Another Fight Over the Future of the St. Lawrence Seaway Looms
by C.D. Stelzer
In 2002, a travel-writing gig I scored landed me north of the border, where I toured the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River.
As the excursion boat traverses the Gananoque narrows, a pre-recorded voice launches into the history of the area, while sightseers lean against the ship’s rails and gaze in awe at the unfolding scenery. The voyage zigzags past island after island: Spits of land with granite outcropping and larger islands lined with summer cottages; cabins cloaked by spruce and castles rising from the shore. Vistas of green and blue drift by, merging earth, sky and water.
Tourists have been drawn to the beauty of the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River for a long time. Beginning in the mid-19th Century, American tycoons built palatial resort homes throughout the 50-mile-long archipelago. The Astors and the Pullmans were followed by 20th Century entertainers and artists. Singer Kate Smith rested her pipes here. Crooner Arthur Godfrey came to escape the rigors of his network TV show. Irving Berlin composed Always at his island retreat.
Because the St. Lawrence acts as the boundary between the United States and Canada, island lore is also steeped in tales of assorted rumrunners, rebels and rouges. In the period following the War of 1812, pirates preyed on the British fleet. According to legend, a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination was murdered on Maple Island in 1865. During Prohibition, bootleggers used the islands as a haven for smuggling operations.
On board the excursion boat, the recorded raconteur recounts all these stories and more. One name conspicuously absent from the list, however, is the late Abbie Hoffman, who hid out on Wellesley Island from 1976 to 1980. Assuming the identity of environmentalist Barry Freed, the fugitive, anti-war activist organized opposition to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to open the St. Lawrence Seaway to wintertime navigation with the use of Coast Guard icecutters. If carried out, the project could have destroyed wildlife habitat and caused irrevocable damage to the fragile river ecology. Once reviled by the powers that be, the 1960s anti-establishment icon won accolades as Freed from President Jimmy Carter, New York Gov. Hugh Carey and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. More importantly, Save the River, Hoffman’s grassroots campaign, succeeded in stopping the plan.
More than a quarter century after Hoffman’s efforts, the Corps is now studying a larger scale project that Save the River and other environmental groups believe could have even more catastrophic consequences.
In May, The U.S. Department of Transportation and its Canadian counterpart approved the second phase of a 30-month, $20 million study to determine the future of the 43-year-old St. Lawrence Seaway and the entire Great Lakes transportation system.
The ongoing analysis, which received $1.5 million in funding from Congress this year, is considering enlarging 15 locks and deepening shipping channels to allow 1,000-foot ocean-going container vessels to travel more than 2,300 miles inland, from the Atlantic Ocean as far west as Duluth, Minn. The cost of completing the renovation over the next two decades is estimated at $10 billion.
Influential shipping and business interests in the U.S. and Canada argue such improvements will spur economic growth to the region. The 730-foot-long lakers that currently transport iron ore, grain and other products via the seaway comprise only 13 percent of world’s commercial fleet, according to industry sources. Advocates of the project say expanding the size of the locks and deepening the St. Lawrence Seaway’s channels from 26 to 35 feet will increase trade opportunities to keep pace with 21st-Century demands. They point to the 70-year-old Welland Canal between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario as an example of the seaway’s obsolescence. Inland ports of Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland would all serve to gain from modernization.
Opponents counter that projected economic growth in the upper Midwest is taking precedence over environmental concerns in the Corps decisions. Memories of the 1977 tanker crash that spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the St. Lawrence near Wellesley Island have not been forgotten. Environmentalists say that dredging will only stir up contaminants and lead to further pollution. Underwater surges by larger ships would probably have a similar negative effects. Moreover, parts of the Thousand Islands will have to be blasted away to accommodate the wider channels. Further changes to the river could also lead to other problems, including the possible introduction on non-native species. In addition, dredging would most likely alter water levels in the Great Lakes, disrupting aquatic habitat and changing the lake temperatures. More than anything else, critics worry that the overall impact of such a project on the Great Lakes ecosystem — the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet — is not being adequately addressed.
For its part, the Corps has assured environmentalists that their questions will be factored into its final evaluation. In its preliminary review the agency even acknowledged one of the risks already voiced by foes of the plan. “Currently low water levels in the Upper Great Lakes are also a critical factor, both in terms of environmental implications and in terms of the potential effects of wider locks and deeper channels,” according to a report issued by the Corps earlier this year. In short, the proposed engineering feat could make floating a boat in the Great Lakes more difficult instead of easier.
The Thousand Islands have captured the imaginations of travel writers since Charles Dickens steamed by them on his way from Kingston, Ontario to Montreal in 1842. How long they remain a source of inspiration remains to be seen. Next spring, the pleasure boaters and anglers will take to the waters again. Tourists will board the excursion boats at the river port of Gananoque, Ontario, as they have since early in the last century. They will lean against the ship’s rails once more and marvel at the splendor of the passing islands. The recorded recitation will be broadcast over the vessel’s loudspeakers as it is each year. Perhaps by then the tale of “Barry Freed” will be added to the mix.