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Crawford County's conservation roots run deep
Student conservation day
JIM WOLFE, Crawford County Conservationist, taught a class on flood control on September 8, 1982, at a Crawford Coun-ty Youth Conservation Day. The event gathered eight other instructors and hundreds of middle school students from Prairie du Chien, North Crawford and Seneca. The event was conducted at the Blackhawk/Kickapoo dam on Johnstown Road, an earthen dam that was originally a CCC project.

The history of how the Crawford County Land Conservation Department came into existence is a compelling and dynamic one.

The State of Wisconsin was a pioneer in the nation in conservation. In the early 1930s, Wisconsin became the home of the first erosion control demonstration project in the country, the successful Coon Creek Watershed Project in Vernon County.

A farm conservation camp was established in Gays Mills, which functioned from 1935 to 1942, called Camp Gays Mills.

These camps came about as an outgrowth of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

On August 25, 1933, the Soil Erosion Service (predecessor to the Soil Conservation Service) was established as a temporary organization in the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In March of 1935, the Soil Erosion Service was transferred to USDA, and in April the Secretary of Agriculture was directed to establish an agency to be known as the Soil Conservation Service, a permanent agency of the USDA.

In 1937, Roosevelt urged passage of state legislation to create soil conservation districts.  The Wisconsin Soil Conservation District Law, (Chapter 92) passed in 1937, and led to the establishment of conservation districts along county lines.

The Community Building on Main Street of Gays Mills, and the Blackhawk/Kickapoo Dam, an earthen dam on Johnstown Road are two examples of projects undertaken by the CCC in the county. And one only has to drive around on many ridgetop farms, to see work done by the CCC to create erosion-control contouring to appreciate the contribution it made to soil conservation in the county.

In 1952, all soil survey activities of the USDA were placed under the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and in 1954 the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act was enacted to help communities protect, improve, and develop watersheds.

In 1962, the Agriculture Act established the national Resource Conservation and Development program (RC&D).

The Crawford County conservation efforts had gotten their start in 1935 in Gays Mills, located centrally in the Kickapoo Valley. The roots of county conservation ran deep in the area, and the Soil Conservation Service office was located in the village.

Highlighting the importance of these programs to rural communities was an incident that occurred in 1966. Farmers in the county became irate when the Crawford County Agriculture Committee decided to move the SCS office from Gays Mills to the county seat in Prairie du Chien. The decision to move the office was made at an unpublicized meeting held while Crawford County Board of Supervisors Chairman D.C. McDowell was hospitalized in Madison.

Carl Hutchison, chairman of the county’s Republican Party and Democrat Bernard R. Watson quickly reached across the aisle in an agreement that this was a bad idea. They began to work with the community to circulate petitions asking for reconsideration of the committee’s decision.

Petitions were circulated at the annual meeting of the Crawford Electric Cooperative, at meetings of village and township boards, and many other places by concerned citizens.

In the end, petitions with over 1,000 signatures, as well as resolutions adopted by most of the town and village boards in the county were presented to the county agriculture committee.

On Friday, March 25, 1966, following a special meeting of the Agriculture Committee called by Chairman Carl Achenbach of rural Boscobel, assurance came that the office would remain in Gays Mills. A request for a higher level of collaboration between government offices located in Prairie du Chien and the SCS office in Gays Mills were attached to the decision.

Eventually, the office, which would evolve from SCS to the current NRCS in 1994, was moved to Prairie du Chien in 1978 with the county’s acquisition of the Satter Office Building.

In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law to protect, maintain, and enhance the environment, and mandating these goals within federal agencies. The Water Bank Act of 1970 was the first major effort to preserve wetlands in the important migratory waterfowl states. In 1972, the Clean Water Act became the cornerstone for surface water quality protection for the nation.

In 1982, the Wisconsin Soil Conservation District Law, (Chapter 92) was revised, abolishing conservation districts and creating Land Conservation Committees (LCCs), a unit of county government – which is when the Crawford County Land Conservation Department was created.

In 1982, conservation was still going strong in the county and strong efforts were made to involve youth. County youth were actively engaged and can take pride in the many successful projects their youthful vigor was harnessed to achieve.

As an example of the conservation community’s focus on youth, on September 8, 1982, nine specialists from as many areas of conservation directed activities at a Crawford County Youth Conservation Day.

Held at the Johnstown Dam site in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed, a project of the CCC, each specialist conducted classes in his field. One hundred sixty students from seventh and eighth grade classes in Prairie du Chien, along with 50 eighth grade students from North Crawford and 40 from Seneca schools took part in the outdoor class activities, rotating from one class to another throughout the day.

Classes were conducted as follows: David Vetrano, DNR Specialist, talked about fish habitat; Jim Wolfe, Crawford County Soil Conservationist, discussed aspects of flood control; Ken Johnson, County 4-H and Youth Agent, covered farm management; Dennis Kirschbaum, DNR warden, talked about boat safety and laws governing hunting; Ray Kyro, La Crosse DNR, discussed wildlife habitat; Dan Daentl, County Agriculture Agent, talked about insects; Tony Caine of the Land Conservation Department reviewed conservation practices; Ken Hujanen, DNR Forester, described forest management; and John Bliss, Vernon County Fire Warden talked about fire control.

In 1985, the Food Security Act was signed into law, the first farm bill to include a conservation title. This law led to the establishment of the CRP, WRP, Conservation Compliance, Sodbuster, and Swampbuster programs.

In 1994, SCS was renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service to reflect the broader mission of the agency.

The 1996 Farm Bill established the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP).

The 2002 Farm Bill went further, enacting major changes for greater emphasis on conservation on working lands, and in 2006 the entire digital soil survey of Wisconsin was completed.

There have been several farm bills since, which have pushed forward the conservation agenda begun by FDR, including provisions to assist farmers in transitioning to organic production and programs to attract young people to careers as farmers and ranchers.