Once Again, the Mississippi River is “a place set apart”
I wrote early in February about John Ruskey and the “Mighty Quapaws,” a canoe company in the Mississippi Delta that takes young people out on the Mississippi down where the river is REALLY BIG, and where most people are, frankly, afraid of the water. Ruskey and his crew are working wonders to set up trips that teach people about the history and geography of the place they live in, open their eyes to the wonders of the natural world around them, teach them self-reliance and teamwork, and get good exercise into the bargain.
What’s not to like, right?
Apparently the Mississippi Department of Revenue has found a lot not to like, assessing Ruskey’s company a five-figure tax bill even though federal law clearly states that taxes shall not be assessed on activities taking place on navigable waterways. As this article from the Mississippi Business Journal makes clear, Ruskey and his company are in imminent danger of going out of business or, at the very least, being distracted to the point where the quality of their work suffers.
Ruskey’s “Island 63” blog recently announced the formation of a Legal Defense Fund and ways to contribute, an extreme step that obviously pains this proudly independent entrepreneur. His point that the nature tourism business is in its infancy in Mississippi and has tremendous growth potential is a powerful argument that deserves to be heard more widely.
Aside from the immediate urgency from the tax case Ruskey is facing, I think there is another issue here as well. Once again, the Mississippi River is “a place apart,” a place where some of the rules “on land” are unclear or not applicable. The Mississippi River forms the border for eight of the ten states that it passes through, as well as the borders of a number of federal agency regions (the EPA, for example.)
The net effect is two-fold. On one hand, the river’s status as on the margins of state and agency boundaries leaves it isolated, “falling through the cracks” with no certain responsibility or authority for making sure that it is managed well. This status is obviously problematic.
On the other hand, the margins are where interesting new encounters happen, where growth occurs. Ruskey would probably agree that much of the magic of paddling the Mississippi lies in the fact that it is away from so many things that define “life here in settled areas.” In this respect, the “margins,” understood as ecologists understand the margins between ecotones, are dynamic, interesting, the most valuable places on earth.
It is fervently to be hoped that Ruskey and his supporters can talk sense into a hidebound state bureaucracy. We must be able to continue to send our young people into wild places, into the margins.