In the heart of southwest Wisconsin lies the ecologically diverse Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,600-acre publicly protected property and National Natural Landmark, home to over 400 species of plants and 200 species of birds. Located in the geologic marvel known as the Driftless Area, just beyond the edge of the last glacial retreat, the Reserve’s steep terrain is carved by the dendritic Kickapoo River. Each year thousands of visitors from Wisconsin and beyond hike its trails, canoe the river, and hunt in its large tracts of forest land.
For many in Wisconsin, it is hard to imagine this land any other way. First conceived in the midst of national debates over dam construction, cultural preservation, and environmental policy, the Reserve came about due to coalition building among local, state, and tribal partners. Today, these partnerships persist, making the Kickapoo Valley Reserve a model in citizen management of public lands. Its success in balancing goals of preservation and recreation proves that those with the most direct link to the land can help heal the wounds of history and preserve a national treasure at the same time.
Battle Over a Dam
The Kickapoo Valley Reserve exists today due to a proposed dam project on the Kickapoo River in the late 1960s. The same geological features that make the Kickapoo River Watershed an ecological and recreation marvel also cause dramatic flood events. In mid-century, before the Reserve’s fields and trails buffered this water, flooding damaged roads, bridges, homes, and businesses. Elected officials and impacted citizens proposed damming the Kickapoo River to protect downstream communities as early as the 1930s, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not begin construction of the La Farge Lake and Dam until 1969. Over 150 families, businesses, and farms were removed through purchase or eminent domain. Many landowners believed they were doing the right thing for their community to protect it from frequent floods, and they hoped a lake would bring much-needed tourism dollars to their economically underprivileged region. Tons of soil and rock were hauled in for the earthen portion of the dam, five miles of State Highway 131 were reconstructed, and a 110-foot water control structure was completed. But by 1975, millions of dollars in cost overruns, increased environmental activism nationwide, recognition of the need to protect archeological sites, indicators that the project may not control flooding, and scientific evidence that phosphorus and nitrogen runoff in the water would limit anticipated tourist activity created the perfect storm. The dam was seventy percent complete and construction was brought to an abrupt halt.
Central to stopping the dam’s construction was the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970, which required Environmental Impact Statements for all federal projects. Scientists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had been documenting the unique flora and fauna in the area, such as the threatened Northern Monkshood (Aconitum noveboracens) growing out of the rock outcroppings along the Kickapoo River. The variations in land cover and vegetation proved to be excellent habitat for a wide selection of birds. Today, over 100 species of nesting birds have been identified on the property. Rare birds include Red-shouldered Hawk, Cerulean and Kentucky Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Acadian Flycatcher. In 1970, when the Army Corps of Engineers submitted the Environmental Impact Statement on the La Farge Lake and Dam, it included environmental and archeological inventories and potential impacts if the dam were to be completed. It served its purpose. Politicians like Gaylord Nelson rescinded support for the proposed lake.
Sadly, the battle over completing the dam versus ending the project tore the rural community apart. The impacts from loss of property tax revenues when the land went from private to federal ownership, decline in school enrollment as many of the previous landowners moved out of the district, and overall anger by the residents toward their government for breaking its promise cannot be overstated. The land sitting idle from 1975 to 1993 didn’t help relations between community members who had supported the dam and those who had opposed it. It was like an open wound that was allowed to fester; the 110-foot water control structure and the huge tract of vacant land were visual reminders of the abandoned federal project. Residents watched the land become a playground for pickup trucks mud bogging and a dumping ground for everything from old appliances to used motor oil.
Healing the wound came from the citizens themselves. Working with a bipartisan mix of federal and state politicians, a grassroots group of Kickapoo Valley citizens, that included town and county board members, business owners, farmers, and self-described “hippies,” came up with a proposal that would keep the land in public ownership, have the state pay the equivalent to property taxes to the local municipalities and schools, and advocate for a mission to preserve and protect the land, while enhancing recreation and education. The members of the coalition were adamant that the land should be managed by a Board of Directors, the majority of whom reside within the Kickapoo River Watershed. State legislation creating the Kickapoo Reserve Management Board (KRMB) was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1994.
Ultimately, the Water Resources Development Act of 1996 became the instrument for the La Farge Lake project to be officially deauthorized by Congress and the 8,569 acres transferred out of Army Corps of Engineers ownership. At this point, a third essential group joined the collaboration to protect the Kickapoo Valley property. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Ho-Chunk Nation, a sovereign tribe whose ancestors utilized the rivers and woodlands long before the farmers and loggers arrived, sought protection of cultural sites on the land, including burial mounds, rockshelters, petroglyphs and open-air sites. Building on archeological surveys done in the 1960s, when the LaFarge Lake and Dam was being planned, enhanced archeological surveys documented more than 450 significant sites. As a result, the Upper Kickapoo Valley Prehistoric Archeological District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Senator Russ Feingold and Congressman Steve Gunderson drafted language in the 1996 legislation to ensure 1,200 acres of the most archeologically sensitive portions of the property be held in trust for the Ho-Chunk Nation.
In addition, the Water Resources Development Act required the Ho-Chunk Nation and the State of Wisconsin to submit an agreement outlining how the entire property would be protected under their joint management. After a roller-coaster year of stops and starts in the negotiations, a Memorandum of Understanding emerged that the State of Wisconsin, represented by the KRMB, and Ho-Chunk Nation leaders could agree upon. Basic parameters of the agreement included: two Ho-Chunk Nation representatives would be added to the KRMB; archeological sites would be held sacred on the entire property with state and federal laws enforced to protect them, and the land would be preserved in a natural state. Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and Ho-Chunk Nation President Jacob Lonetree signed the agreement on October 30, 1997. The property officially transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the State of Wisconsin and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in December of 2000.
In the twenty years since completion of the Memorandum of Understanding, the KRMB members and staff have worked to implement policies that accomplish the mission. For the most part, the flora and fauna have been protected and in some ways enhanced through native prairie restoration and oak regeneration. Agriculture fields leased to local farmers require additional conservation measures including buffer strips, grassed waterways, and a prohibition on winter manure spreading to protect the waterways. Time and natural processes have revegetated areas impacted by off-road vehicles.
Most challenging for the KRMB has been the “enhance recreation and education” portion of the mission. While recreation groups all love the land, they don’t always agree on how it should be used. For example, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and ATV riders all originally wanted to use the trails, but each group accused the others of trail damage. Recreationists were not shy about having their interests represented and would contact everyone from agency secretaries, senators, and even the governor if they felt the KRMB wasn’t being fair. The KRMB solicited input from all parties involved: Department of Natural Resources biologists, Ho-Chunk Nation land management staff, and user groups including the 4-Wheeler Association, the Wisconsin Horse Council, and mountain bike enthusiasts. As a result of the consultation, the KRMB demanded the Corps prohibit access for ATVs and off-road trucks. It also closed horseback riding trails that were in the most sensitive environmental and archeological sections until the Master Plan could be completed in 2005, which included trail policies and placement.
While not all stakeholders are pleased with every decision the KRMB makes, most respect that they are made by fellow local citizens who have the Reserve’s best interest at heart. Since the completion of the 2005 Master Plan, equestrian and bike trails have been rebuilt by Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Ho-Chunk Nation staff segment by segment. Each section of trail is painstakingly laid out prior to construction to avoid archeological and environmentally sensitive sites. Natural surface trails are closed during wet conditions to further protect the environment and the financial investment it took to construct them. Today over 37 miles of ecologically friendly trails attract bikers and horseback riders.
As the largest contiguous tract of public land in southwest Wisconsin, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve fits the original citizen committee’s idea to attract eco-tourists to replace the tourists that would have come to the proposed Lake La Farge. In addition to mountain bikers and horseback riders, the property appeals to those that don’t require a constructed trail: canoers and kayakers, birdwatchers, hikers, primitive campers, hunters, and gatherers. After completion of the Visitor Center in 2004, an education program was fully implemented and now welcomes students of all ages, year-round. During the spring field trip season alone, upwards of 1,500 children attend programming.
The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is a public treasure in southwest Wisconsin. To dam this magnificent river and permanently inundate these diverse habitats now seems unimaginable. The citizen management model that oversees this public property may not work everywhere, and by no means has the KRMB done everything right. However, right or wrong, the policies are set with community and environmental interests in mind, and they offer a workable resolution to heal the historical wounds of lost homes and broken promises. Because of its emphasis on stakeholder engagement in decision making for the future, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve serves as a model to other communities wanting to preserve environmental and cultural heritage. It will take constant vigilance of the KRMB members and Ho-Chunk Nation officials to ensure all they have worked so hard to heal continues to be preserved and protected for future generations.
Featured image: The Kickapoo River. Photo by Marcy West.
Marcy West has served as the Executive Director for the Kickapoo Reserve Management Board since 1996. She is currently writing a book in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin–Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies on how the Kickapoo Valley Reserve came to be. Website. Contact.