Steve Fleischli grew up in Nebraska, where as a tall kid he made money as a corn de-tasseler.
“You had to be tall, and I’m tall. As I recall, it’s at the very top of the plant where the male parts go out and pollinate everything. So you pull those male parts off,” he explains.
Today, Fleischli is a tall figure in environmental circles, president of WaterKeeper Alliance. WaterKeeper is an international alliance of nearly 200 hyper-local groups watch-dogging a local river, bay or lake against harm. It grew out of the environmental activism of commercial fishermen on the Hudson River in 1966. That group became Riverkeeper in 1983 with Robert Kennedy Jr. as a cofounder. Kennedy is now board chairman and chief prosecuting attorney. Fleischli succeeded Kennedy as WaterKeeper president in 2007.
Just before the big snows hit last month Fleischli made a quick tour of North Idaho and swung by The Inlander.
“I was here in high school — just driving through — but was always struck by the beauty of the area,” he says. He visited two groups seeking to join the alliance. The Silver Valley Community Resource Center, long active in watch-dogging the Silver Valley’s cleanup of mining waste, applied two years ago to open a local WaterKeeper office. The Panhandle Environmental League in Sandpoint recently indicated that it, too, would like to be considered so it could address non-chemical options for combating milfoil in the lake.
Late last month the WaterKeeper board approved the Silver Valley request with Barbara Miller as the waterkeeper (that’s the job title). In 2001, the Ford Foundation awarded Miller a $130,000 grant to honor years of fighting for cleanup of toxic mining waste and advocating blood-lead testing for children despite harassment from locals.
Inlander: What is the focus of a Silver Valley WaterKeeper?
Fleischli: Essentially, it would focus on all of the waterways from Kellogg to Coeur d’Alene. A waterkeeper takes responsibility to try and protect waterways from all insults, so to speak.
In a valley full of regulatory agencies, what new authority does WaterKeeper bring?
The EPA is a fine agency — I was an intern with EPA Region 10 [Seattle] when I was in law school — but in a lot of areas they can be doing a better job. Public participation is a critical part of what the waterkeeper is about. My sense in talking to Barbara Miller is that she’ll bring renewed focus on water-related issues. She spent a lot of time on toxics in the soils and in children, but it’s important to remember there’s a critical water resource that is worthy of protection.
Barbara Miller has provoked strong reaction in the Silver Valley, even after she was honored by the Ford Foundation. Are you concerned she might be a lightning rod?
Waterkeepers are not there to make friends. Their friend is the local waterway, which they are trying to protect. There are some aspects in any community who want to maintain the status quo, and you have to challenge that. If you read Robert Kennedy’s book about the Hudson, you will see this started when a group of commercial fishermen were upset about what was happening to their waterway, that they couldn’t eat the fish. There were some major industries responsible for that pollution and there were a number of politicians in their pockets.
[The fishermen] came out and said, “Industry does not own these waterways. Government does not own these waterways. The people own these waterways.” So they brought the first enforcement actions … and started making progress.
So your capsule summary of Barbara Miller?
I was very impressed with her. She is very sweet. She is very passionate about issues. She seems rooted in fact. She grew up there and has a love for the community — I think she is exactly the type of person we are looking for.
What does a waterkeeper do?
We have 13 quality standards that must be addressed. You’ve got to be a full-time paid advocate. You have to have a boat — you can’t sit in an office all day, you have to get out and have a relationship with the waterway to know what’s going on.
Standard No. 8 is important to me: You have to enforce environmental law. It’s not just education, it’s not just restoration. There is a law enforcement piece, if you will. If a government is not willing to enforce the law, you need to find ways to try and enforce it yourself.
Through collaboration or lawsuits?
The last eight years, certainly at the federal level, it has been a common tactic to try and force people into a consensus process. If you want to preserve the status quo, delay is an effective tool.
Lawsuits are part of the process, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. Civilized people use the law to solve their problems.