On the front page of Thursday’s Daily Press was a retrospective piece on a person who has made a fundamental impact on both Cherokee County’s history and its future. Although he’s often quoted in news stories, he’s a low-key person who would rather act as a bridge to compromise than square off in confrontation.
Ed Fite just celebrated his 30th year as administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission. What was described in a 1981 white paper as a “colossal failure” has, under his discerning eye, become a formidable force in restoring some modicum of natural beauty to the Illinois River.
He didn’t do it alone. He had help from a number of elected officials who, sadly, have either died, term-limited out, or seen their jobs gerrymandered out from under them in recent years. Back in those days, in the 1980s, there were still many Oklahoma politicians – like members of the Edmondson clan, Mike Synar or Herb Rozell – who were more interested in serving the public and preserving the environment than lining their own pockets and protecting special interests. The latter is a trend to which far too many have fallen prey in the new millennium. Only a handful of true believers remain, and most are still working for Northeastern Oklahoma.
Ed also partnered with Save The Illinois River Inc., which was – and still is - a bulwark against encroaching commercial interests that would contribute to further degradation of the river. Without this aggressive and determined band of activists, the river would have no hope of reverting to anything close to its pristine state of the ‘60s. Area residents who have lived here since that time remember the crystal-clear and swift waters of the river, its unspoiled banks, and the breath-taking lake beyond. And they will also remember what these water sources became in the ensuing years as businesses in Oklahoma and Arkansas cropped up and expanded unchecked.
Those who have known Ed since he first took the OSRC reins, or shortly thereafter, are aware of how he’s persevered through death threats, public condemnation, and a stubborn refusal of certain float operators, nursery executives and well-placed dignitaries to meet him halfway. Those who have worked in the local media have reported these events as they have unfolded. But also in the reports are stories of how the OSRC and members of STIR, toiling both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, have slowly made progress.
Ed is smart enough to know the river cannot return to those halcyon days, any more than can the people who live near it, or the short-sighted politicians in Oklahoma City who continue to whittle away at the OSRC’s budget. That’s why he has fought his battles not just in court but from across the negotiating table, and has sometimes taken the best deal he could get. Many folks who have watched the proceedings over the years might have opted for more aggressive, and ultimately unproductive, action. Fortunately for lovers of the river, Ed was more patient than that.
Ed’s the first one to admit he’s made enemies, but in his typical even-handed fashion, he adds that he’s made many friends, too. He just happens to be a sort of fulcrum between two points – or as he puts it, “the bobblehead to represent everyone who loves this river.”
No one can deny the Illinois River isn’t as pure as it once was, when Ed and many of the rest of us were young. But by the same token, it’s much, much better than it was in the 1980s and even the ‘90s –and no one can deny the credit for a good part of that success belongs to Ed Fite.