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WisBiz In-Depth: DARE to Restore Driftless Area Waterways
5/17/2006

By Gregg Hoffmann

WESTBY – They call the effort DARE for short.

Indeed, Trout Unlimited and its various public and private sector partners are daring to take on the effort to restore waterways within the 24,000 square-mile Driftless Area, which spans from southeastern Minnesota to northwestern Illinois, covering parts of Iowa and Wisconsin along the way.

DARE stands for the Driftless Area Restoration Effort. It was formally announced on April 19, at a press conference in La Crosse that included Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Rep. Ron Kind, U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey and other luminaries.

While the press conference featured some people in high-up places, much of the work will be done at the grassroots level with cleanup of streams, working with farmers on more environmental practices and other projects.

The task is daunting. The Driftless Area, named because it was not covered by glaciers and is thus free of the "drift" they left behind, includes parts of four states. The federal government will be involved. Environmental, outdoor groups and other advocacy organizations also will be involved. Coordination of efforts and interests will be a key.

But, DARE could have some big payoffs. As Laura Hewitt of Trout Unlimited said at a recent meeting in Madison, “We like to think everybody benefits from clean water.”

Studies show that the benefit of cleaning up streams goes to farmers, businesses, land owners along the waterways and others, as well as anglers.

A study, released in a Trout Unlimited report on DARE, showed that spending by trout anglers in Vernon County rose from $190,700 in 1993 to $1,103,100 in 1999, after parts of the Kickapoo River and its tributaries and nearby Timber Coulee were restored. Spending by canoeists rose from $342,400 in 1993 to $1,280,800 in 1999.

In Vernon County, with a per capita income of 64 percent of the state average, the revenue generated from these activities increased the income of a number of small communities. It’s estimated that 85 jobs were created in Vernon County with ties to fishing, canoeing and other tourism related to the stream restoration.

Wisconsin is not the only state to provide such an example. In Fillmore and Houston counties in Minnesota, restoration of the Root River, and a trail along it for bicyclists, roller bladers and hikers had a reported $1.5 million impact in 2000 alone.

“This effort is right for the environment, and also could become a successful jobs program for the region,” Lawton said at the kickoff press conference in La Crosse.

Lawton said the restoration efforts also will create work. “The actual restoration of these rivers and streams requires skilled operators of heavy machinery and provides family-supporting jobs,” she said. “To complete this project, we will need people to slope back the eroded stream bank and stabilize and reseed with native prairie grass. Restoring the Driftless Area holds promise to be a huge jobs program for the region.”

Charged with coordinating DARE is Jeff Hastings, who previously served as Vernon County conservationist and is now working for TU. “There has been a lot of interest in the Driftless Area for the 20-plus years I’ve been around here, but this is the first time I see a real collaborative effort taking place,” Hastings said.

“Different organizations are involved and are willing to cooperate. We seem to have the political support in Kind and [U.S. Sen. Herb] Kohl.

“Over the years there have been a lot of studies and initiatives. In Vernon County, we’ve been able to do some good things, but there is much more to do. But, with the collaborative efforts, projected over 24,000 square miles, I think we really have a shot this time.”

The ultimate goal of DARE is to have 30-50 coordinated restoration efforts happening each season, involving an array of organizations, according to a story in Trout, the magazine of Trout Unlimited.

Long History

Efforts to restore and preserve the Driftless Area have indeed gone on for years. The first watershed conservation project in the nation was at Coon Creek in Vernon County.

“We are in the cradle of conservation efforts,” Rey said at the press conference. “The Natural Resources Conservation Service cut its teeth by helping to improve farming practices in the Driftless Area in the 1930s.

“Through farm bill conservation programs, we will continue to improve the health, diversity and productivity of these watersheds and the quality of lives for the people that live in them.”

Phil Lewis, the president and director of the Marshall Erdman Academy of Sustainable Design in Madison, has been studying the Driftless Area for more than 50 years and while at UW developed the concept of the area as a greenway surrounded by more urban development.

“It is a unique area, and efforts to restore it could become a model for the nation and world,” Lewis said. “Any efforts need to be part of a process and kept in a context of the relationship between local and global developments and movements.”

Those efforts need to include not only restoration in what is primarily a rural area, but development of a new approach to urbanization, Lewis said.

More recently, the Driftless Area Initiative has looked at broad issues facing the area. DARE will cooperate with that Initiative.

The most recent effort grew in part from a Trout Unlimited report called, “The Driftless Area: A Landscape of Opportunities.” The first two paragraphs of the report read:

“The Midwest’s Driftless Area is a national treasure. Its distinctive topography, deep caves and springs and vast number of coldwater streams make the region unique. Bypassed by the glacier, it has been described as ‘a fragment of the past; a small piece of what once was.’

“But, the Driftless Area has often struggled with human-created challenges. Land use practices of the 1800s and early 1900s led to wide scale erosion, flooding and the altering of its streams and valleys. Early farming practices resulted in massive erosion, depositing dozens of feet of soil into many valleys – soil that continues its unalterable progress, moving tons of silt each year into the Mississippi River and beyond.”

The Trout Unlimited report emphasizes that unlike other areas that face ‘intractable problems,” the Driftless Area could have a potentially bright future.

“This report is a call to action. Trout Unlimited hopes it will bring together the significant expertise and resources of the dedicated stewards of the land with those who are economically and recreationally committed to the region. Our goal is to not only help bring broader attention to the needs of this remarkable resource, but also to outline a course of action that we believe will help lead to the restoration of watersheds, streams and rivers, and ultimately, the communities we call home within this ancient landscape.”

Plan of Action

Hastings said there already are many “on-the-ground” projects in the Driftless Area that he will work with, but that development of an overall strategic plan is a big part of his job.

Hewitt said that Trout Unlimited has a minimum of a five-year commitment to DARE and that is seen “as a start.” Of course, funding will be a major challenge for the various projects.

In late 2005, Trout Unlimited and DNR partners from all four Driftless Area states received a two-year multistate conservation grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Sport Fish Restoration Fund. An additional $263,000 was included in the conservation budget of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Kind said he hoped the next federal farm bill would provide addition funding for the restoration project and that the Driftless Area project could become a model for “cooperative conservation” efforts nationwide.

Hewitt said Trout Unlimited also is concentrating on the farm bill in its lobbying efforts at this point, but will pursue funding through various sources on all levels of government, as well as through foundations and other granting bodies.

Cooperation with the private sector and private land owners also could be a key to any funding and restoration efforts. “Ten years ago, we worked primarily with people who were farming the land,” Hastings said. “Today 40 percent of the land owners are not farmers. We want to work with those people as well as farmers.”

The stated goals of DARE are:

1. Establish a working coalition of agencies, organizations and individuals focused on improving the natural resources and the rural economy of the Driftless Area.

2. Improve public knowledge of the Driftless Area as a special and unique eco-region.

3. Attract new funding to implement solutions to natural resources issues unique to the Driftless Area.

4. Improve understanding of the Driftless Area’s contribution to the Gulf Hypoxia Zone (an area in the Gulf of Mexico which is affected by the Mississippi River and its tributaries).

Hastings acknowledged the effort is a big one, but said examples of projects and collaboration in his own Vernon County can serve as models for such approaches on a regional scale. Others think efforts like DARE are essential.

“Certainly any effort to restore the Driftless Area is an ambitious one,” Lewis said. “But, it is worth doing. We must do it.”
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