The Unlikely Environmentalist
Chad Pregacke's passion for the Mississippi River is as strong as his passion for skateboarding, and he's turning it into action.
Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 04:07 PM
Photo by Layne Kennedy
[Header = Meet Chad]
The thing you should know before meeting Chad Pregracke is that you’re probably going to get a pound. And you should blow it up. Which is to say, instead of a handshake, you’ll get his fist. Once your knuckles have tapped his, pull your hand back, fingers splayed, sound effects optional. This applies whether you’re a college student, grandmother, CEO, or factory worker. His enthusiasm is infectious. Around Pregracke, everybody wants a pound.
Right now, Pregracke’s zeal is serving him well, because he’s trying to get a crowd of 200 people excited about hauling trash off the banks of the Mississippi River. As volunteers mill around our meeting site in Davenport, Iowa, the last pink remnant of dawn gives way to an uncommonly cool and blustery August day. The Mississippi’s murky waters are choppy, and rain is in the forecast, but to Pregracke, today is “perfect.” He’s excited to be back in his hometown and “in awe” that so many people sacrificed their Saturday for his cause.
Pregracke hops onto a picnic table to tell everyone how “stoked” he is. Crystalline blue eyes glint underneath his worn, red visor as he launches into a speech reminiscent of the prelude to a wrestling match. At one point, he shoves up the sleeves of his T-shirt, referring to his arms as “thunder” and “lightning.” And, with that, all of us, aged seven to seventy, are cheering and laughing and wide-awake on this overcast day. We’re going to kick trash’s ass.
Even once we march to the swampy depression where a previous flood left a couple thousand tires behind, people are excited. There’s friendly chatter and an exchange of encouragement as a human chain forms, running from the tires to dumpsters provided for the event. Everyone’s having a blast, which is weird, because hauling tires sucks. They’re silt-filled, and the work is backbreaking. The rusted rims have dangerous, jagged edges, and oily, black water sloshes onto our shoes. Occasionally, a snake shakes loose and is greeted with shrieks somewhere down the line. But work never slows. Teachers and students stand side by side, along with floor workers and upper management, all rolling sodden tires through the mud and having a grand old time. Pregracke keeps the chain running: walking up the line slapping backs and cracking jokes, then marching to the dumpster with a tire under each arm.
I’ve been invited to follow Pregracke around for the Fourth Annual XStream Cleanup, an event he’s organized with other nonprofits and businesses from the Quad Cities—Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island and East Moline, Illinois. There are 31 sites, and 1,500 volunteers have come to clean the Mississippi clutching trash bags in their gloved hands. It’s the biggest XStream Cleanup to date, and a fitting capstone to a summer that marks Pregracke’s tenth anniversary of cleaning the river.
This small army is the result of a decision Pregracke made in 1997, when he looked out the window of his parents’ house on the Mississippi and was disgusted by all the trash the river carried past the backyard. At the time, he was enrolled at Black Hawk Community College and a couple of classes away from his associate’s degree. But Pregracke had no idea where college was leading and had grown tired of remarking, year after year, about the sad state of the river. So he dropped out, got into a flat-bottomed boat, and began to clean.
"I didn’t have some grand plan,” Pregracke says. “It was just something that I knew should be done and needed to be done, and nobody was doing it.”
NEXT: River restoration >>
[Header = River restoration]
It turns out Pregracke didn’t need a grand plan. He was still working on his first mile of riverfront when boaters began to call the local paper wanting to know who the heck this kid was out on the riverbanks wrestling barrels into his boat and tossing beer cans into trash bags. The first local story got picked up by the Associated Press. That brought Tim Wall from CNN to town and put Pregracke on national television. Anderson Cooper and Time magazine followed, and Pregracke’s movement surged forward.
Since that summer, Pregracke has founded Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit with an annual budget of $800,000. He has twelve employees to help manage what has become an armada. Three flat-bottomed aluminum boats are used to haul trash from the riverbank to three 100-foot-long barges, where junk is sorted into piles for either recycling or the landfill. A fourth barge resembles a floating dorm and boasts a living room, bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The whole jumble is lashed together, forming a giant raft that’s pushed up and down the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac, Anacostia, and Illinois rivers by a whimsically painted towboat.
Pregracke does his best to make the process fun, but the work his group does is serious. Throughout the last century, industries dumped scrap metal and used barrels into the water, while homeowners avoided disposal fees by tipping tires and refrigerators over the railings of bridges. Even today, every heavy rain flushes trash from city streets throughout the Midwest into the Mississippi floodplain. City garbage collection pretty much stops at the river’s edge.
That’s where Living Lands and Waters comes in. The group docks at various riverside towns and organizes cleanups; on the days they don’t have events to oversee, crew members head out to clean on their own. All told, they’ve hauled in more than four million pounds of garbage. Aside from the obvious aesthetic improvement, this deep cleaning nurtures the health of the river. A tire contains up to five gallons of petroleum, and as it slowly breaks down, that petroleum leaches into the ecosystem. Countless barrels have been removed from the river, still half-filled with toxic oil or other industrial chemicals. The group has cleaned areas where trash literally clogged the water, once again opening bays and backwaters for plants and wildlife.
Pregracke knows that cleaning himself out of a job is unlikely—every new rainstorm brings back at least some of the problem. But he is determined to get communities involved to a point where Living Lands and Waters can “clean ourselves out of an area.” Pregracke’s determination is fueled by his remarkable self-confidence and a passion born of his childhood on the river.
NEXT: Risk to reward >>
[Header = Risk to reward]
I got a glimpse of this upbringing on a trip to the Illinois side of the Mississippi. It was the day before the annual cleanup. Pregracke had exactly two free hours in his schedule, so we headed to his house in East Moline to pick up his skateboard. Pregracke and his father just finished renovating the house, and it is a testament to their ideals of naturalistic craftsmanship and sustainable architecture. Its worn wood floors were salvaged from an old orphanage. The fireplace is made from river stones and decorated with driftwood. Even the path leading to the front door is laid with bricks his crew found on a cleanup. But it has one major flaw: Unlike the house he grew up in, it isn’t on the river. As a result,
Pregracke doesn’t stay there often. When he’s in town, he usually sleeps on the barge. “It’s hard for me to live over here, dude,” he says, as if he’s moved to the desert instead of a hundred yards from his parents’ place. We stay just long enough to grab his skateboard.
Pregracke got his first board on a family trip to Florida when he was eleven, before anyone sold skateboards in the Quad Cities. His passion for the sport was immediate and intense, and a natural extension of an adventurous childhood with a river in the backyard.
He could swim as a toddler and drive a boat by age eight. Friends brought their bikes over so they could set up a ramp on the backyard dock and launch themselves into the water. At fifteen, Chad helped his twenty-year-old brother, Brent, dive for mussels on the Illinois, a trip that, he says, opened his eyes to the “freedom” of working on the river.
Pregracke’s mom, KeeKee, admits she and her husband, Gary, gave their two kids “a lot of leash.” So she wasn’t surprised when Chad announced his plan to clean up the Mississippi. But she wasn’t thrilled either. She worried about boat accidents and tricky currents. Besides, both parents worked in education. Gary taught high school drafting, and KeeKee worked at Black Hawk Community College. They saw a degree in their son’s future. But there were no lectures when Chad dropped out. Instead, Gary heard his son’s idea, and said, “This could be big.” Then he helped fix up the boat; KeeKee cowrote the business model. (Though she made sure Chad later finished his degree.)
When asked if she was worried about her son’s career choice, KeeKee tells a story about a family ski trip to Colorado when Chad was eighteen. He fell in love with snowboarding and thought other Quad City teenagers needed diversions like it back home. After the trip, he drove back to Colorado to a snowboard factory, loaded his pickup with the nicked and scratched factory discounts, and brought them home. Then he put an ad in the paper offering parents cheap Christmas presents for their kids.
"Everything he does is kind of out there and entrepreneurial,” KeeKee says. “He’s a risk taker. Chad sees something and says, ‘I can do that.’”
[Header = Skater to entrepreneur]
On our way to the skate park, we pass the mile-long Alcoa aluminum plant. A decade ago, Pregracke walked through the tinted doors of the lobby, after badgering a secretary into an interview with a vice president. Pregracke was 22 and, to appear more professional, had tucked his long hair under his baseball cap. He went into the meeting with his homemade business model and photos he’d snapped to prove how trashed the river was. Although he rushed through his presentation and stumbled over his words, his enthusiasm won the day. Alcoa awarded him his first corporate sponsorship. The $8,400 was well short of the $77,000 he’d asked for, but it was enough to fund his first season on the river.
Looking at the towering façade of the plant offices, I ask Pregracke if he was terrified stepping into such an imposing building. He looks at me with incomprehension.
Naw, dude,” he says. “I mean, you don’t have anything to lose.”
I say I see his point. He’d already been told no countless times, he had no money in the bank …
"No,” Pregracke interjects, “you don’t have anything to lose at any point. I wasn’t intimidated. I was stoked, dude. I got the meeting. I’m going in. I’ve got a good cause. I didn’t doubt it.”
Pregracke is always “stoked,” possessing a conviction in his ideas that propels him into action. Ten years ago, he found inspiration for funding his cleanup idea while watching a NASCAR race on television. “If companies pay money to put their logo on a racecar,” he thought, “they’d put logos on my boat.” Pregracke grabbed a phonebook, thumbed to the business listings, and started with A. After Alcoa’s gentle push into the polluted waters and the media attention that followed, sponsors like Cargill and Anheuser-Busch became interested in the crazy, caffeinated kid who was now a legitimate public-relations move. Plus, the corporate suits seemed to find his attitude refreshing—to Pregracke, the CEO of a company is just another dude.
Hugh Share, an executive with Anheuser-Busch, says supporting Pregracke allows the company to feel directly involved in the cause. Corporate offices in St. Louis sit right on the Mississippi, and when Living Lands and Waters pulls into town for the annual cleanup, employees from all levels turn out to help haul trash. Share says the relationship works because Pregracke is so straightforward. “We love giving money to Chad,” he says, “because we know it’s going to go right to work.”
In recent years, that money has gone into more than cleanups; things like environmental education workshops for schoolteachers and a river-bottom restoration program that clears invasive plants off the riverbanks and plants native hardwood trees. In conjunction with that project is a nursery Pregracke is building on a working hog farm, where “except the meat, nothing good comes out.” Soon that “nothing good” will fertilize thousands of saplings waiting to be planted in hopes of restoring a diminished floodplain ecosystem.
NEXT: Action, not talk >>
[Header = Action, not talk]
Living Lands and Waters’ expanding budget allows the group to branch out whenever Pregracke sees a need. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he cancelled the remaining summer cleanups so he and the crew could take barge loads of construction materials to Louisiana and help families there rebuild. Last August, he set up a recycling program at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, where tens of thousands of bikers now have a place to toss their empties. And then there’s Capital River Relief, an annual cleanup of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers in
Washington, DC. Pregracke organized it in 2004 because, as he was flying into town to receive the Jefferson Award for Public Service, he looked out his window at the polluted Potomac and thought, “What kind of message is our government sending about our rivers?”
When we get to the skate park, Pregracke rockets away, pulling off a couple kick flips to get into rhythm. It’s easy to see why he’s good at skateboarding. And it says a lot about why he’s succeeded on the river: To land a trick, you have to commit to it completely; doubt and hesitation just lead to a wipeout.
Pregracke skates up to the lip of a drained swimming pool and pauses at the deep end. Someone has slapped a bumper sticker at the top. It says, “Don’t Do It.” But he slides out over the void anyway, his back foot anchoring the tail of the board to the edge. Then he leans forward and drops in.
Mike Coyne-Logan calls this “Chad’s philosophy,” and it’s summed up in three words: “Action, not talk.” It’s the afternoon after the cleanup, and I’ve caught a ride back to the barge with Logan, one of the newest members of the crew. Logan is telling me about the challenge of keeping up with Pregracke. When people first see their floating living quarters, they always wax poetic about “life on the river.” But the reality, Logan says, is often twelve-hour workdays, aching muscles, and nasty weather. It takes a certain kind of person, and there’s a pride knowing one has what it takes. It helps that Pregracke is a great boss, Logan says. “He’s just a genuine guy. He could’ve made a fortune if he went into advertising or something, but this is what he cares about.”
Back on the barge, Pregracke tells me that some environmental groups have suggested his philosophy has him tackling the problem from the wrong end. They argue that pushing for legislation on trash and educating the public about littering would better curb the stream of refuse that pollutes America’s rivers. But Pregracke says his role is not to proselytize or hold political rallies. It’s much simpler.
"You gotta create an opportunity for people to do something,” he explains. “You don’t want to roll into town proclaiming, ‘We’re Living Lands and Waters’ and try to fix everything. Nobody would work with you. You want to prop everybody up, because you’re leaving. You’re there maybe four days, and then you’re like, ‘Peace.’”
And people, Pregracke says, are often starved for a chance to get involved. He set out to save the mighty Mississippi by himself but, within months, was caught in a current he didn’t realize existed. Thousands of other people were disgusted by what floated in their rivers. Pregracke was just the first to get in a boat and start cleaning.
But don’t expect him to take credit for what has followed. When he talks about the XStream Cleanup, he swears it wasn’t even his idea. “I didn’t do it,” he says. “The whole thing started because so many people were calling and wanting to do something. So we found some spots, took them out in the boats to clean up, and the people loved it, dude. They were animals. They were freakin’ savages out there.”
I suggest they may have just been feeding off Pregracke’s enthusiasm, but he doesn’t want to hear it, and anyway, he needs to get back to work. He holds out his fist for a pound, and I remember to blow it up.
Story by Adam Hinterthuer. This article originally appeared in Plenty in January 2008.