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Clinging to a tiny ledge in the middle of a sheer sandstone cliff deep in the Kickapoo Valley is one of Wisconsin's treasures. It's a clump of lapland rosebay, a relative of rhododendrons and an endangered plant species in the state. The only other known example of this plant, which is but a few inches high, in Wisconsin is in the Dells. It is typically found in the Arctic regions.
The plant grows about 40 feet above another treasure, the Kickapoo River. A popular canoeing river and trout fishing stream, the river courses through the valley offering recreation and relaxation.
Both the river and the plant are part of the 8,500-acre Kickapoo Valley Reserve created by the legislature in 1994.
Had things played out as planned 30 years ago, much of the reserve would be underwater today. The property was slated to become a reservoir for the La Farge Dam, a federally-funded flood control and recreation project. The dam was almost completed in 1975, when Congress cut off the flow of money in response to then-Governor Patrick Lucey's concerns about the effect of a dam on canoeing and water quality in the 1,400-acre lake that would be created.
Since then, with the federal government holding title to the land, nothing could be done with it until last September, when Washington returned title to the land to Wisconsin in the Water Resources Development Act of 1996.
Anticipating the land's return, local community planners worked with two area legislators. Senator Brian Rude (R-Coon Valley) and Representative DuWayne Johnsrud (R-Eastman), authored legislation setting up a nine-member management board to decide how best to use the land. The blueprint for establishing the reserve was developed by Robert Horwich, a community conservation specialist who has lived in the area for 20 years, and a number of other area residents including Eric Epstein, an ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources, and Ron and Donna Johnson. Ron Johnson now chairs the board that will oversee the reserve.
"It was a great springboard, a great place to start," says Alan Anderson, of the plan which seeks to preserve the natural beauty of the area while allowing tourists to enjoy it. Anderson, a UW Extension Community Development specialist in the Kickapoo Valley, has been working with the board and local residents to set up meetings to discuss use of the land.
Called a "unique natural gem" by Craig Thompson, DNR Water Leader for the LaCrosse and Bad Axe waterhsed and the state's liaison with the board, the Kickapoo Reserve varies from lush rolling terrain to steep, rocky ravines. It has rocky outcrops and creeks. Hiking through it can be a challenge.
The reserve is one of the few public areas of the driftless region, the part of the southwestern Wisconsin landscape that escaped the great glacial sculpting of the state some 10,000-15,000 years ago.
Because the glacier left the area untouched, it still has high bluffs and sandstone cliffs with evergreens like eastern hemlock, indicative of northern climates. "That's something you find in very few other places in Wisconsin," says Epstein.
The cool microclimate created by the evergreens, deep valleys, and the steady drip of water down the face of the sandstone cliff has allowed the Arctic-living rosebay, a relic of the glacial climate of 10,000 years ago, to flourish today. "It appears that as the glaciers around the driftless region receded and the climate changed, the rosebay only found suitable growing conditions in a few cold and constantly moist areas," says Epstein.
For similar reasons the northern monkshood also flourishes in the Kickapoo Reserve. The reserve has on of the largest populations in the state of this nationally rare plant, says Thompson. Clumps of the plant, which has palm-shaped leaves and can grow as high as three feet, can be found near streams underneath rocky outcrops at the bottom of steep ravines.
The presence of such "cool spots" is remarkable in southwestern Wisconsin, typically one of the hotter and drier parts of the state except on its cooler, moister northeastern slopes. Consequently there's a little bit of northern Wisconsin in the reserve. Not only are there trees such as the hemlock and yellow birch, but there are birds more likely to be found in the north such as the winter wren, the black-throated green warbler, and the red breasted nuthatch.
Preserving this part of the Kickapoo Valley means migratory songbirds will retain their nesting grounds. The reserve contains hundreds of acres of hardwoods like sugar maple, red oak and basswood adjacent to the 3,500-acre Wildcat Mountain State Park. This area provides enough unbroken forest that many threatened songbirds, such as the Kentucky warbler and the Acadian flycatcher, which breed here, will have a habitat of the size they need to thrive.
"These birds require large contiguous chunks of forest," says Thompson. "The fragmentation of forests in southern Wisconsin along with habitat changs in tropical wintering grounds, has led to declining populations of many birds of the forest interior that need large, unbroken tracts of forestland for breeding habitat."
All told, the reserve contains a dozen threatened or endangered plants and animals.
The reserve also offers a treasure trove for archaeologists: It is the largest historic and archaeological district in the United States, with 454 identified archaeological sites, says Bob Birmingham, Wisconsin state archaeologist.
Ironically, the survey that located the sites was conducted with the shadow of the impending dam looming over the researchers. The cultural survey was done to discover what was valuable and could be removed from the to-be flooded land.
Now of course, archaeologists can go back and study those sites at leisure, since the dam won't be built.
The discovered sites, dating from about 8000 B.C. to 1000 A.D., are believed to be temporary encampments underneath outcroppings of rock or in caves, not permanent villages. "The driftless area was always very good for hunting," Birmingham says. "For thousands of years people would go to the little sheltered valleys in the area to hunt. There were also fish in the Kickapoo River, lots of turkeys, but deer was the principal game."
The occupiers, Birmingham says, were primarily small groups of hunters or families. The artifacts they left behind include knives, spear points, awls, and scrapers for hides.
"It's one of the best samples of archaeological sites that we've identified, a wonderful laboratory to study the prehistory of southwestern Wisconsin," he says. "Usually we're looking at one or two sites. Rarely do we get a chance to look at human occupation in a regional sense, and that's what we have here: a very large area that's been virtually completely surveyed in one part of the state."
Birmingham hopes the sites will be preserved, allowing scientists to study how the culture in the area changed over the thousands of years the valley was occupied.
But the reserve is not just a place for scientists and wildlife. Far from it.
"It's a great place to hike," says Epstein. "We'd like to see a bike trail stretch from the reserve and link to the Elroy-Sparta trail to encourage people to come and bird-watch, pick berries, and enjoy the natural beauty.
"Here, there's a really great opportunity to develop a management plan with the help of local folks – that's going to be critical to the success of this thing. This is something they own, this is theirs and this is something worth doing."
The success can mean a great deal to the economy of the region. According to the Department of Revenue, per capita income in the area is about $13,000 – half of the state average. And, notes Alan Anderson, there are striking disparities within that figure: "In Viroqua, the per capita income is around $10,000; out in some of the rural townships, the per capita income might be $4500."
The region is also home to more elderly than the state as a whole. Census figures indicate that 18 percent of the population is over 65, compared to 12 percent statewide. But in some communities like Soldiers Grove, about one-third of the people are over 65.
"One of the dilemmas for the future will be to find the economic engine of the region," Anderson says. "With so many people at retirement age, that's going to be a challenge."
That force may be found in the tourism envisaged by board chair Ron Johnson of La Farge, who dreams of photography tours and classes of artists coming to the reserve.He envisions hiking trails with foot bridges spanning the Kickapoo to encourage people to walk through the reserve and experience what it has to offer first-hand. He and other board members also would like to construct an environmental education center at the reserve to tell its natural and human history.
"I see the reserve as a catalyst for the whole region," says Donald Field, a board member and director of the UW-Madison's School of Natural Resources. "It has the potential for linking a lot of the [Kickapoo] valley into a common theme of resource management and development."
The interest is clearly there. Anderson says a 1993 UW-Madison study found that canoeists spent an estimated $700,000 locally. He estimates in 1994 and 1995, canoeists spent about $1 million each year. To put that in context, consider the community of Ontario, population 450. "The net income of that community is about $2.5 million," says Anderson. "Tourists spent $1 million, if not in Ontario proper, then in the surrounding area. If we develop better boat landings that are dispersed on the river, we can bring in twice the number of canoeists and not have a negative impact on the quality of experience. That will bring in a lot more money into the communities."
While Anderson hastens to add that his prediction is not a certainty, he notes that the reserve now is "underutilized and under-managed."
Johnson would like to build up the area's tourism infrastructure. He wants to see more businesses, such as restaurants and B&Bs, that will cater to tourists.
But even low-impact tourism creates concerns. Field is worried about soil erosion and water quality problems left behind by visitors. As part of the management strategy he sees a compelling need to make sure the various "user groups" cooperate in maintaining the reserve.
One challenge facing the board is the use of ATVs – all-terrain vehicles. The erosion ATVs cause on hillsides and other features of the reserve worries board members like David Kluesner of Madison. "We're going to have to sit down with the motorized vehicle people and discuss their use of the area," he says. "As soon as we have authority to do so that's going to be the first issue we'll have to deal with."
George Nettum of Viroqua, another board member, also mentioned the erosion problems already caused by ATVs in the reserve. A 40-year resident of the region, he speaks of the need to manage the recreational demands on the reserve, noting that there is "more demand than there is land for" and that not every recreational interest can be satisfied. "We want to go slow and develop something that is unique," he says. "But we might have to do some selection."
The board will have to deal with accommodating existing farming in the reserve. About 1,000 acres are under cultivation for corn and alfalfa.
The board will also be faced with the concerns of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The reserve contains several important cultural sites such as burial mounds and land used for religious purposes. The Ho-Chunk want to have title to those sites to make sure they are treated respectfully and do not become tourist attractions.
While getting back the land is important to the area, getting money to help manage the reserve is another important issue. Kluesner says the board has authority from Washington, but not an appropriation of a promised $17 million to improve the Kickapoo Reserve. When they do arrive, the federal funds will come with strings attached: The money will be restricted to reconstructing roads, conducting environmental cleanups like capping old wells, removing underground storage tanks, and installing safety features around portions of the dam that were constructed before the project halted. The federal money can't be used for campgrounds, trails, the environmental center or other types of recreational and interpretive developments envisioned in the region.
The federal money, Kluesner says, is not pork, but what he feels is the valley's due for the three decades the federal government "handcuffed and hamstrung" the area by holding the land and preventing it from being developed.
Whether getting that money is realistic in today's fiscal climate, is, of course, uncertain. It's possible that the board and its new Executive Director, Marcy West, will have to add fundraising to the to-do list.
Harvey Black is a freelance writer from Madison, Wis.