Starting small Pregracke started small in conservation effortsWritten by Saige Albert
Pregracke shared his conservation story at the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts and Society for Range Management Wyoming Section joint convention on Nov. 16.
Pregracke has taken on a conservation effort of the Mississippi River of monumental proportions and has been very successful – cleaning the banks of 17 rivers in 18 states. But his endeavor didn’t start out as a huge operation, rather a project by a 17-year-old boy.
“I grew up right on the banks of the Mississippi outside Hampton, Ill., and I spent a lot of time of the river,” said Pregracke. “I started commercial shell diving when I was 15 and worked a 150-mile stretch of the river.”
Pregracke started working as a commercial fisherman after dropping out of college, which is also when he began noticing the accumulation of garbage on the river’s banks.
“I got tired of seeing trash,” Pregracke explained, “If I didn’t do it, who was going to?”
However, Pregracke said he didn’t have the money to start a cleanup project.
After calling the state government and not receiving any response, Pregracke took photos of the barrels, large appliances, car and tires polluting the river to show others and he started searching for a sponsor.
“I figured I’d set my sights high and let nothing be failure,” said Pregracke. “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it big.”
Pregracke’s big ideas, and a little beginner’s luck landed him an interview with the CEO of Alcoa, Inc.
Alcoa agreed to a small sponsorship of $8,400, and, at age 22, Pregracke started cleaning the river, one boatload at a time on his own.
After only a few weeks of cleaning, and with the encouragement of his parents, Pregracke agreed to an interview with a local paper, which resulted in a sudden influx of media attention.
“CNN flew up, Anderson Cooper flew in and Fox News was coming in from Chicago,” said Pregracke. “It really helped out a lot.”
Pregracke told CNN news, “The river is the most valuable resource our nation has to offer and it has been so neglected and so trashed, I think that it’s time to be picked up.”
At that point, Pregracke continued to expand, raising money for additional boats and a small crew of six men, and he set out to clean the banks of the Mississippi River.
The operation continued to grow until Pregracke formed the non-profit organization Living Lands and Waters in 1997, and under that name the effort continues.
Today Pregracke has accomplished more than he originally expected, cleaning well over seven million pounds of garbage from America’s rivers using six barges, two tow boats and six workboats.
Clean up efforts focus on the Mississippi, Ohio, Anacostia, Potomac, Missouri and Illinois rivers, along with numerous other small tributaries. He employs 14 people full time and operates extensive efforts that utilize volunteers to help in the cleanups.
“We have had over 70,000 people come out to help. It’s a stressful operation,” noted Pregracke. “But it is an efficient river cleanup operation. We’ve removed over 4,000 barrels, 1,000 refrigerators and 75,000 tires.”
Living Lands and Waters also has a nursery with over 450,000 oak seedlings for transplant, and the organization hosts educational workshops for teachers to allow them to teach their students about conservation.
“We are doing three things: reforestation, education and beautification,” described Pregracke.
The operation is very successful now, and Pregracke has learned much from his efforts.
“If your operation isn’t efficient, then it won’t exist,” noted Pregracke of his experience. “The way I was cleaning up the river was totally inefficient. We spent half the week gathering stuff and taking it back, and the other half taking it to recycling centers.”
To address this challenge, Pregracke bought a barge to reduce efforts, and eventually a crane to remove larger items.
The obstacles he has faced are numerous and include things like lack of available funding, incomplete planning, insufficient equipment and manpower and inefficiency.
“I ran out of money twice,” said Pregracke. “At one point, I had only two people left out of my original crew of six, and the last seven miles was the most disgusting place I had ever seen. It was a low point, and I almost quit.”
Pregracke realized, “I am slowly making a difference. I need to keep with this. I don’t know where it is going, but I’ll work hard to make it go somewhere.”
His perseverance has paid off, and Pregracke encouraged the attendees of the conference to keep working on their own projects, regardless of how fruitless the efforts may seem.
“The success story is in seeing the change,” said Pregracke. “We don’t go back to a lot of communities because people are keeping it clean.”
Pregracke mentioned the Living Lands and Waters adopt a mile program and the changes in frequency of dumping garbage that have helped to keep the rivers clean.
“I don’t have an ending,” added Pregracke. “I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and I feel like I’m just getting started.”
“The earth is destroyed not as a whole, but piece by piece. That is the same way it needs to be fixed,” said Pregracke. “It’s the little things that add up.”
Pregracke was adamant that conservation efforts of any size are important.
“Here’s the deal with conserving your natural resources – I pick up garbage. It’s not the biggest thing that the river faces,” he admitted. “For any work you do toward the bigger problems, I applaud your efforts. What you are doing is fantastic. Anything you can do really is a big deal.”