Saturday, July 4, 2009

Kickapoo Valley Preserve

Last night we read about the Kickapoo Valley Preserve north of La Farge, WI. We decided to drive the 10 miles to the visitor's center to see what it was all about. It was one of the few government functions that is actually open on the Fourth. But then, we learned that it is only quasi government. It is owned by the state and operated by a local board of directors.
How did that all happen? It seems that over the years, people became upset with the Kickapoo River and wanted a dam built to control it. All of the small towns downstream were in favor of it. So enter Uncle Sam and you bet, we'll build you a dam the likes you've never seen. We'll create a recreation mecca and it will bring all kinds of money into the local area. Of course, they chose to ignore the 150 families that had been farming the valley for generations. They didn't count to put it simply.

So in the Sixties, about 9000 acres were purchased and work began on the Corp of Engineers latest dam building project. Of course nothing happens simply on a project like that without a continuous litany of lawsuits against the project, but work continued. But the great white father knows what to do and in the early seventies Washington passed what is known as the National Environmental Protection Act (our friendly EPA). So while work had begun on the dam, the Corps of Engineers was then forced to do an Environmental study. Their report was a simple white wash and work continued. But others were not convinced and therefore they had the state extension office do an environmental assessment of the project.

When the Extension Service report published, it upset the apple cart. It concluded that the creation of the reservoir would be an environmental disaster, it would adversely affect ground water, was economically unsound and was poor public policy. In 1975, the Corps finally agreed to stop work on the dam with the project 39 percent complete. They had spent 18 million dollars on a project that was initially projected to only cost 9 million and estimates had risen to over 50 million to completion. All work ceased on the project, the contractors were paid off and left and the land abandoned by the government.

No management, oversight or control was exercised over the land for the next 25 years. Horse back riders made their own trails, snowmobile riders made their trails, locals cut timber and firewood at will. In short, it was uncontrolled abuse of a public entity. Finally in the late nineties, the land was returned to the state and they had to decide how to manage it. In the end, it was decided that it would not become part of the state park system, or be controlled by the state DNR. A local entity was created to manage it. (There was a lot of anger about how the state managed (or mismanaged) the project. Earlier, the local business community had been licking their chops about the huge reservoir to be created and the millions of tourist that would flock to the area to spend their money. All of that was now down the drain. In short, they wanted to control their own destiny.

So they now have the Kickapoo Valley Preserve consisting of about 9000 acre's of valley and hillsides. Numerous horseback riding trails, snowmobile trails, walking trails and backwoods campsites have been created. As an old duffer (I'm past my prime), I'll say that it is really a dream place for the young at heart. No small or large RV parks have been created. If you want to camp in the preserve , pack it in on your back or in the canoe or on the horse and head in. I think there is only one or two campsites (for tents) where you can drive to.

Since the purpose of the dam was flood control, nothing has been done since then to control the downstream flooding. Many of us remember the major flooding that occurred at Gays Mills at the lower end of the Kickapoo river just 2 or 3 years ago. The community of Soldiers Grove moved itself about 15 years ago to higher ground when it was flooded yet another time. (About once every 10 years in the last one hundred years.)

Of course when you build a dam (or plan to), roads have to be moved, and one of them was state highway 131. The old highway 131 is still kind of usable and once a year on July 4th, they allow car traffic in one direction. So obviously, we took advantage of the opportunity to drive the old road. My first reaction is that the valley is a miniature of that major valley in front of the Teton's called Jackson's hole. On our drive, we stopped and ended up meeting some of the people that had been forced off of their land who return each year to see it once again. It was very much a urban verses farm conflict.

So much for our day. We have our fire going again since we had lots of wood. We'll probably leave some for the next site users.

Tomorrow, off to the big house (daughter's house) where we'll have really speedy internet. Out here in the sticks, our air card is about wireline speed or slower.


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