Why the Wisconsin River

The following is an explanation of why the film is about the Wisconsin River, the significance it has in history, and the outcomes that are possible when a story like this is shared with the world. 


Most people don't know much about the Wisconsin River. Why should they?  At only 430 miles long, it doesn’t stand out in most minds. However, it is the longest river in Wisconsin that stays completely in Wisconsin. With 26 dams, 14 paper mills, and 43 municipalities that dump into it, the Wisconsin River is known as the hardest working river in America. It also happens to have an inspiring history of revitalization.


As much as Wisconsin depends on its longest river,  just 40 years ago you couldn't swim in the river without getting sick. Contamination of the river resulted in widespread deformities of fish and other aquatic life. Residents knew from experience that eating a fish from the river would most certainly make you sick. Pictures of the river from this time period show so much sludge on the surface that animals were able to walk across it. The Wisconsin River at one time rivaled the Cuyahoga River which infamously caught fire in 1969.


Then in the 1970s something amazing happened. People started to work together. It didn't happen overnight. It took a lot of time, money, and compromise. Paper mills, energy companies and municipalities invested hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize following new environmental regulations, and it hurt. It hurt a lot. But before long, the money and time spent in taking care of their river turned into a profitable investment. The mills began reporting that the environmental regulations which forced them to modernize their business practices and reduce pollution had an unanticipated positive impact on their businesses. The mills were now able to operate year-round, which led to increased profits. In addition, in an effort to identify uses for their byproducts, new industries sprung up,  contributing to their bottom line and reducing their environmental footprint.


Although maintaining the water quality of the river remains a continual challenge, the river is winning. People care. Industry, government, and countless communities are working together because they recognize the value of a healthy source of freshwater. The Wisconsin River is now a cultural and economic treasure. The River provides more tourism dollars than ever before, and municipalities throughout the state are now investing millions into water-front development. We as a society focus on the immediate costs and struggle to consider the long-term impacts. But, in the case of the Wisconsin River, we overcame this challenge and can clearly see how the upfront costs have paid dividends.


The story of the Wisconsin River’s revitalization is a story about determination, collaboration, and success. As a community we took the chance and it paid off. Those paper mills that embraced the change are still in operation. They are not only surviving but thriving. Similarly, the municipalities that initially resisted the environmental regulations are now making more money on tourism than the ever could have expected. Protecting our environment is important. The story of the Wisconsin River demonstrates the environmental and economic case for working together. How those who had to make the hard decisions made the right decisions. It disproves the arguments industry and governments currently give for their failure to be good stewards of natural resources.


What kind of impact could we have if everyone knew that? If everyone knew that it was profitable to take care of our natural resources? If everyone knew there was proof of concept? We would reassure governments on all levels that the people they represent care about the environment. It would encourage industries around the world to make the hard decisions. The environmentally ethical decisions. The right decisions. The history of the Wisconsin River is proof that everyone can win when we choose to protect our natural resources.