The Unlikely Environmentalist

How Chad Pregracke went from skater dude to the Mississippi River’s most impassioned caretaker is as odd a story as you’ll ever hear along the banks of the mighty river.

By Adam Hinterthuer

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.

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