University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

America’s Watershed Report Card: A Good Start Despite/Because of the Controversy

Working at a university the way I do, you’d think I would be all over the recent stories about the America’s Watershed Report Card for the Mississippi River basin.  A sampling of the coverage can be found here, here, and here.  After all, giving grades is what we do in class, right? We make judgments from criteria that we hope are clear and meaningful and that lead to desired change.

Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said about those three criteria, and many river organizations have commented on the report card specifically.  For example, Olivia Dorothy from American Rivers recently invited Ken Lubinski, retired from the US Geological Survey, to assess how well the report card addressed ecological data, river health, and the pros and cons of any report card effort.

I want to talk about something different: the “human dimension” which is sometimes taken for granted, sometimes too generalized, and sometimes falsely equated simply with “economy” and pitted against “ecology.”  I want to suggest that, despite the relative precision with which human dimensions of river health are mentioned in the report card, greater subtlety is needed around an abstract concept of “well being,” and that we must ask ourselves “well being for whom?”

There is no question that the report card addresses multiple ways the rivers of the Mississippi River basin benefit human health.  From drinking water to river-dependent employment, some measures are relatively easy to count.  Others, including the factors listed under “outdoor recreation,” are more complicated.  It’s one thing to count total numbers of hunting and fishing licenses, or days that particular camping spots are reserved.

But how do we know who is using the rivers, and in what ways?  The geographer Carolyn Finney from the University of Kentucky has written powerfully about the ways black and brown faces have been systematically erased from our understanding of “nature,” “outdoor recreation,” and “wilderness.”  Finney’s book Black Faces, White Spaces ought to be required reading and background for anyone involved in recreation, resource management, or public lands management.  A primer to her ideas can be found in this interview in Guernica, where she articulates the ways that public lands have become “landscapes of exclusion”  where native Americans and people of color may not feel welcome and perhaps do not visit on a regular basis.  More importantly, the black and brown faces that are in the outdoors are almost never accounted for in “environmental” movement literature, rarely pictured in imagery of the outdoors and people enjoying nature.

The mistaken belief that “people of color don’t like the outdoors” thus becomes a vicious cycle, where people do not feel welcome, agencies who mistakenly think certain segments of the population aren’t interested don’t do anything to reach important populations, who then feel doubly that they are unwelcome.  Important, and again overlooked, historical trends magnify the disconnect.

I don’t have an answer here, but am more convinced than ever that this is a question that must not go away.  When the next version of the Report Card for the Mississippi River basin is made, we have to find ways to account better for who is using the public lands of this massive space, and how those users find well-being from their association with the Great River.


Related Posts

One Comment

  1. Greg Seitz (@gregseitz)December 7, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Good analysis. As just another white guy working in conservation, I try to listen more than offering my own tired perspectives. I do think you are onto something, and this sentence in particular caught my eye:

    “The mistaken belief that ‘people of color don’t like the outdoors’ thus becomes a vicious cycle, where people do not feel welcome, agencies who mistakenly think certain segments of the population aren’t interested don’t do anything to reach important populations, who then feel doubly that they are unwelcome.”

    I think when agencies and others assume people of color aren’t interested in the outdoors, it sabotages our efforts to engage those communities. It changes the tone of our communications, encouraging us to “sell” nature to people. If you already believe in or care for something, and somebody else assumes you don’t and acts like they need to share their wisdom, it destroys any chance of meaningful communication.

Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.