Friends of Pool 9 to celebrate 100 years March 9

By Jennifer Bissell

Some of those volunteer service projects include putting fire rings on the beaches, coordinating putting port-a-potties in heavily trafficked areas near boat landings, hosting educational programs like the Mississippi River Adventure Days, as well as a general clean-up day, pictured here. (submitted)

For 100 years, friends and neighbors of the Mississippi River near Lansing have donated their time and talents to ensure generations to come have access to the river along the Mississippi River Refuge.

This year, local non-profit organization the Friends of Pool 9 – Mississippi River Refuge, will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the nationally-recognized refuge. To kick off its centennial year of existence, the group is holding a special event on Saturday, March 9, at TJ Hunters Banquet Hall in Lansing. The educational program and concert are open to the public at no charge. 

Upcoming celebration

To commemorate the 100-year celebration, Friends of Pool 9 Founding Board Member Ric Zarwell said the group decided to do something that would celebrate the storied history of the refuge. 

The event will kick off at 2 p.m., March 9, at TJ Hunters Banquet Hall, with a performance by Steven Marking. A local performer, Marking will perform as Will Dilg, an iconic individual who helped establish the 261-mile fish and wildlife refuge. 

At 7 p.m., local musicians Jon “Hawk” Stravers and his band Big Blue Sky will take the stage, performing their original folk-rock songs.  

Throughout the day, TJ Hunters will offer lunch, dinner and a cash bar. 

Background on the refuge

While the Friends of Pool 9 was established in 2003, the actual refuge the group helps preserve was established 100 years ago.  

Will Dilg, an avid fisherman from Chicago, often traveled to the Mississippi River area to fish on what is now the refuge. At the time, some wanted to drain a part of the river to establish farmland. Dilg and others didn’t want to see that happen to the area. 

“He thought, well there are several other wildlife refuges around the nation. This part of the Mississippi River should become a national refuge too,” said Zarwell. 

Dilg took the idea to the newly-formed Izaak Walton League in Chicago. The group loved the idea. Dilg then went to Washington with the proposal to establish the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

“The first day, the house passed it. The second day, the senate passed it. The third day the president signed it,” said Zarwell.

Boundaries and ownership of Pool 9 were established for the area, located on 93 square miles starting at Lock and Dam #8 near Genoa, Wis., and extending to Lock and Dam #9 near Harpers Ferry. In total, the refuge spans 261 miles, starting just downstream from Lake Pepin and going nearly to the Quad Cities. It is the longest refuge in the nation. 

Creating the Friends group

In 2003, a group of local citizens from the Lansing area worked together to establish a group to work with the National Fish and Wildlife Service on preserving the river and its resources.

“The head of the whole refuge at the office in Winona came and talked to us in the gym. Because we’re so close to the river and it means so much to have the river, we had lots of people attend,” said Zarwell. “We wanted to have a voice in the decision made for managing the refuge. We established a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation and with a strong love of the river and committed local leaders, quickly got to work. This was recognized in just our third year of existence, when the Friends of Pool 9 received the National Friends Group of the Year Award for Enhancing the National Wildlife Refuge System, out of 252 refuge friends groups across the nation at that time.”

With over 800 members in 30 states and three countries, the group maintains one of the most heavily used federal properties in the nation behind Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. 

The Friends of Pool 9 pursues their mission through two primary goals: informing the public about the benefits of Pool 9 of the refuge; and providing opportunities for volunteers to help conserve the natural habitats found within Pool 9, and the wildlife and fish populations that depend on those habitats.

Some of those volunteer
service projects include putting fire rings on the beaches, coordinating placement of port-a-potties in heavily trafficked areas near boat landings, hosting educational programs like the
Mississippi River Adventure Days, as well as a general clean-up day, which garners nearly 200 people helping to collect litter. The Friends of Pool 9 also provide scholarships for students in the Eastern Allamakee County School District and De Soto School District.

“We really function as the eyes and ears to assist the Fish and Wildlife and Army Corps of Engineers and DNR in Iowa and Wisconsin. We work in partnership with staff from those agencies on projects which are most appropriate for a volunteer organization,” said Zarwell. 

They also hold an annual meeting the last Saturday in September in New Albin. It’s a chance for members of the group to gather, enjoy a meal and raise funds via a silent auction. Zarwell said they get near 200 attendees every year. 

Working with the eagles

Another function of the group is the annual monitoring or multiple bald eagle nests in the refuge. Zarwell said the Pool 9 area has the densest concentration of bald eagles that he can find in the world, noting the area has between 180-210 active nests. He said due to the amount of trees, it’s more common to find the nests on the northern half of Pool 9. 

“We’re really proud to have this high number of nesting Bald Eagle in our midst. And we keep better track of their nests than any other organization on the entire 261 miles of refuge,” Zarwell said. 

Joining the group

Zarwell said the group is always looking for more volunteers and there is no cost to join the Friends group. They just ask that you put in some “sweat equity.” 

For more information about the group, visit or find “Friends of Pool 9” on Facebook. 

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