A few Sundays back, Jim Hart was canoeing down the North Branch of the Chicago River near Oakton Avenue, in the middle of the forest preserve. Trees were everywhere he looked–including, he was suddenly shocked to see, in the middle of the stream. “I said, oh my god–some guy must have bought a new chain saw and couldn’t wait to go crazy with it.”

Hart portaged around the freshly cut trunks. As he continued downstream, he began to see fresh stumps all along the riverbank. “I thought maybe an unsupervised Forest Preserve river crew was out there, not knowing what the heck they were doing.”

By the following Monday afternoon Hart had alerted several people who live near and canoe on the North Branch. Among them was Ralph Frese, who builds, rents, and sells canoes from his north-side shop. Known unofficially as an expert on the area’s waterways, he’s taken many a public servant and journalist on canoe trips down the Chicago River, lobbying for its preservation.

By Tuesday Frese had identified the culprit: a contractor hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to clean debris from the river. It turned out the Corps had received instructions to clean up the river, and their work order allowed the contractor to cut trees along the riverbank to head off the possibility that they’d someday fall in and cause flooding.

“I am damned upset,” says Frese, who has canoed on the North Branch for over 50 years. “They have cut 40 to 50 huge trees–thousands of years of growth.”

In the last 20 years the Corps has received federal money to clean up the North Branch 13 times. Woody Herlocker, a Corps engineer who has administered the last five cleanups, defends the contractor’s work. Better to chop a riverside tree now, he says, than let it fall into the river when the cleanup is over.

Frese disagrees. He argues that the roots of both live and dead trees keep the riverbank from eroding during rains, heavy currents, and the breakup of winter ice. And standing dead trees not only give character to the landscape, they provide homes to insects, birds, and other animals that live near the river.

Several days after Jim Hart discovered the cut trees, he and Frese met with Herlocker and a handful of other government officials to survey what Frese calls “the denuding of the banks.” Motorists zooming down Caldwell Avenue shot curious looks at the men, standing on a bridge arguing. The argument, Frese says, is one he’s had with bureaucrats many times: How should the North Branch be cleaned?

Long ago, before the word “pollution” appeared in dictionaries, the North Branch pretty much cleaned itself: heavy rains swept branches or the occasional fallen tree to deeper water downstream. But once bridges, golf courses, supermarkets, and governments popped up along the river, natural debris began to combine with less organic things like shopping carts and tires to create logjams and, after heavy rain, floods.

Historically, no single agency has taken responsibility for removing debris from the Chicago River. The North Branch, for example, runs through a half dozen municipalities from the county line to downtown. The Cook County Forest Preserve District cleans the river wherever it flows through forest preserves, while river debris outside the forests is the domain of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Meanwhile garbage that collects around a bridge is the responsibility of the town or railroad that owns the bridge.

Since users of the North Branch, like the garbage in it, move easily from one jurisdiction to another, they began long ago to clean the stream on their own where the buildup of debris got particularly bad. “When we first started, we had logjams with trees growing out of them 20 feet high,” says Frese.

Then, in the early 70s, Frese and other North Branch users found a sympathetic ear in Congress: House member Frank Annunzio got the federal government to split the cost of a North Branch cleanup with what was then known as the Metropolitan Sanitary District. Congress’s one-year authorization called on the Army Corps of Engineers to remove debris from the river’s three forks, which run north of Foster Avenue to the county line. Since the original effort in 1973, Congress has reauthorized the cleanup 12 times.

Frese, who watched the first Corps of Engineers cleanup 20 years ago, says the first contractors were tree surgeons who knew better than to cut down a healthy tree or a dead tree that hadn’t fallen. “These people were very sensitive to the Forest Preserve,” he says. “They did everything from within the water–they had little floating barges that they could load up with a ton of crap and float out to the nearest bridge. It looked beautiful when they got done.”

But the tide turned after the first cleanup, Frese says, when “those ding-a-lings in Washington” began requiring federal agencies to seek minority contractors. In every cleanup since, “you get a bunch of people in there who are not ecologically sensitive–they’re just contractors. They’re just in there to make a buck.”

Herlocker confirms that the Corps switched to minority-contractor bidding early in the cleanups. And he agrees with Frese that the first contractor was more sparing of trees–but differs on why. “That was early in the program, when the river was pretty well choked up,” he says. “There were more obvious things causing blockage.”

Bill Koenig, who leads canoe trips and volunteer cleanups for Friends of the Chicago River, a watchdog group, sees it differently. Koenig says that the Corps contractors often won’t go after garbage that’s distant from the bridges or the riverbanks–which means debris collects in the middle of the river where it’s visible only to a canoeist or someone wading in. “Getting the contractor to actually get in the river and wade around is kind of a problem,” says Koenig. “That always confuses us, because when we run volunteer cleanups we’re in the stream–and we pick up tons of rock and concrete by hand.”

At the root of the problem, says Frese, is the Corps of Engineers’ contract: they pay the contractor according to how much debris is removed, not how clean the river is afterward–so if it’s a decision between cutting trees near a bridge and wading in to clear a logjam, for most contractors the choice is clear. Frese notes that “175 feet upstream from where the last tree was cut is a logjam that’s been there for at least a year. Our tax dollars are being wasted.”

Herlocker confirms that the Corps pays cleanup contractors strictly by the volume of material–including trees–that they remove. But he insists that the Corps looks for major debris sites at the start of each cleanup. By this year the more significant debris had been removed, he says, so the contractor began clearing trees along the riverbanks. He says these trees are a legitimate flood danger–not the valuable resource and erosion fighter Frese claims they are. “Ralph’s a naturalist–I’m not even sure you could call him an environmentalist,” says Herlocker. “He likes that “woodsy’ effect. We do too, but we want to keep the river flowing.”

Frese counters that the Corps will not listen to him or his cohorts because “we don’t have degrees behind our names”–nor will the Corps bother to bring in its own experts to ensure that the river is cleaned in an environmentally sound fashion. “This program is just $150,000 a year,” says Frese. “Every other thing they’re involved in is millions–so it’s a pain in the ass to do this cleanup. They don’t give a damn about the river or the woods.”

In any event, the fight is over for now: the Corps of Engineers’ contractor stopped chopping trees in mid-August, after Frese, Hart, and Koenig’s riverside meeting with Herlocker and other officials. As planned, the cleanup ended the same week. The Corps has begun to plan next year’s cleanup, however, and the North Branch users want to have a say in it. Friends of the Chicago River has pledged to act as a go-between.

“We’re all working toward the same goal,” said a Friends staffer who attended the meeting between users and bureaucrats on the Caldwell Avenue bridge. Nonsense, says Frese, who is concerned that the Friends may try to placate the bureaucrats at the river’s expense. “I was striving for far more than the Corps was,” he says.

Privately, Friends officials say they are indeed reluctant to alienate the Corps, whose help they need for a scheme much bigger than the periodic cleanups: an integrated, centralized plan for developing and maintaining the entire Chicago River, despite its many governmental jurisdictions. This year the Friends persuaded Congress to fund work by both the Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service to help with such a plan. When finished, in 1994, the plan should serve as a model for urban waterways nationwide–giving river users, the Friends hope, a formal say in how streams like the Chicago River are maintained.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.