Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Partnerships with the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, private landowners and river users aim to preserve gorgeous vistas like this in perpetuity. © Lower Wisconsin Sate Riverway Board

Partnerships with the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, private landowners and river users aim to preserve gorgeous vistas like this in perpetuity.
© Lower Wisconsin Sate Riverway Board

June 2009

Peaceful passage

Twenty years after its creation, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway buffers 92 miles of flowing tranquility from the turblulence of overuse and development.

Gregory K. Matthews

"It is very wide; it has a sandy bottom, which forms various shoots that render its navigation very difficult. It is full of islands covered with vines. On the banks one sees fertile land, diversified with woods, prairies and hills. There are oak, walnut and basswood trees...We saw there neither feathered game nor fish, but many deer..."

–The journal of Pere Jacques Marquette, 1673

"For over four hundred miles, the Wisconsin, though a river superficially tamed by the dams along its central portion and the reservoirs on its tributaries, is still a wilderness stream, but quiet now, aging, seldom rising to flood stages of early years, pastoral and beautiful where it flows slowly down between the hills that enclose its valley to give itself through the Mississippi to the sea."

–The Wisconsin, River of a Thousand Isles, August Derleth, 1942

"This bill creates the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. The boundaries of the riverway are designated by the Natural Resources Board. Within the boundaries, certain activities are regulated in order to preserve the scenic value of the lower Wisconsin River."

–From the Analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau, Senate Bill 22, 1989

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and 2009 has been officially declared "The Year of the Wisconsin State Riverway" by Governor Doyle.

Almost a decade of cooperative effort during the late 1970s through the 1980s among citizens, environmental groups, politicians and the Department of Natural Resources resulted in a law establishing the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway (LWSR) and the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board on August 9, 1989.

The Riverway Board, appointed by the governor and composed of one member from each of six counties with land abutting the river and three at large members who represent recreational user groups, is an independent state agency and unique to government. It's responsible for administering a system of regulations to minimize the visual impact of activities when viewed from the Wisconsin River during leaf-on conditions. The aim is to preserve a more wild view and more relaxing experience on the river.

Landowners, including the Department of Natural Resources, must obtain a permit from the Board before building a house, modifying an existing structure or harvesting timber in the Riverway. Other activities are banned by Riverway law, such as using glass containers on the river, to minimize the footprint of river visitors on other users and the daily lives of Riverway residents.

Flowing through time

The Wisconsin was born, along with most of the state’s major rivers, over two million centuries ago when ancient seas permanently drained the upper Midwest. During the millennia preceding glaciers, rivers and their branches slowly, relentlessly wore down through layers of sandstone and limestone, leaving Wisconsin covered with prehistoric hills and wide, deep, steep-sided valleys.

Beginning about a million years ago, the glaciers ground, gouged and crunched over the state at least four times, leveling most hills and plugging river beds. Sand and gravel outwash half-filled the ancient valley of what's now the Lower Wisconsin River from bluff to bluff along a 92.3-mile stretch running from the Prairie du Sac Dam to its confluence with the Mississippi River.

Today, the Lower Wisconsin still restlessly flows toward the sea through the center of that valley, cutting through and removing sand left by the melting glaciers. If you stood in the river's midstream and looked bluffward, you could see the one-time rim of the ancient valley and, if you had a pole long enough, you might push it down through 150 feet of sand and gravel to touch the old valley floor.

Before the 20th century, the entire Wisconsin River, born in Vilas County where a little spring-fed creek sneaks out of Lac Vieux Desert, was a main artery of discovery and water transportation for Indians, explorers, fur traders, missionaries and later lumbermen. Now, the northern and central portions of the Wisconsin River have been harnessed for hydroelectric power, replete with dams to generate the power to run paper mills and utilities and minimize flooding. Impoundments also cater to intensive recreational use.

You can camp up to three days at a time on the state-owned islands and sandbars. © Robert Queen
You can camp up to three days at a time on the state-owned islands and sandbars.
© Robert Queen

Yet below Prairie du Sac, the Lower Wisconsin flows freely to the mighty Mississippi, in many places seemingly unchanged from the days of Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet. It offers unique, high quality recreation in hunting, fishing, boating, canoeing, swimming and nature appreciation.

The Lower Wisconsin Riverway is located almost entirely within the state’s Driftless Area – untouched, yet influenced, by the last glacial epoch 12,000 years ago – and its valley dominates local topography. It is wide and dotted with sandbars during the summer.

Bordering the river are floodplains – side running sloughs dug out by high water; landlocked ponds and oxbows, mucky with silt and rich in plant life; wide marshland expanses and wildlife havens.

Farther inland lie bottomland forests with water-loving trees such as soft maple, river birch, swamp white oak, white and green ash, hackberry and cottonwood. Still farther back, past a wide expanse of dry, sandy prairie and dominating the skyscape loom the bluffs. Their foothills mark the river's prehistoric levels.

Bands of yellowish sandstone, greenish-white limestone and orange lichens on the exposed rocky outcrops reflect sunlight and remind one of medieval towers guarding the river's flanks. The bluffs gradually become higher as you approach the Mississippi, often rising 300 to 500 feet above the river valley.

All this beauty and yes, solitude, is situated within a few hours of Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago.

"It's hard to imagine that this beautiful resource lies within a half-day drive of more than 15 million people," said Dave Gjestson, now retired, the first (and only) full-time Riverway Coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.

The Lower Wisconsin is a fragile resource, a delicate blend of water and geology, plants, animals and distinct seasons with only limited ability to accommodate man's intrusions. "...to cherish we must see and fondle," warned Aldo Leopold, "and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish."

The Riverway is viewed by many of the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors (more than 415,000 in the last recreational user study back in 1982) as an escape from the monotony of daily routine, a chance to immerse themselves in a scenic riverway seemingly untouched by man's hand.

"The Riverway law insures that the natural aesthetics of the (Lower) Wisconsin River will be protected in perpetuity despite its location," added Gjestson.

Formation of the Riverway

Area residents and DNR's predecessor, the Wisconsin Conservation Commission (WCC), long recognized the Lower Wisconsin Riverway's value as a natural and scenic resource. Public and state efforts to preserve it originate back to January 1939, when the WCC and the old State Planning Board proposed designating the river basin as a parkway.

Federal studies from 1975-79 culminated in a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Interior to include the Lower Wisconsin as a National Wild and Scenic River.

Many residents, visitors, public servants and politicians had goals to protect the river corridor, starting with Wisconsin congressman Robert Kastenmeier, who conducted a public meeting in October 1979, at Spring Green on his bill to designate the Lower Wisconsin as a Federal Wild River.

DNR Secretary Tony Earl formed an advisory group of citizens interested in the Lower Wisconsin during March 1980, to aid in developing a master plan. The agency subsequently held more than 40 meetings at municipalities along the river corridor to discuss the proposed plan. But it was not enough.

River basin landowners and area residents objected to many parts of the master plan and on August 31, 1982, DNR’s Bureau of Environmental Impact decided that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was needed for any management plan covering the Lower Wisconsin. A new DNR Planning Task Force was appointed in October 1982, lead by planner David Aslakson to formulate an EIS.

Shortly thereafter, a 34-member Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) formed to provide local perspective, and ensure that local concerns and problems would be heard by DNR planners and addressed in the plan.

That group, in conjunction with the DNR Planning Task Force, convened for more than five years, meeting up and down the breadth of the river corridor, gathering comments, suggestions and observations from every county, town, village and regional planning commission. The Department of Natural Resources began drafting an EIS, aerial surveys of recreational use on the river were conducted by the University of Wisconsin and all manner of observations and comments from the public and elected representatives were pursued.

"The CAC was essential," according to State Sen. (then State Rep.) Dale Schultz. "We enabled the region's leaders to have essential input that ended years of stalemate and led to the successful proposal to create the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and Riverway Board."

Sen. Schultz described the Riverway Board as an "important aspect" of the legislative package. It was "crafted in a manner to assure local control was retained to the greatest extent possible to administer scenic protection regulations" and also continues to give citizens an opportunity to discuss Riverway issues in a public forum on a monthly basis.

Controversies worked out along the Riverway

Controversies "were built-in during the early Riverway program," pointed out Gjestson: A group called Private Landowners of Wisconsin (PLOW) challenged the constitutionality of the new Riverway law; naturists at Mazomanie Beach drew enforcement attention; horse riding organizations were angry about a lack of Riverway trails; illegal ATV use was tearing-up sensitive areas; some town boards were upset about roads and boat access sites; and a few politicians still were skeptical about the new project.

"I relied on past management experience and DNR's citizen participation guidelines backed by excellent support from supervisors and our legal team," said Gjestson. "We tackled each problem through a solid public meeting process that eventually resolved most issues within a few years," said Gjestson.

Now a part of modern Lower Wisconsin River lore was a gathering in 1994 at the Riverway's Muscoda headquarters to mark the project's fifth anniversary. About 75 PLOW members attended carrying a flag-draped coffin within which a copy of the U.S. Constitution symbolized the alleged stripping of their property rights by the Riverway law.

When Riverway Board Executive Director Mark Cupp and Gjestson recognized State Sen. Richard (Dick) Kreul for his efforts in creating the Riverway and requested he offer a few remarks, all the PLOW members stood up, turned around, and faced the back of the room. Whereupon the senator thanked the group "for showing us your best side!"

Lots to do with few resources

"The state lands management end of my responsibilities was very enjoyable and satisfying," noted Gjestson. "Litter pick-up, boundary posting and fencing, boat access maintenance, erosion control, trail mowing and user surveys were some of the chores," all done with a skeleton crew, even under the best of circumstances.

Since Gjestson left his Riverway post in January, 1996, there has not been a full-time equivalent position as Riverway coordinator, though forester Brad Hutnik and a property manager also had responsibilities for public lands outside of the river corridor.

DNR staff survey a backwater slough to identify and estimate the populations of rare and threatened fish species that inhabit the riverway. © Gregory K. Matthews
DNR staff survey a backwater slough to identify and estimate the populations of rare and threatened fish species that inhabit the riverway.
© Gregory K. Matthews

"I had persistent problems with vehicles, especially ATVs, operating in unauthorized areas (sensitive, protected habitats), along with attendant issues of dumping trash on public land," pointed out Steve Colden, who retired last year as Riverway property manager, a position now filled on a temporary assignment.

DNR staff and volunteers like the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin periodically fill 20-yard dumpsters with trash left on Riverway properties, including couches, tires, appliances, televisions and drywall.

The Riverway, with its wide range of natural resources and expansive area, has its share of user conflicts, especially among those who want to hunt, fish and hike without encountering unauthorized vehicle traffic, according to Colden.

"If the trend continues that people recreate closer to home, those conflicts may intensify and stress our limited resources and manpower in the Riverway," Colden said.

Challenges and the future

Mark Cupp, executive director of the LWSR since the project's inception, described the past 20 years as a "rare opportunity to build a state agency from pencils and desks to policies and procedures and to watch the fledgling agency mature" into a viable regulatory entity in the river valley.

"The unique and innovative aesthetic protections have become an accepted part of living and doing business in the valley. While there is not universal support for land use regulations, generally speaking, landowners and local residents understand the purpose of the standards and have adapted to the new regulatory landscape." Cupp said the regulations maintain a wild feel and a sense of getting away by limiting what can be seen from the river.

He noted the success of the LWSR has been based on the cooperation of neighboring landowners and commitment of the Riverway Board’s citizen members. "Without their dedication, through both turbulent and smooth waters, the project would not have achieved the stature it now enjoys," Cupp said.

He listed other challenges to resolve during the next 20 years and beyond:

  • Forest fragmentation – As large blocks of land are parceled into smaller units, cohesive management becomes more difficult, especially if neighboring landowners don’t share the same objectives.
  • Invasive species – A number of nonnative species are already in the Riverway or are likely to be present soon and discussion on where to best spend limited financial resources and manpower is needed.
  • Climate change – A transition in species composition for some habitats is likely and special management efforts may be necessary to assure retention of existing species.
  • River hydrology – After a century of harnessing the river upstream, there appear to be changes in species found in the bottomlands. Studying methods to replicate flood events and other natural occurrences that preceded dam construction should continue and strategies pursued to maintain the mix of native species found in the river bottoms.
  • Biofuels – Increasing conversion of set-aside lands to production agriculture to grow more crops and use of timber residue for fuel or electricity could have adverse consequences on the Driftless Area’s fragile soils unless proper conservation measures are in place.
  • Recreation – User numbers and conflicts should be closely monitored and efforts should be made to ensure all recreationists are instilled with "riverway ethics." Anew study of user numbers should be undertaken and an assessment of user impacts on resources conducted to determine if limits on user numbers ought to be considered.
  • Landowner education – Outreach by state and local government should ensure landowners obtain the skills necessary to make proper management decisions.

Despite these challenges, Cupp emphasized that "the value of the Riverway project grows with each passing year. The true value protecting this valley will be evident years from now when future generations have the chance to paddle this water, hike the bluffs and appreciate the majesty and beauty of the river, the islands, the towering bluffs, the wooded hills and the mysterious bottomlands in the same manner that we enjoy this spectacular resource today.

The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway remains a magical place and through the combined efforts of the many stakeholders, we can assure that some day 50 or 100 years from now, someone will stand on a sandbar, look around in awe and say, 'Thank you.'"

Gregory K. Matthews is public affairs manager for DNR's South Central Region, including all of the counties through which the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway flows, and was a member of the Riverway Planning Task Force.