Mills arrived at the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department
office with a jump in his step. He was wearing a bright colored
button-down and a small shell around his neck, both which complimented
his cheerful, easy-going demeanor.
Mills is a freelance journalist and media producer based in Madison.
He writes about environmental conservation and diversity in public land
management. He recently published
The Adventure Gap
, a book that
chronicles the first all African-American ascent of Denali. He also
founded the Joy Trip Project, which is a news-gathering and reporting
organization that focuses on outdoor recreation and environmental
conservation. The Joy Trip Project publishes online content and a
podcast on sustainable living.
Mary Kolar, District 1 Supervisor and member of the Dane County Lakes
and Watershed Commission, and I recently sat down with James Mills
earlier this summer to discuss local water issues. Mills spoke
articulately and passionately about his work, the environment, and his
perspective on water.
Tell us a little about yourself outside of work.
James Mills: It's really interesting because the line between work
and play is a rather fuzzy one for me because frankly I do what I am. I
write about outdoor recreation, but I'm also an avid participant in
outdoor recreation. It's summer so I do a lot of biking now. I spend a
lot of time on the lakes and rivers in Dane County and parts of
Wisconsin. Backpacking is something that I have a great interest in, and
cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter time. When the
occasion presents itself, I also do mountaineering, ocean kayaking, and
anything else I can think of.
Also, my wife is a master gardener and we cook a lot at home. We have
two sustainable gardens, and we do a lot of entertaining. I think it’s
great to meld your passions and interests in the outdoors with how you
live your life: eating good food, spending time with friends, and having
little adventures. Fortunately, it is good fodder for storytelling,
writing, and just being able to spend time talking about things that are
important that I'd like to encourage everyone to embrace.
What is the importance of water to you?
JM: Not to be trite but water is life. Without water, we wouldn't be
able to exist on this planet. It's also, I think, a great connecting
mechanism because water is the one common element that combines the
three areas that I'm focusing on which are forests, farms, and food.
Water as it pertains to the natural world is tragically often taken for
One of the things that I’d really like to see more of is an emphasis
on is accessibility to fresh water. You take a look at what happened in
Flint, Michigan, and you have a natural disaster caused by human beings.
Those are the things that have the ability to happen every day if we
take our eyes off the ball. The government in Flint wanted to save
money, and they thought it would be cheap and easy to cut back their
expenditure when it came to the infrastructure of water. And frankly,
this wouldn’t have happened in a community that wasn't so
disproportionately African American and Hispanic.
When we take a look at a situation like that, we run the risk of
allowing that to happen anywhere in North America and definitely all
over the world. So I think that we should start looking at water as not
necessarily a natural resource but as a human right; looking at the
availability and accessibility of drinking water as something not to be
trifled with or bartered for, but as something that is part of our
natural, cultural, and social heritage that needs to be protected.
What do you feel needs to be done to solve the issues of water pollution and unsafe drinking water?
JM: It should be a very simple solution. When you allow it be a
cultural and social priority, you set up circumstances and systems where
water is protected. At least in Wisconsin and in North America, the
best places to start are our farm fields because most of the pollution
comes from aggregate runoff of petrochemicals. We need to change our
farming methods by using cover crops to control weeds and maintaining a
water table where the water falls as opposed to allowing it to percolate
off those farm fields and into streams and rivers. This then prevents
horrible blooms of algae and phosphorus contamination, which not only
makes the water undrinkable but also runs the risk of contaminating
water for the transmission of waterborne disease.
I think that if we can incentivize our farmers to do a better job of
maintaining the quality of water, it’s going to be a lot cleaner when it
gets downstream. Now, in order to do that, one of the things we might
have to do is perhaps accept the fact that we’ve got to charge more for
food because cheap food is one of our biggest problems. I think we’ve
got an opportunity to shift our priority of our use of modern
agriculture to hopefully talk instead about being able to preserve our
natural resources -- mainly water.
You mentioned that you were working on a project called “Forest, Farm, Food.” Could you talk a little more about that?
JM: It’s brand new, in fact I haven’t even written it down yet. This
is the first time I’ve actually even mentioned it out-loud. Frankly, I
want to begin a conversation about the cycle of commerce, energy,
thought, and our lives on this planet. One of the things that we look at
is seeing where we fit in the farm, forest, food cycle because that is
how I want to see the whole world working, so that we protect the
natural environment and we have an ecosystem that is manageable for the
production of produce which would ultimately make it possible for us to
have the energy, health benefits, and livelihood to enjoy the natural
environments and start the cycle all over again. Actually, the ‘fourth
F’ is “fun”; to be able to enjoy the entire cycle.
People aren’t terribly interested in getting bogged down in ideas
that are so big-picture that they can’t wrap their heads around them. My
goal of “Forests, Farms, Food” is to be able to make the issue smaller
to be able to make the linkages so that people can say, “oh, I get it
now. That’s why I need to ride my bike. That’s why I need to drive
less,” and build community around it, so that it’s a shared experience.
What is your opinion on the recently-proposed bill that would
place the financial burden of subsidizing the replacement of lead pipes
for low-income homeowners on utility companies instead of on
JM: I haven’t heard much about this specific bill, but based on what
you’re telling me, I think that the burden should be distributed as
evenly as possible. The utility companies don’t exist without the
infrastructure of pipes and sewers that deliver the water to our homes.
The city, however, has a responsibility to make sure that infrastructure
is in place. So, if the burden is put on the utility companies, they’re
just going to pass them on to the ratepayers. So not unlike our
healthcare system, it’s going to be paid for one way or the other. What I
don’t want to see is both ends of the argument being so uncommunicative
where we find ourselves buying bottled water being shipped from out of
We need to set the costs that utility companies and municipalities
complain about against what it will cost the rest of us should they do
nothing. They need to justify to us why the benefits they experience
today are more important that the exponential costs we will face in the
future. To go back to the broader point of this conversation, I think
that journalists are obligated to tell that story.
What do you think needs to be done to mitigate and solve these environmental and social issues?
JM: I think that the best thing to do is believe that everyone
matters. You know, sadly, we’ve created this system where some people’s
lives are based on the disparities that exist in our culture so that we
literally can’t afford to care. I think we can shift our priorities so
that we might make a little less in our lives so that other people can
have more and encourage the people in our community to do the best that
they possibly can with the resources they have to work with. I think the
best place to start is with basic, minimal primary education for every
young person in our communities and making sure that they have access to
affordable health care and safe drinking water. If we make those our
priorities and build our culture around that, I think everything will
take care of itself. When we shift to including the importance of not
just making as much money as we can and hoarding as many resources as we
can, we can also hopefully make it so that everyone around us has what
they need as well.
What do you feel you personal motivation is for protecting the environment and water issues?
JM: I like to eat. I like to have fun. I like to be happy. I’m
actually having a hard time coming to grips with the profoundly selfish
motivations that I have for all of these things. I’m done with the
notion of “because it’s the right thing to do.” It’s because it makes my
life better. I’ll be totally candid with how selfish I am -- with the
notion that I am solely motivated by my own self interests. But I’m also
prepared to make sacrifices for the self interests of other people.
Because as other people live better lives, it allows me to live a better
life, too. So, I want to encourage everyone to be selfish and to look
after their own best interests as they pertain to the interests of other