Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

November 21, 2013

ON THE RIVER’S EDGE

OSRC Administrator Ed Fite recalls his 30 years at the helm, and how small steps here and there have restored much of its scenic beauty

TAHLEQUAH — If Ed Fite had to pinpoint a moment when rivers sparked his interest, it would be  a five-week trip to summer camp in Branson, Mo.

The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission administrator, who celebrated his 30th year as the agency head Nov. 15, remembers distinctly that first long-term encounter.

“I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I do remember being just a little boy,” said Fite. “My parents dropped me off at the bus station in Tulsa near the old Sears store at 21st and Yale, and I went to Kanakuk Camp on the Taneycomo River at Branson for five weeks.”

Fite recalls staying in the first of 18 cabins, and being homesick until activities got into full swing.

“We got three square meals a day – no soda pop, no candy,” said Fite. “We had lots and lots of outdoor activities, many involving water recreation on the river.”

Fite, who grew up in Muskogee, also spent many weekends in the summer and fall at his grandparents homestead: Swannanoa, on the Illinois River near Tahlequah.

“My parents always floated out of Peyton’s Place, and I remember floating with Dr. Ted Hines and his son, Craig, out of Hanging Rock when I was little,” Fite said.

Fite’s father also had a houseboat on Eufaula Lake. Prolonged encounters with a curious man on that boat fostered Fite’s interest in water quality issues.

“There was always a man on the boat when we went down to visit,” said Fite.

“I remember he taught me to sit on the back of the boat and fish for carp using Nehi Grapette and wieners and doughballs. This man, his name was Lacey Grimes, was having trouble with cancer. Well, he spent time with me and my brothers and was always talking about Congressman Ed Edmondson and what he did for water quality.”

Fite said his father would often leave him with Grimes, so Fite had no choice but to sit and listen to the stories the old fisherman would tell.

“I didn’t dawn on me until much later - when I was a teenager or later - that Lacey was chief of staff for Edmondson. I learned a lot from those experiences on the boat.”

“Rivers just kind of took hold of me”

Fite always had a soft spot for rivers, formed by those encounters and also through crossing the Mississippi River by ferry to visit his mother’s hometown of Clarksdale, Miss.

“I remember just staring at the big Mississippi, and being fascinated,” said Fite. “When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I build a secondary water treatment plant for the science fair and won, which sent me on to regionals. Who would’ve guessed those things would turn into a lifelong career? Rivers just kind of took hold of me.”

Fite came to the OSRC in August 1983 on a voluntary basis when John Shannon was still administrator, running out his leave and benefits.

“I was named the fourth administrator, and the other three served a total of six years combined,” said Fite.

“It appeared, at that time, the OSRC was to be short-lived. There was no continuity to the agency; we had several float operators who had pending lawsuits against the OSRC.

There was a lot of controversy among the board members about whether the river should fall under state control or local control. There was no harmony like there is today.”

In fact, in 1981, Northeastern State University held a symposium on the Illinois River, which produced a white paper calling the OSRC “a colossal failure.”

“I was immediately thrust into all these moving parts,” said Fite.

“Everyone wanted to protect the river, but they have very different ideas about how to get it done.”

Throughout his first decade, Fite found himself amid talks with the city of Fayetteville, which wanted to discharge waste from its newly built wastewater plant into the Illinois River.

He was also working to prevent the city of Tahlequah from increasing its discharge into the scenic river after upgrading its existing water treatment plant.

“I spent my first 10 years in constant legal battles,” said Fite. “It wasn’t until February 1992 that things started lining out.”

During that time, Fite, along with legislators, other state officials and members of Save The Illinois River Inc., worked tirelessly to prevent Arkansas from increasing the amount of waste dumped into the river.

“From 1983 to 1987, we worked with the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrative process to get it stopped,” said Fite.  At that level, we lost. So, we appealed to the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, and went to court in March 1990.”

The battle wends its way through court

Fite said Oklahoma and Arkansas were to be allowed equal time, but after presenting Oklahoma’s case, the three justices asked so many questions, the Oklahoma side had far more time to make its case.

“It had the Arkansas folks really frustrated,” said Fite. “When the justices ask a question, the time clock stops.”

In July, the court ruled in favor of Oklahoma, but it didn’t order the discharge to cease.

“So we appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Fite. “In December 1991, we appeared before the court, but it was a much different situation. The justices immediately went on the offensive.”

Oklahoma lost its case, but Fite said they gained ground in one respect.

“The water quality standard for the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Act had to be met at the state line, but the burden of proof was on us,” said Fite. “At that time, we only had a narrative definition of water quality; we lacked a numeric value. Today, we have the .037 limit.”

Fite has been happy to serve in a job he loves.

“I didn’t have any training; I just had a passion for the river,” said Fite. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and made a lot of enemies. But I’ve also made a lot of good friends. I just happened to be the bobblehead to represent everyone who loves this river.”

Fite pointed out that he plans to be around for at least another decade, and that protection is a never-ending pursuit.

“We are never going to get to the point where we can say we’ve finished our work,” said Fite. “Protection has no endpoint. There is going to be another Ed Fite. I’ve got about 10 more years, because I want to go out sharp.”

Fite said agency funding will be crucial over the next decade.

“Natural resource agencies are as important as any other, but invariably get the smallest slice of the apportionment pie,” he said. “They are also the first to be called upon when it comes time to cut the budget. The Legislature has cut what was a $383,000 per year budget to $271,000 this year.”

Fite has an long and notable list of co-workers, including several Oklahoma governors, attorneys general, congressmen, senators, representatives, as well as clean water advocates, several of whom are responsible for the creation and success of STIR. He also credits his board members and staff for the success of the OSRC.

“I’m just thankful the people of the state have tolerated me and allowed me to do a job I love,” he said.

1
Text Only
Local News
  • rf-poker-run-main.jpg Poker run

    Fundraiser was in the cards for local philanthropic group

    It was perfect weather, with temperatures in the high 80s Saturday, as boaters filled their vessels with friends for a fun afternoon on Lake Tenkiller. A crowd gathered at Cookson Bend Marina, and folks lined up to support a local charity event.
    As fundraisers go, the Beta Sigma Phi Mu Omega Poker Run last Saturday could be considered huge success, as nearly $9,000 was collected.

    July 30, 2014 2 Photos

  • bilbrey-anthony.jpg Man arrested for blackmailing woman for sex

    Cherokee County sheriff’s deputies put a man behind bars Monday night after he allegedly tried to blackmail a woman by threatening to post nude photos of her on the Internet if she did not meet him for sex.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Peach_photo_2.jpg Peach crop lean, but fruit still available

    Summer is all about peaches in Porter – especially at Livesay Orchard.
    The Livesay Orchard is still busy a week after Porter’s annual peach festival. The orchard’s crop this year was cut in half from what had previously been expected, according to Kent Livesay, one of the owners of the orchard.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • jackson-jaymee.jpg Tot’s injuries prompt abuse charges for two local residents

    A Tahlequah couple was formally charged Tuesday with child neglect and child abuse after an 18-month-old girl was found with a number of injuries.

    July 30, 2014 2 Photos

  • proctor-micah.jpg Pair accused of threatening man

    Two men behind bars at the Cherokee County Detention Center are accused of wielding a knife and gun and assaulting a man at a trailer park on West Keetoowah Sunday afternoon.
    Tahlequah Officer Reed Felts spoke with Reinaldo Flores, who told officers he heard a knock on his door and went to answer it.

    July 30, 2014 2 Photos

  • Reach Higher an innovative approach to college

    The “Reach Higher” degree completion program is helping many Oklahoma students go back to school without drastically changing their lives.
    “This program is designed for working adults,” said Tim McElroy, program coordinator at the NSU- Muskogee campus.

    July 30, 2014

  • City attorney, others questioned chamber use of tourism tax

    Letters written in 2006 by City Attorney Park Medearis to former city councilor and Tahlequah Area Tourism Council board member Jack Spears suggest money from a hotel-motel tax could be disbursed through an agent other than the Chamber of Commerce, without voter approval.

    July 30, 2014

  • Hulbert council discusses Internet service

    During a meeting Tuesday night, members of the Hulbert Town Council discussed the possibility of Lake Region Electric Cooperative’s extending its cable and Internet service.

    July 30, 2014

  • ts-marching-MAIN.jpg Marching in step

    Tahlequah High School Orange Express Marching Band kicks off 2014 season with summer drills.

    The Tahlequah High School Orange Express Marching Band has added 30-35 freshmen to its roster this year, and drills began for the newest members last Thursday.

    July 29, 2014 2 Photos

  • studie-roberta.jpg Woman accused of stealing cash, taking it to casino

    A 35-year-old Tahlequah woman is free on bond after she allegedly took $1,200 from a man who had been jailed for old warrants.
    Cherokee County sheriff’s deputies said they spoke with Jason Jones last week after Jones was arrested by park rangers for the outstanding warrants. Jones said he came to Oklahoma to see family, and when he was arrested, he left his wallet and cash with one of his daughters.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

Poll

Do you believe school administrators and college presidents in Oklahoma are paid too much?

Strongly agree.
Somewhat agree.
Somewhat disagree.
Strongly disagree.
Undecided.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Florida Panther Rebound Upsets Ranchers Small Plane Crash in San Diego Parking Lot Busy Franco's Not Afraid of Overexposure Fighting Blocks Access to Ukraine Crash Site Dangerous Bacteria Kills One in Florida Workers Dig for Survivors After India Landslide Texas Scientists Study Ebola Virus Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow Southern Accent Reduction Class Cancelled in TN Raw: Deadly Landslide Hits Indian Village Obama Chides House GOP for Pursuing Lawsuit New Bill Aims to Curb Sexual Assault on Campus Russia Counts Cost of New US, EU Sanctions 3Doodler Bring 3-D Printing to Your Hand Six PA Cops Indicted for Robbing Drug Dealers Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways
Stocks