10 September 2010

Ground-breaking at Glenwood Interchange for Highway 34 Project

On Thursday afternoon, September 9th, a ground-breaking ceremony for the Highway 34 - Bellevue Bridge project was held west of the Interstate-29 interchange, near Glenwood, Iowa. It was on public property, which, based upon earlier communications, was an important and essential condition of the day.

About 200 people had gathered, including too many politicians and business proponents from the surrounding area, with the most prominent listed on the flyer, handed-out for the ceremony.

Among the crowd were four birders cognizant of the special values which the La Platte Bottoms have for a myriad of birds.

Once the law men noticed our initial look-about with a pair of binoculars - to see if the rest of our group had arrived and explanation of our purpose - they laid down the rules of the day. We could stay if we did not cause any problems, did not disrupt the event and would basically comply with what they said was okay.

Justin Rink holding his "Barry the Bittern" sign at the event.

Justin Rink's sign - carefully and personally made the evening before - featured a hand-drawn Least Bittern - notably a male with the name of Barry, though only one person noticed - with the words "Evicted" to indicate how the pending ruination of the wetlands will destroy its summer habitat.

Once we made our way to the "official" area, we were immediately shown where we could stand. The sheriffs from Mills County did not want any trouble. Once we were noticed in the parking lot, the two of us forged onward to the our designated place, the "protester box" on the north side of the gathering.

The crowd was noisy, and we quietly chatted among ourselves, while keeping the signs out front and obvious.

The law enforcement officers soon noted the arrival of the better half of our group. Since after some angst of pondering, with a timely and appreciated arrival, up went three other signs were finely made in detail by Shari Schwartz. John Carlini was also on the scene. They stood next to the "Barry the Bittern" sign, at our spot upon the grass, north of the throng.

We were there to present an opposing view, with each of us soon holding a large sign expressing a terse but pertinent message how the highway will ruin the unique wetlands. Each of us four held high our expressive placard, making sure it would be readily seen others at the scene.

We stood together the first ever, visible expression of dissent for a highway project in this region. It was a new reality in more ways than one.

For two of us on the scene, we had also never been visibly expression in opposition to wetland ruination, and the day was a grand time to get out of our box, and make a prominent statement.

Capitalists and Politicians Talk

Once the "ceremony" began, it was a basic litany of politicians talking about nothing of consequence, inane comments about football, and other self-congratulatory words given to a crowd which hung on every word, clapping appreciably while photographers and videographers milled about capturing the day's so-called significance.

When the welcoming comments were finished, the speaker had all the "dignitaries" stand up, and they applauded themselves for accomplishing a "number 1 priority project."

The theme of the day was: "Meet You in the Middle in 2013!" which referred to the ribbon-cutting which will occur once the project is completed.

After some more opening remarks, Governor Dave Heineman was at the podium. He noted it was "very significant" that Iowa and Nebraska worked together on a project important to both states, but readily made more comments about football than the topic-of-the-day. It was a lame speech, but certainly not from his perspective, and he could have talked about the years' corn yield and the weather and the crowd would have still clapped.

Next up was the Lieutenant governor of Iowa, Patty Judge. Her theme was how the road project will help to "grow" southwest Iowa ... as "bridges open up communities" and that this particular bridge will "tie together two states with a lot in common." And, the "possibilities will be endless," she said.

All of these comments were noted while sometimes holding up a sign, to one extent or another, while listening to a tepid sound system on a windy day on the floodplain of the Missouri River. The two Mills County sheriffs were right next to our gang of four, so these were the safest notes ever made during three decades of writing about things.

Football rivalry was a common theme during the hour and 15-minute ceremony, and was just too much, to express an opinion. The event would have been half as long if there had been no comments about collegiate athletics, lame challenges, but public officials can quip about different inane subjects, tell a joke or do whatever they deem suitable for their brief time in front of the gathering. It did not matter to the majority of the people present, though we did have some fun making our own remarks about what was being heard.

Ongoing Political Talk

This highway project was an "adult-project" according to Tom Harkin, Senator from Iowa. After first talking about football, he said it was a "great day" for a project that took time to happen, indicating that it was accomplished through the use of earmarks. And it was a sterling "example of persistence" that will be a "major shot in the arm for development on both sides of the river."

Harkin was "proud and pleased to be among those that made the project possible." He mentioned several times earmarks passed in the halls of political Washington, D.C. that led to this project being possible. It was a way to bring back to the local area the money which had been paid by taxpayers.

Nearly silently, the words Pork!, Pork!, Pork! were subtly expressed by someone at the north side of the event.

Bird proponents at the ground-breaking ceremony. Justin Rink on the left, John Carlini in the middle and Shari Schwartz on the right.

About this point in the ceremony, the sign-wielding four were required to move eastward, based upon the directive from a greater force, apparently the two men in black suits which were the escort for the Nebraska governor. Apparently it was not proper that we were standing within 15-feet of the governor's black suburban. Our new spot was about 15-20 feet distance, which was actually better, as our spot was more towards the "front" of the crowd.

Further comments by the project proponents expressed the general theme of how wonderful the new highway would be...

"Bridge a symbol of communities working together" - letter from Congressman Lee Terry,
We are "planning for what businesses and industries we should look forward to" to promote development along the right-of-way - Larry Winum, president of Glenwood/Mills County Economic Development

It was readily apparent that the chambers of commerce, and the overall throng at the event were thrilled with the pending highway and bridge and how it would promote economic development from Glenwood to south of Bellevue.

This theme is consistent with the comments given in the project documents, which, especially on the Nebraska side of the river, express hopes for industrial and commercial development on 3,000 acres, apparently including the remnant wetlands east of La Platte.

They want to pave a bird paradise and put up a bunch of buildings and parking lots.

None of the commentators made any reference to the environmental impacts of the project. Also, during the time we were present, no one came up to our group to ask what we were expressing.

It is quite telling that none of the officials, politicians, or anyone else had the verve to approach us and ask our reason for being present. This is quite indicative of how these people could not accept a different view, and even be neighborly enough to express an interest in an alternative view. At least I mingled as allowed, and was able to convey the events of the day, with numerous other communications have been previously made to at least a couple of the people present, whom made sure to ignore our outstanding presence.

Shari Schwartz gets recognition for having the strongest arms, as she held her sign the highest, for the longest time. This is based upon her response from a nearby someone, asking about her focused effort. The response was that she was well-experienced in holding things up, and thus a great appreciation for that today, as well as her and John's focus on seeing the birds about the bottoms.

Law Enforcement Officers

Since the sheriffs, wanted to have a day with no trouble, the two of them flanked us on each end of our small group.

When the time to throw dirt approached, they were notified of an intent to go get some video of the politicians and capitalists when they grabbed shovels to provide the iconic scene of the day, and portray the start of the pending earthworks for the highway and bridge.

The sign being held was left behind, a commitment was made to keep quiet, and then an escort was provided, in case someone might want to bother me, was the reason the sheriff said.

Nothing happened. There were a bunch of politicians and capitalists acting like clones, pushing a shovel into the dirt, then holding it aloft for a few seconds, a time long enough for those wanting to get a picture to capture the image, and then to throw the dirt after a countdown. Then the main-stream media descended for interviews to capture more biased words about the project.

Our gang did get a bit of attention from one Omaha television station. The videographer had shot a short clip earlier during the ceremony, but we retained our place to ensure anyone could capture an opposing view. A television guy came by, and was given two documents - the editorial piece in Bellevue Leader on September 1st, and the testimonials on the birds of the La Platte Bottoms, as contributed by a few local bird enthusiasts - so he would have the details to understand the reason why we were standing in the sun of an autumn afternoon, with signs in opposition to the common viewpoint.

Once the primary part of the ceremony was finished, and it was time to depart, a view was expressed about going to get a cookie, and without any sign or any intent except to grab a snack, my spot moved on. Upon getting four cookies for me and others, a glance backward noted a sheriff was just a few feet away. It was another effort for them to ensure that no one in the crowd could cause a confrontation.

This is the first time to have ever - repeat ever - having been given a sheriff escort while getting some cookies. Wow!

A hearty hand-shake was expressly given to the three law enforcement officers, upon leaving the scene, a few moments later. This was an important gesture to expressly thank them and to convey a positive attitude.

Our presence did, however, convey a vivid alternate to the self-congratulatory comments generally expressed during the ceremony. Our signs of expressions were a bit of a prick to their balloon, but as the officials and politicians involved with the project had neglected to consider many essential aspects associated with this environmentally damaging project, we did succeed in expressing our view.

A hearty thanks to the three compatriots present and for the fine signs. We had the verve to express our views on a topic which was wrong in the manner in which it was dealt with, and this was the primary facet of the day.

It should be noted that there were no representatives present from any of the local conservation groups, including the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Nebraska Sierra Club, Wachiska Audubon Society and Audubon Society of Omaha. This is despite repeated efforts to inform numerous birders of the event - notably via the NEBirds forum - of the time and place when the ground-breaking would occur, and specifically asking for their participation.

This is especially dismal, considering that in 2007, the metro-Omaha area Audubon society notably expressed concern about the highway project in their newsletter, yet, based upon documents reviewed, they did not make any effort to protect the wetlands east of La Platte.

Many birds will suffer from ruination of the La Platte Bottoms, but the demise of the place will not be forgotten, nor is the issue finished. It was a grand day to have a dedicated group express views in support of the birds which do not have a voice.

Officials throwing the first bits of dirt, that vividly mark the start of a project that will ruin, forever, wetlands at the La Platte Bottoms.