multiple sources. American courts enforced its provisions. Governments around the world enacted their own versions of the clean water law. And in the United States cleaner water gave rise to multi-billion dollar fisheries, new shoreline development in the nation’s cities, hundreds of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs in the recreational economy, and the untold satisfaction that the United States once was capable of responding effectively to a big national problem.

But when I wandered up to the parking area the pickups sported troubling evidence of how estranged we are, how politically disembodied we’ve become. The anti-EPA bumper stickers were apparent. “Defund the EPA.” “Regulate the EPA.” The men so intent on securing the fish that swam in the clean water of Lake Michigan also were engaged in a political abstraction. They very clearly voted for the right’s insurgent lawmakers, men and women in our state Legislature and national Congress not at all interested in advancing a tradition of environmental safeguards.

Disagreement about the scope and intensity of environmental regulations is a half-century old in the United States. What’s more — if you ask GOP voters what regulation they’d like to weaken — one that makes the air and water dirtier, opens the meadow next door to toxic waste dumping, allows the favorite wetland to be filled — they most often don’t have an answer. That’s because most Americans appreciate the cleaner and safer country we’ve produced with our environmental protections. I know a Republican family in Kentucky who took a trip to China, breathed the filthy air, smelled the putrid water, and returned home with this vow: “I’ll never complain about the EPA again.”

Platte Bay in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week. The park was established in 1970 at the height of American passion for protecting its best natural places. Photo/Keith Schneider
Platte Bay in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week. The park was established in 1970 at the height of American passion for protecting its best natural places. Photo/Keith Schneider

Environmental regulations and the EPA, though, are part of the nihilistic GOP message machine that asserts nothing really matters except shrinking the government, lowering taxes, ending regulation, opposing gun control and hating Obama. That’s a management menu, while provocative, that offers not a single cogent response to the economic and ecological storms that are battering us now. The Democrats are less dangerous, but also not nearly as articulate and determined.

Neither party is ready to describe the risks of what we face, and the many changes that are required to build a new era of safety and prosperity. Certainly, defending the nation’s existing environmental safeguards is a priority. Continue reading “The Society of Foolhardy Folly: Anglers and Hunters Against the Environment”

Washington Is Not Working — Literally

The House of Representatives isn't doing much these days unless it's voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider
The House of Representatives isn’t doing much these days unless it’s voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON — Two events occurred here on Thursday this week that together are a nearly perfect distillation of why this otherwise pleasant city has become the capital of intransigence and frustration for people like me concerned about our national interest.

In the morning the U.S. Supreme Court announced, in a 5-4 decision, that campaign donations are a form of free speech, and that the wealthy can spend just about as much as they like to elect candidates of their choice. The ruling is the latest evidence that the hard right turn that the nation took with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 is producing ever bigger dividends for his supporters.

Reagan’s administration was devoted almost entirely to instituting Reaganomics, then touted as a means to reduce taxes and balance the budget. But what Reaganomics was really about, as its critics predicted, was enabling the wealthy to become so rich they could completely segregate themselves from the rest of the country. The Thursday Supreme Court ruling makes it much easier for the rich to control legislation and erect even higher barriers of self-protection.

Within hours of the Court’s ruling, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to repeal a provision of the Affordable Care Act. It was the 52nd time the House has moved against President Obama’s health care law. And like all the other times, the legislation has no chance of being enacted. The vote came a few days after the White House announced that 7 million people had signed up for insurance under the health care law, in my view an administration accomplishment. Republicans barked that the White House made up that number.

The larger point is that aside from harping on the president, and hoping voters send more arch conservatives to Washington in the fall, the House has expressed scant interest in anything else — wages, unemployment, immigration, energy, climate change, tax reform. Americans spend a lot of money to keep politicians and their bright young staffs idle in Washington.

I’ve spent a long time around Washington since 1980. My work as a journalist and former non-profit executive involves interviewing elected lawmakers, agency heads, and research personnel, and collaborating with public interest experts. I worked full-time in Washington, from 1985 to 1993, as a correspondent for the New York Times, which comes with unusual access to centers of influence and the responsibility to dig and report well in the public interest. Continue reading “Washington Is Not Working — Literally”

Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan's gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider
Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan’s gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, Michigan — It’s winter in Northwest Michigan, the coldest and deepest season of ice and snow in years. It’s possible that the severe winter will produce the conditions necessary to curb the newest noxious and unsightly threat to the region’s waters: the algae blooms overtaking northern Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The blooms not only illustrate the presence of rising levels of nutrients in the water. They also are evidence of the weakening resolve of citizens, their state, and the nation to secure America’s clean fresh water. Write me – keith@circleofblue.org – if you’re interested in organizing to halt this frustrating risk to the national park in our own backyard, and to addressing this insult to our lakes and rivers.

No place in the United States, it seems to me, is a better place to start. In 1970 the United States Congress authorized land purchases to establish Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — 35 miles of towering dunes, broad forests of maple and hemlock, and magnificent shallow blue bays along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline west of Traverse City.

In almost every way conceivable, Sleeping Bear’s founding reflected the best impulses of a nation determined to prove that economic development could coincide with new measures to conserve land, and scrub the air and water clean of multiple pollutants.

The 71,000-acre national park, founded at the very center of the five Great Lakes, met two primary national goals. Sleeping Bear restored the deteriorated bounty of soil, forest, and water that supported, into the early decades of the 20th century, a necklace of tiny maritime communities and several thousand fishing, farm, and forestry jobs.

And second, Sleeping Bear helped to prove that a new and much larger economic sector could be formed from policies that preserved a region’s ecology, limited pollution, and effectively enforced environmental law.

In the course of two generations, the air and water in and outside the park were largely cleared of pollution and improved to near pristine quality. Rivers in and outside the park grew colder and clearer, supporting active salmon and trout fisheries. Forests in and outside the park grew taller, more dense, and more supportive of wildlife, including regular sightings of bobcat, bear, goshawks, and once-endangered bald eagles.
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At Start of Second Term Obama Declares “We Are Made For This Moment”

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After delivering a second inaugural address fused with measured confidence, President Obama beams at the huge, cheering crowd that greeted him along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON — Four years ago, when crisis lay like a dark shadow across the land, and President Obama’s first inaugural address served as a kind of pep talk to refute what he called “the nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable,” this week’s inspiring and dignified Inaugural ceremonies seemed so unlikely, if not utterly impossible.

In 2009, America did indeed feel like a nation slipping backwards. We all know the evidence. Job losses. Bank failures. Foreclosures. Terrorist attack. Wars prompted by a campaign of lies and deceit. An opposition party, driven by fanatic inflexible ideology, dangerously intolerant, and determined to wreck the country.

We were a country afraid of the future and bent by the potent winds of economic transition that so confused us we chose to cower instead of compete.

On Monday, though, the thoroughly confident president, buoyed by an improving economy, and advancing against a weakened Republican opposition in retreat, declared without any irony:

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive, diversity and openness, an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.”

Those words ring true to me. The first weeks of 2013 feel much different than the first weeks of 2009. Or the last months of 2012, for that matter. Some of that has to do with the economy. The United States now enjoys a globally competitive edge in agriculture, energy, the Internet, transportation, advanced manufacturing, and health care and medical research. As foundations for a new era of prosperity, the success of these seven sectors are unmatched by any other nation.

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