About five years ago, Charlene Waggoner was at a national conference of organizations concerned with rivers when she explained that Greenway Network, which is based in St. Charles, Missouri, was an all-volunteer organization.

“That will never last,” she recalled another attendee saying.

As it turns out, the organization dedicated to conserving natural resources and protecting watersheds is now marking its 30th anniversary.

“We operate on a shoestring,” said Waggoner, the network’s president. “We’re celebrating 30 years because it’s quite remarkable that an all-volunteer organization can last that long.”

Despite its lean operation, Greenway Network has managed to create regular events that have helped increase the number of those who care about local rivers. More people now realize that a waterway like the Missouri River is not a dangerous body to stay away from but rather a setting for paddling and other activities, Waggoner says.

Greenway Network water quality testing

Greenway Network volunteers conducting water quality monitoring.

“If you find people where they are and bring them to the river, they learn to love it, and once they learn to love it, they want to take care of it,” said Waggoner, who has a doctorate in biophysical chemistry and worked in Congress before becoming a full-time volunteer.

But around 2007, when Waggoner and other volunteers told a room of first responders they wanted to hold a canoe race from Washington, Missouri, to the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, “They looked at us and said, ‘You’re crazy. Nobody wants to be on the Missouri River,’” Waggoner said.

Race for the Rivers has, however, become an annual gathering that usually attracts more than 110 people and serves as Greenway Network’s primary fundraiser. The organization offers 20- and 30-miles races and a party featuring food and drink.

“By interacting and having an event that draws some attention, that gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, let’s clean [the river],’” said Waggoner.

Race for the Rivers

Race for the Rivers is Greenway Network’s primary fundraiser.

Greenway Network hosts cleanups and partners with Missouri River Relief on the Big Muddy Speaker Series, which features monthly events with experts sharing their knowledge and perspectives on the Missouri River. In September, for example, veteran paddler Dave Hillman talked about his journey from the Missouri River headwaters in Montana to its end in Louisiana.

The organization also held a 30th birthday party in September during Rivers Soundings, an annual conference for Missouri River stakeholders that Greenway Network organizes and hosts.

Despite these and other efforts, the future of the local rivers and surrounding land is uncertain. Scientists project that climate change will lead to an increase in extreme weather events, such as flooding.

Still, Waggoner remains optimistic about what lies ahead for our waterways.

“A couple of people with the will to act can make some pretty impressive changes,” she said. “It just takes everybody doing their little bit.”

Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Greenway Network founder Greg Poleski (right) and veteran paddler John Ruskey.