Mike Fremont

Valuing our Waterways

Recorded: August 2, 2012

As a businessman, Mike Fremont talks about how he has improved the water quality of rivers by selling local governments on the simple economic values of rivers.

At age 90, marathoner Mike Fremont will tell you how he ages ‘racefully.’ Even today, Mr. Fremont runs record-setting marathons and races river canoes. Founder of Rivers Unlimited and Friends of the Great Miami, Mr. Fremont is a protector of rivers. He has been on the lookout for ill-conceived development proposals along the rivers of southern Ohio since the 1970’s. He believes that rivers must be protected to preserve environmental quality for animals and humans. Mr. Fremont’s environmental activism has been guided by the principle that if rivers are kept clean from sewage, debris, and major development, the clean natural resource they represent will encourage economic growth and preserve a higher quality of life for local residents, wildlife, and tourists alike. For Mr. Fremont, whether in athletics, river activism or simply eating a macrobiotic vegan diet, environment and health have always gone hand-in-hand.

Mike Fremont: The way to sell rivers is through economics. Its not through birds and bunnies and fish because we’ve done that, we focused on that. Every effort has been made to improve it on that basis but what really turns these decision makers on is can we make money from it or save money from it? And that’s, as a business man, I tell you – that’s the way to go and all the rest will fall in place after that.

Mike Fremont: The contribution I made is as a business man, I talked to Kevin Coil’s group, he was president of American Rivers for a number of years. And there’s a little village in Indiana, it has a little river going through it and a waterfalls and they built a bunch of little shops along there and it became a tourist haven. I told the group about that, I said “they’re making money off this river without hurting the river because the river’s attractive and why couldn’t we do that all over the country?”

Mike Fremont: Anyway, the New River in North Carolina was threatened with a big dam and we had just founded American Rivers and that was our first project. We had enough support, political support to declare that river a National Wild and Scenic River, and as soon as that was done the real estate industry began to offer riverfront homes at very high price. The river hadn’t changed any but its image had. It was all image and that can be true any place where you can improve the image of a river.

Mike Fremont: And I spent a couple of years trying to sell this idea to Cincinnati which has a major sewage treatment plant emptying into the Ohio River and they were figuring it was going to cost at least 2 billion dollars to fix the sewage treatment plants. But I said them that if you tell the public that this river’s going to be clean between 5 and 10 years, they’ll flock to it because otherwise it’s going to take 30 to 40 years to pay off this 2 billion dollars. So I checked with some friends who were high priced real estate dealers, I said “what do you think about this idea of issuing bonds so that you could give the money to the sewage treatment plants to clean up so they will actually clean up the river and do it now, so that the public gets the full use of this river and pay off the bonds as a result of the increased economy?” And these guys said “absolutely, why hasn’t anybody done this before?”

Huey Johnson: I’m impressed with you as an environmentalist who can I’m sure, sell a Chamber of Commerce very effectively. Not many people can do it. But you’ve got a good acute understanding of what’s going to interest a business person.

Mike Fremont: I did a back of the envelope calculation based on a river we have in Cincinnati called the Little Miami. And that river has a bikeway along it; a bikeway brings in about 6 million a year. There’s no fee for using it but they spend that much on equipment, on food, on driving, lodging and then the property value in association with the river gives you about a 10% increase in the value of your property to have a location like that. It’s quality of life. It adds up to 10 million dollars a year for 100 miles of river, which is 100,000 dollars per mile of river per year with practically no expense except maintaining a bike way. So that’s a national model and if 6 ½% of Ohio’s rivers qualify, which is the number in the state’s scenic river system now, we have 3.2 million miles of rivers in the country and say 6 ½ percent of these times $100,000 per mile, you get into scandalous, huge numbers of billions of dollars for the national economy. And even if you cut that in half or a tenth or anything like that, you’ve got a big deal. Like the earth under Pennsylvania wasn’t worth much until they found oil and then it became very valuable.

Huey Johnson: Yeah.

Mike Fremont: So it’s that same kind of resources that’s been misused, abused, unknown, undeveloped that we’re talking about and that’s infused my feeling about all kinds of natural areas – that they too, if they’re protected, are of huge worth that’s absolutely not being measured or predicted so far.