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Local River Advocate Receives Ohio's Highest Conservation Honor And Reflects On His Work

River Conservationist Mike Fremont at his Ohio Natural Resources Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year
ODNR Communications
River Conservationist Mike Fremont at his Ohio Natural Resources Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year

Mike Fremont is a 98 year old river conservationist and competitive paddler from the Miami Valley. In his decades of conservation work, he’s helped found the Little Miami Conservancy, and the statewide organization Rivers Unlimited. Now he has been inducted into the Ohio Natural Resources Hall of Fame — which is the state’s highest conservation honor.

He was forty years old when he first went out in a canoe on the Little Miami River.

"Someone called me up and said: ‘Do you want to get in a canoe race?'" Fremont said during a phone interview. "He was the same age I was. I said, ‘if you're not too old to race, I'm not either.'"

Mike had always been an athlete. He wrestled at Yale in college and he holds four endurance running world records. He said he quickly became somewhat distinguished as a paddler. But it was a chance encounter with a mechanic that made him think about the Little Miami River in a different way.

"We bought a 1954 black Cadillac hearse to carry our canoes." He said, "The mechanic who took care of our hearse rolled out from under the big machine, took a cigar stub out of his mouth and said 'You know what they're doing to your river?' I said, ‘No, what's going on?’ He said, ‘well, if you get out of your damn canoe long enough to find out. You might want to do something about it.’"

Fremont did get out of his canoe and what he found was that Ohio’s waterways were dying. Dams created unnatural changes in the flow of creeks and rivers. Farmers were shortening and straightening portions of waterways on their properties to maximize the space they could farm. The state’s aquatic habitat, specifically for freshwater mussels, was disappearing.

A low head damn being removed in 2019 from the East Fork of the Little Miami River in Batavia, Ohio
Clermont County
A low head damn being removed in 2019 from the East Fork of the Little Miami River in Batavia, Ohio

So, he did something about it. He lobbied at the statehouse for something called the Ohio Scenic Rivers Act.

"In 1968 we established the Ohio scenic river system to protect those rivers." A few years later, he said "We formed Rivers Unlimited. We were the first in the nation to have a statewide river preservation group."

There was one project with Rivers Unlimited along a tributary of the Ohio River that stood out for Fremont in particular.

"We worked in Pine Creek, which is near Portsmouth. Deeply impoverished. Farm dependent." He said, "They were under threat. They're having their homes taken for a channelization project."

A photo of Pine Creek near Wheelersburg Ohio
Portsmouth Public Library
A photo of Pine Creek near Wheelersburg Ohio

The developers wanted to straighten, or channelize, the river. That way businesses would be more likely to purchase riverside properties.

"This was a commercial project. They thought they'd make a fortune moving these people out of their huts, as it were, log cabins even." Fremont said, "We got pretty close to those people and it took nine years and we finally killed the project. Those things, they were very serious battles."

Fremont took a step back from his river conservation work some time ago. He now works at a small think tank that focuses on a more macro issue.

"Global Warming." He said, "You get droughts like we never had before. Rivers aren’t flowing. You get storms that create tremendous floods. Flooding like we’ve never had before."

One of Fremont's takeaways from his study of climate change is how many greenhouse gases are emitted from animal agriculture. As a result, he has been a vegan for 25 years, and as he approaches a hundred years, he says he thinks that decision works pretty well for him, and for the planet.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.