Why Lindsay Wood Davis is taking the River:30 pledge
Lindsay Wood Davis is a longtime champion of River Alliance of Wisconsin. He has served on the River Alliance board, has led the board as chair, has continued to lead as an emeritus board member, and River Alliance recognized Lindsay in 2019 with a Lifetime Service Award.
Lindsay first learned to paddle a canoe at the age of 10 at a Boy Scout Camp on Long Lake in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Since then he has paddled – often with his wife, Amanda – at least 125 Wisconsin rivers, streams and estuaries.
Lindsay is professionally an internationally-known management consultant, trainer, author, and Wisconsin Broadcaster Hall of Famer. He used his role as a Wisconsin broadcaster to help publicize Wisconsin water issues, both statewide and, especially locally, on 98.7 WVMO, the radio station he helped to establish in Monona.
We spoke to Lindsay about the impact River Alliance has made on protecting the waters of Wisconsin and why he is the first to take the River:30 pledge in honor of River Alliance’s 30th anniversary.
Tell us how you got involved with River Alliance of Wisconsin.
My wife, Amanda, and I moved to Monona in the Madison area in 1996. Amanda and I have been paddling together just about as long as we’d been together. We spent our honeymoon in the Boundary Waters in 1974. I first learned about River Alliance at Canoecopia in 1997. In the big hallway was a booth staffed by Diana Toledo of River Alliance. Here was an organization to join that did work that meant a lot to us already: working with rivers.
While we were quiet members at first, around 2000-01 I worked with some partners to buy a bunch of radio stations in Wisconsin and Illinois and I had an idea for using the combined impact of these stations to promote organizations through public service announcements. I decided to use River Alliance of Wisconsin as a model for that. I brought the idea to the River Alliance board – at this point Todd Ambs had just left as executive director and Diana Toledo was the acting director with Scott Froehlke as the board president. The board liked the idea and we went to work creating the announcements.
A couple of months later we were ready and I presented the announcements at a board meeting at UW-Stevens Point. That was the first board meeting where Denny Caneff was the new executive director and where he and I met. That began a long relationship. He and I are good friends, paddling buddies, and River Rats together. There are a lot of people I’ve met through River Alliance who are very important to me.
So I joined the board soon after that when Denny and Scott asked me. Some years later I served three years as board chair. These were important years because it was during the recession. I’m very proud of the fact that River Alliance came through the recession in a solid financial position – which was not the case for many nonprofits – with strong staff and I felt very good about it.
One of the things we did during that time is to change over the funding model, so instead of being over 80 percent funded by grants, we were only about 60 percent that way and the rest of the support we received was membership based. Later I was named a board member emeritus. Bill Schultheis is the only other one. Prior to COVID I was blessed with the Lifetime Service Award from River Alliance.
How would you describe the value of River Alliance’s work?
The two words that I would use – from my perspective as a paddler but also management consultant – are effective and efficient. Environmental work is always passionate. But the effectiveness of River Alliance and the efficiency with which it works are truly exemplary. This points to the staff. I think during the 25 years that I’ve been involved, the quality of the staff is really a mark of its excellence overall.
River Alliance has been well led and has had good leadership on the board, as it does now with Mel Vollbrecht. It has had some great science from the board like the great Byron Shaw, a brilliant scientist at UW-Stevens Point. We’ve had political pros, like Scott Froehlke. River Alliance has also had staff members who had been great at lobbying effort and expanding the capabilities of local river groups.
When Governor Walker came into power, River Alliance dug its heels in and continued to do the tough work to lobby for our rivers and our water. River Alliance of Wisconsin’s name comes from an alliance of local organizations. That came into strong play in those first really awful days under the Walker administration.
You had strong river groups like the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin River (FLOW), a perfect example of powerful organizations from around the state that continued to work hard to lobby their state representatives and senators no matter what party they were in on their local needs. River Alliance was able to help support them with the capacity to do that work that is so important.
Tell us about a time when you are the most proud of what River Alliance and its partners accomplished? How does that impact still resonate today?
The sturgeon project in the Menominee River put such a creative and multifaceted approach to a real screaming need. To get the sturgeon in the lake together with the sturgeon in the river for the first time in 100 years was really important. To get them through two dams, to come up with the idea of literally putting them in an elevator in the first dam! And then to bring them back down, to get them back past the two dams through a tube!
Before the COVID crisis, Denny and I did a paddle on the Menominee on the issue of the proposed Back 40 mine. I had not paddled the Menominee before that time. It was an early fall trip and the water was amazingly clear. For the first time I saw lots of river sturgeon, and how many of them are HUGE. To make the fish passage project work, you’re dealing with federal organizations, federal regulations, dam licensing, dam ownership, the States of Wisconsin and Michigan. It took getting lots of people to work together, and the nexus of all these things was River Alliance. You can’t help but be proud of it, and it continues to this day.
I’m also happy about the efforts to have the Totogatic River and Brunsweiler River named Wisconsin Wild and Scenic Rivers. I testified before a legislative committee at the Capitol chaired by State Representative Spencer Black. We explained the importance of it and the state did it. We successfully got those rivers designated as Wild and Scenic rivers.
We paddled the Totogatic as a River Alliance group. We woke up on May first and there were six inches of snow on our tents. We were doing twelve miles that day and it was cold, but we did it. I remember we went into a 90 degree turn, and Amanda, who was paddling in the bow of the canoe, put her fist up, which meant to be quiet. Above us was a giant eagle’s nest. Peering over the edge were three eaglets. Then mom eagle steps up, pulls the eaglets back in the nest, and keeps looking down at us. It is still one of my favorite moments after over 125 rivers paddled.
I also love doing the Wild & Scenic Film Festival. You want to talk about fun? I’ve been the MC for many of them. It is a wonderful rite of spring. Happy to be involved again this year.
Tell us about a time when you had the most FUN with River Alliance.
Fools’ Flotilla! It went from a couple of people on a Sunday morning laughing and hooting down the Yahara to a flagship, don’t-miss-it, Madison and Dane County event. How can you not have fun at Fools’ Flotilla?
I’ve been involved in a variety of ways, paddling, leading with king rat in my canoe, and broadcasting live from the event on WVMO-FM.
Why are you taking the River:30 pledge? What river are you looking forward to visiting the most?
It’s a way to highlight 30 years of River Alliance’s work. I want to go to places where our work has been obvious, like the Menominee. I’d like to see places where our work needs to continue, like with PFAS pollution. I’d like to visit rivers again that I haven’t been on in a long time and visit rivers I’ve wanted to paddle for years. Rivers, streams, estuaries, and Wisconsin’s remote wild lakes all call to me.
Back in the day, I was a part of a group of River Alliance friends who only paddled little rivers. We were the Little Rivers Band. We had a blast and many of us are still doing it. I like to paddle. I like to be in a canoe. It’s a really relaxing thing. There is an old English line that I’ll paraphrase: “God does not subtract from your allotted time on this orb that which you spend with a paddle in your hand.” The original line is “tiller,” but I like paddle better. The minute I sit down in a canoe my blood pressure goes down. I just love it.
Are you optimistic for Wisconsin’s water future? Why or why not?
I don’t have a definitive answer. If you want to see the results of the Clean Water Act, which was signed by President Richard Nixon by the way, look at the rivers of Wisconsin. In comparison to what they were like prior to the early 70s, they have been cleaned up of much of what was there.
On the other hand there are so many things no one thought of in 1972. We are going to have to deal with climate change and PFAS. Those are just two. And there is the constant drumbeat of mining. The Back 40 mine which was going to be on the Michigan side of the Menominee in the UP was going to be dug 150 feet from the banks of the river. 150 feet! These are terrible concepts. There are no examples of safe sulfide mines. They have all gone bad. Literally all of them. That we are still listening to those sorts of requests and proposals is absurd.
Am I optimistic? That’s too strong a word. Am I wary? Yes. Do we celebrate achievements? Yes. Am I guarded? Damn right.
Where do you like to paddle (or what is your favorite way to enjoy Wisconsin’s waters) and why?
I have one answer on which is my favorite place to paddle: anywhere that I’m sitting in the back of one of our tandem canoes looking at my wife’s strong back as we are heading around a bend of a river we’ve never been on before.
I’m always up for a new river, a new stretch of a river, or a new piece of Wisconsin’s wonderful waters. We’ve paddled about 20 of the estuaries of the southern shore of Lake Superior, fed by some of the rivers going into the estuary that goes into the big lake, you get these transitional areas of water, flora and fauna. They are beautiful and perfect examples of why if you like being around water there are few places as cool and varied as Wisconsin. It all comes down to the fact that River Alliance of Wisconsin is trying to look out for all of that.
Take the River:30 pledge
Whether you visit 30 rivers, paddle 30 river miles, hike along 30 miles of rivers or fish off of 30 accessible piers… it’s up to you how you’ll spend more time with Wisconsin’s priceless rivers this year. It’s a great way to join River Alliance of Wisconsin in celebrating our 30th anniversary.
– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director
This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water. Become a member of River Alliance of Wisconsin today.