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Riverlorian kicks off celebration of 100th anniversary of national fish and wildlife refuge
Upper Mississippi River
Will Dilg
STEVEN MARKING, Riverlorian, presented ‘A Visit from Will Dilg’ to a packed house at an event organized by Friends of Pool 9 and Big River Magazine in Lansing, Iowa, on March 9. Marking will release a movie, ‘Our Mighty Mississippi,’ in 2024 to support celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Upper Mississippi River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

LANSING, IA - The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge was created by an act of Congress on June 7, 1924. That means this year, 2024, marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the refuge, described as “the greatest natural fish hatchery in the world.”

Steven Marking, a Broadway performer turned ‘Riverlorian,’ provided a performance called ‘A Visit from Will Dilg’ at the TJ Hunter Banquet Hall in Lansing, Iowa, on Saturday, March 9. The three-hour round trip drive this reporter took to attend the event organized by Friends of Pool 9 and Big River Magazine was well worth the effort. Organizers speculate that the full room likely would have been overflowing if not for the closure of the Blackhawk Bridge connecting Iowa and Wisconsin on February 25.

“A Riverlorian is one who studies rivers, and shares what they’ve learned with everyone and anyone,” Marking explained to the hundreds of people in the banquet hall. “A Riverlorian dispels ignorance about the various stretches of the river, from its headwaters in Itascan, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico where the river meets the sea.”

Izaak Walton League

The character Marking portrayed in his performance, Will Dilg, is an iconic figure in conservation history in America, and the founder of the Izaak Walton League (IWL). The IWL under Dilg’s tireless leadership led the effort in the 1920s to protect the Upper Mississippi River from development and see it established as a national wildlife and fish refuge.

By the 1920s, the river had undergone numerous challenges following European settlement in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. First, from the logging industry, whose use of the river interfered with those wanting to use the river for passenger and commercial transportation. Later, once the logging heyday ended, the river suffered from use as a sewer system for the growing municipalities on the river. And finally, in order to develop in the floodplain and protect communities against flooding, the river south of the Quad Cities in Iowa was channelized, the wetlands drained, and levees built.

Will Dilg, who loved nothing more than to spend the summer fishing with his family from a houseboat in the Upper Mississippi River, foresaw the day when this would happen to his beloved stretch of river. In response, he organized a mighty citizen movement to compel elected leaders to act to protect the “wild and scenic river.”

“The juggernaut called human progress is at odds with the balance of nature,” Marking speaking as Will Dilg told the crowd. “Man is not separate from nature, but is part of nature, and a crime against nature is a crime against man.”

According to Marking, the Izaak Walton League was formed in January of 1922 when Dilg met with a group of outdoor sportsmen in Chicago. The league took its name from Izaak Walton, the author of the iconic text on fishing, ‘The Complete Angler.’

Marking explained that those angling enthusiasts intended to form a “brotherhood to teach people about right and wrong when it comes to the outdoors.” He said it was intended as a patriotic and unselfish effort to protect the river from pollution, oppose drainage and development of the river’s wetlands, and keep public lands open for hunting and fishing.

Wetlands drained

“In 1906, 80 million acres of wetlands were drained in the United States,” Marking’s Will Dilg character told those present at the event. “Then, in 1907, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture identified another 77 million acres to be drained and developed.”

With the Flood Control Act of 1916 passed by the U.S. Congress, U.S. tax dollars were being used to protect farmland and destroy wildlife habitat. 

“The drainage of wetlands was the crime of a century, and basically one long story of real estate swindles,” Marking explained.

When the U.S. Department of Defense issued the order to drain the area of the Upper Mississippi River known as the ‘Winneshiek Bottoms’ near DeSoto, Dilg came to the area to encourage local citizens to organize against the project, join the Izaak Walton League, write letters to newspapers and politicians, and advocate for the Upper Mississippi River to be designated as a national wildlife and fish refuge.

“Dilg needed extra help in his effort to oppose the draining of the wetlands in the Upper Mississippi, and so he turned to the women of America who had just won the right to vote,” Marking said. “Dilg organized two million women to support the bill through a letter writing campaign, new chapters of the IWL were being formed on a daily basis, and finally, on June 7, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill sent him by Congress establishing the wildlife and fish refuge on the Mississippi River from Rock Island, Illinois, to Wabasha, Minnesota.”

Restoration and diversity

Marking, in addition to offering in-person ‘A Visit from Will Dilg’ performances during 2024 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Refuge, will also release a movie titled ‘Our Mighty Mississippi’ in 2024.

“You still have time to raise your voice to help protect this beautiful river bequeathed to you by the efforts of Will Dilg,” Marking told the group. “You can volunteer with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, join a friends group such as Friends of Pool 9, or join or start a chapter of the Izaak Walton League in your community in honor of the 100th anniversary.”

Marking emphasized that the key concepts for those wanting to join in continuing to protect the Upper Mississippi River for future generations would be “restoration” and “diversity.”

“Because of runoff in large storm events from tributary streams, and the Lock & Dam system, the backwaters of the river are filling in just as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had warned they would,” Marking said. “The Corps had originally opposed the building of the Lock & Dam system because they said that it would cause the backwaters to become marshes and diversity to dwindle.

Marking said that in order to protect the species that we still have, it is necessary to start a movement calling for restoration on the river. He characterized this movement as “nature versus the shipping industry,” and said that the movement’s mantra for the next 100-year chapter in the wildlife and fish refuge’s history will have to be “diversity” and “resilience.”

“You must speak up for the rights of nature, line up speakers, write letters to newspapers and elected officials, and become engaged in helping to protect this national treasure,” Marking urged. “When we accomplish the protection of the diversity of the system, then beauty, harmony and balance will follow.”

Anniversary events

Many events are being planned to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Wildlife Refuge up and down the river in 2024. More information about events planned can be found at:

Cities along the Upper Mississippi River are acknowledging the importance of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge to their communities by proclaiming the week of June 7, 2024 as ‘Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Day.’

For those that missed Steven Marking’s performance of ‘A Visit from Will Dilg’ in March, he will be performing at one of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services events in the LaCrosse area on June 7. In addition, look for announcements of the release of his movie celebrating the first 100 years of the Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

The teaser of the coming movie, ‘Our Mighty Mississippi’ shared with the audience in Lansing on March 9 presented an awe-inspiring panorama of scenes up and down the river, wildlife, and was set to music that matches the scene. You’ll want to be sure to find a showing time when the movie becomes available for public viewing.

To learn more about Steven Marking and Riverlorian Productions, go to: