Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers culture, history, and an outdoor classroom for all

December 21, 2018

Deep in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, cradled between Wildcat Mountain State Park to the north and the town of La Farge to the south, are 8,600 acres of community property known as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Its unique ecology coupled with its archeological significance have made it a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, scholars and students, but the land was once destined for a very different purpose.

In 1962, after the Flood Control Act was put into place, Congress authorized the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to build a flood control dam in the area now known as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  At the time, nearly 149 farmer families and community members were displaced by the project as the Corps began to build the dam and its corresponding structures. By the early 1970s, however, concerns regarding the project’s environmental impact and its financial feasibility had started to grow among community members and politicians. The situation was exacerbated by the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act, which required the Corps to prepare an Environment Impact Statement. Reports, many of which came from UW-Madison experts, showed that there were water quality and other environmental issues associated with the project.  By 1974, Senator Gaylord Nelson, then Governor Patrick Lucey and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were all calling for a stop to the project.

“The politicians were concerned because of the budget, water quality and the environmental movement. The Corps had already exceeded the budget by millions. Of course, there were also a lot of people who loved the Kickapoo River for the paddling, scenic beauty, valley bottoms with rock outcroppings and the variety of flora and fauna that make it so unique,” said Kickapoo Valley Reserve Executive Director, Marcy West, who has more than 22 years of experience with the reserve. “So, all of this brought the project to a halt in 1975, after about 70 percent of the work had been completed.”

When the project was called-off, West says the land sat idle for many years and was not well taken care of, causing concern and angst among many in the community.  

“In the early 1990s, a group of citizens came together and determined that this needed to be resolved,” said West. “They wanted to keep the land in public ownership, with local control over the policies, so with the support of [then Governor] Tommy Thompson, [then Senator] Brian Rude, [then Congressman] Steve Gunderson and [then Senator] Russ Feingold, the community established the Kickapoo Reserve Management Board. This was a very bi-partisan effort, with local citizens working with local, county, state and federal officials to get things moving.”

In addition to state officials, the Ho-Chunk Nation was also involved with the project as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve includes Ho-Chunk ancestral land. In support of protecting and preserving the land, the then Ho-Chunk President Jacob LoneTree joined Governor Tommy Thompson in signing a Memorandum of Understanding, which outlined the terms and conditions for joint management of the reserve. Together the government, the local community and the Ho-Chunk Nation came together to manage the property through a Board of Directors.

“The Kickapoo Valley Reserve has done a great job of engaging the community,” said board member, anthropologist and Ho-Chunk tribal member,” Josie Lee. “I really enjoy seeing the way the Kickapoo Valley Reserve gathers people around a cause.”

To develop the community aspect of the reserve, leaders sought out ways to enhance recreational and educational opportunities. To aid in this goal, the community set out to build a visitor center which was completed in 2004 and hosts educational experiences for groups that range from elementary students to adults. West, the Director, also connected with UW-Madison and the Ho-Chunk Nation to discuss education tactics and ways that the Kickapoo Valley Reserve could connect with youth, university students and interested community members.  Since then, the University of Wisconsin—Madison has been working together with West and the reserve to promote education and research opportunities, which have been made possible, in part, by a bequest to the University of Wisconsin Foundation from a former resident of the valley, Ralph Nuzum.

While the greater UW-Madison community remains involved with the reserve, the Nelson Institute has become more heavily involved in the education and environmental preservation aspects of the reserve over the past few years.  In fact, West said the Nelson Institute involvement goes back many years, to when Nelson Institute professors, Steve Ventura, Pete Nowak and Fred Madison, would make a stop at the reserve during the graduate student tour. During the past year, West has also been working with Nelson Institute affiliate and assistant professor Caroline Gottschalk Druschke to engage English majors in the history, ecology, and rhetoric of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve through the course English 245: Writing Rivers.

The course, which was held in spring 2018 but will reconvene in fall 2019, encouraged students to explore public arguments about dams and waterways, including those within the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. During the first part of the semester students read former UW-Madison student John Muir’s famous argument against Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Dam, watched films about dam impacts, and engaged with some of the public controversies surrounding Wisconsin’s waterways. During the second part of the semester, students reviewed and transcribed archived community interviews about the failed La Farge Dam project and visited the reserve. Conducted by La Farge resident and history teacher Brad Steinmetz and his high school students almost twenty years ago, the interviews featured local farmers and community members who were either removed from the land in the early ‘70s or were connected to the land or project in some way.

“When Marcy mentioned these interview tapes, I was intrigued,” said Druschke. “Some of the tapes had been transcribed, but most were sitting in a box at the reserve with no resources available to help digitize what is essentially the only record we really have of what the community felt happened with the abandoned dam project.”

Together, Druschke and West decided that digitizing and transcribing the tapes and creating scholarly projects around their contents would be a great opportunity for UW-Madison undergraduates to engage with rhetoric in action, learning about the reserve’s contentious history and its contemporary challenges.

“The Kickapoo Valley Reserve was a phenomenal subject matter and site for my students, and I'm proud of the work they came up with,” said Druschke. “I'm happy we were able to digitize KVR's oral history interviews and start work on those transcripts, but certainly we benefited most from the collaboration, and were the recipients of Marcy's generosity, time, and expertise. My hope is that, as time goes on, I'm able to give more and more back to KVR, through my courses and my research.”

In fact, Druschke, who earned a Ph.D. in rhetorical studies in 2011, is on leave this academic year completing a stream ecology-focused Master’s degree in Environment & Resources at the Nelson Institute.  Her M.S. research is also focused on the Kickapoo Valley, exploring the impacts of seasonal flooding and stream restoration projects on the biogeochemistry of Valley streams and on strategies for managing these local resources into the future.

“This is one of those projects that brings a variety of components together,” said West. “It has everything from the tourism interest to the water quality interest to the impact on the landscape. I just think it really exemplifies what happens here. We rely on a number of resources and people to get things done.”

In fact, with the support of Nelson Institute Director, Paul Robbins, West plans to document the unique community aspect of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and its history in her book, set to be released in 2019. Utilizing her 22 years of experience, community resources and the information Druschke and her class have synthesized West will explore the deep history of the reserve and the community engagement and relationships that have helped this unique space to succeed as a place of recreation, engagement, learning, and friluftsliv, as board member Lee calls it. 

“The Kickapoo Valley Reserve reminds me of a Norwegian concept called friluftsliv,” Lee said. “It’s the idea that outdoor experiences positively impact the wellbeing of the individual and the culture. Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers that experience and promotes that sense of community that can positively impact the way people view nature and the outdoor world.”