First-time visitors to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR), a public parkland in southwestern Wisconsin, are struck by its strange and powerful beauty—especially if they associate the Midwest with flat cornfields. The topography here is something else entirely. There is, quite literally, no other place like it on earth.
The reason is geological. When the last glaciers leveled the Great Plains, they skipped this region altogether. The result is a bizarre, prehistoric landscape, sculpted by wind and water over tens of thousands of years. Jutting limestone cliffs (known locally as “coulees”) form rugged ridge-tops; between them are fertile valleys, some boasting 20 feet of topsoil. Underground is a maze of tunnels, caves and subterranean rivers that break the surface in myriad springs that thread through creeks and freshets into the meandering, ancient Kickapoo River.
The KVR consists of some 8,000 acres along this small river, between the towns of Ontario and La Farge. It’s a serene, wonderful, secluded parkland that features some of the most stunning hiking, biking and kayaking territory for miles.
But what the casual visitor to the KVR might not see is that the placid beauty of the place masks a troubled and contentious history—albeit one with a happy ending.
The condensed version of the story begins in the 1930s, when local residents petitioned the government for help in protecting their farms and villages from the Kickapoo’s devastating cyclical floods. After a tortured, decades-long political process (and another half-dozen catastrophic floods), the Army Corps of Engineers floated a plan: to dam the Kickapoo River just above La Farge and create a 1,700-acre reservoir that would not only prevent downstream flooding, but also serve as a recreational pleasure-ground to lure tourists from urban Milwaukee, Chicago, and Madison.
The Corps bought up nearly 9,000 acres of land—displacing more than 100 local farmers to do so—and began construction on the dam. But the project bogged down and eventually ground to a halt, in part due to concerns for local endangered species and other environmental problems, and in part because government cost-benefit analyses determined the project was an economic loser.
It took another several decades for the KVR to emerge in its current form: a cherished and protected wilderness recreational area, governed by a unique body made up of local residents and members of the Ho Chunk tribe. Out of its history of conflict grew an unusual, cooperative model.
“This has always been a bi-partisan project,” says Ron Johnson, board chairman. “Nobody cared if it was Republicans or Democrat—they came together to fix a problem at the federal and state level. I don’t think you’d see it happen if it was proposed today.”
Today, the KVR attracts more than 16,000 visitors annually and is known around the Midwest as a destination for “silent sports” like trout fishing, bicycling, hiking and birding. The reserve also serves as an outdoor classroom for thousands of area students, who learn skills like finding wild edibles, orienteering and wilderness skills. Adult classes and workshops provide learning opportunities as well.
Perhaps the most significant teaching demonstration, however, is the lesson provided by the KVR itself. With its troubled history behind it, the parkland and its stewards are demonstrating that a collaborative, local organization can manage a large tract of land to preserve its cultural heritage, its environmental treasures, and its value as a tourist area.
To learn more about the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, visit kvr.state.wi.us.
Organic Valley is committed to supporting its local communities and is proud to sponsor the Kickapoo Valley Reserve for its impact on the lives of community members.