I often sit in my woods on a hillside overlooking Lake Pepin, marveling at the serene beauty of the Mississippi River Valley. I watch eagles and hawks soar along the bluff's edge and listen for their piercing calls. Wildlife, trees and plants too numerous to count thrive along the river. I reflect on how the natural beauty of our area rivals anything in North America. And then I hear it.
About once every half-hour, it starts as a low rumble coming up the valley. The ground begins to tremble and the leaves quiver on the trees as it crescendoes. It eventually becomes so loud that conversations must stop until the noise recedes into the distance. And then I become sad. Our great natural treasure is despoiled by the obnoxious intrusion of growling, rumbling, belching trains.
The land for the tracks was given to the railroads in a much less enlightened era -- one of the great environmental catastrophes of our time. We can't undo this calamity, but we can certainly take steps to mitigate it. But consider two recent items in the news:
• Jerry Miller, mayor of Winona and chairman of the High-Speed Rail Commission, wrote a commentary in the local press promoting the "Mississippi River Route" for any future high-speed rail lines. He went on to enumerate some dubious economic benefits, and he encouraged others to support the route. Most of the economic benefits of passenger and freight trains go to a few select cities and/or industrial companies while providing a negative economic influence on almost everybody else along the route. The lost revenue and taxes from tourism and riverside development far outweigh any benefit from the trains.
Miller and the commission remain silent on the environmental impacts that train tracks have on our river valley and on the loss of the natural serenity the valley once provided. A more environmentally sound route would avoid the valley and instead connect with Rochester, our region's largest population center. We certainly do not need to compound past mistakes with more rails and more trains. I would support the river route only if there were a corresponding reduction in freight traffic, which seems unlikely.
• On Aug. 19, the Star Tribune's front page featured an article headlined "Oil boom gives railroads new life." It explained how the desire for the sand used in hydrofracturing operations is increasing the demand for freight-rail cars throughout our region. Canadian National Railway is spending $35 million to rebuild long-dormant tracks. In the past two years, Union Pacific has recorded a 265 percent increase in frac sand shipments. Canadian Pacific has struck deals with new sand-processing facilities throughout the region. Several abandoned rail routes that were being considered for nature trails instead are being considered for renovation. A rail industry executive was quoted as saying that the chances are 50-50 for rail companies to rebuild old lines in Minnesota. Presumably, much of the frac sand traffic will funnel onto the tracks along the Mississippi River.
The time has come for citizens, politicians and regulators to mitigate, not compound, the environmental damage that railroads have brought to the shores of America's great river.
Larry Nielson lives in Lake City, Minn.