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League of Women Voters and Wildlife Refuge both celebrate 100 years
LaCrosse Area
Hallie Schultz speaks
HALLIE SCHULZ, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Outreach & Education Specialist, speaks to a gathering of League of Women Voters of LaCrosse members at a ‘Lunch & Learn’ event at the USFWS Onalaska Visitor Center on Wednesday, April 10.

ONALASKA - It should come as a surprise to no one that both the LaCrosse Area League of Women Voters (LWV) and the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge (UMRWFR) are celebrating 100-year anniversaries in 2024. These two centennials were the topic of a LWV Lunch & Learn event held at the Refuge’s Onalaska Visitor Center on Wednesday, April 10.

After all, it was the more than two million, newly minted, female voters and their letter writing campaign that helped to convince politicians seeking their votes that establishment of the Refuge was the right thing to do on June 7, 1924.

“We are here today to celebrate two centennials,” LWV’s Deborah Bufton told the group. “The League is a non-partisan, non-professional organization, with no party affiliation, dedicated to the principles of diversity and inclusion.”

Mary Nugent of LWV’s Environmental Committee discussed the long legacy of concern for the environment the organization has displayed.

“In 1868 was the first uncussessful constitutional amendment introduced for women’s suffrage,” Nugent said. “After that, prominent women’s voting rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited LaCrosse, and her musings about that experience are included in her memoirs. Then, in 1909, LaCrosse resident Helen Hixon lead the effort to have Granddad Bluff protected from mining, and she was a founding member of our LWV chapter.”

In the 1950s, member of the LaCrosse chapter joined other chapters across the state and nation during the early stages of discovering what was polluting the nation’s water supplies, and what preventive measures could be taken. The national League of Women Voters compiled the profiles developed by local chapters into a 1959 report, which they sent to President Eisenhower. Locally, the study included the Upper Mississippi River between Prairie du Chien and LaCrosse.

The report was compiled through talking with local government officials, study of maps and census reports, touring rural dam projects, and learning about water pollution problems from farm run-off and lack of sewage treatment in urban areas.

The 1970s

Then, in the 1970s, the Environmental Quality study group of the LaCrosse chapter undertook a number of initiatives, including:

• participating in a national consensus on solid waste management

• supported organization of the Citizens Committee for Environmental Organization

• hosted a radio program on recycling

• studied land use, including housing, transportation and public lands laws, national growth, world food supply, agriculture and lifestyles

• co-sponsoring local public hearings for citizens to participate in assessment of growth alternatives

• hosting a radio program on land use decision-making with expert guests

• sharing sponsorship of a western Wisconsin land use symposium at UW-LaCrosse, and more.

The 80s and the 90s

In the early 1980s, LWVV member Barbara Frank chaired a committee called ‘Wetlands,’ which hosted an informational meeting with WDNR about a pending state law. She also hosted a committee called ‘Natural Resources,’ where letters were sent to members of Congress on clean air and water legislation; and held meetings with Representative Steve Gundersen about acid rain issues.

Between 1988-1991, Maureen Kinney chaired the chapter’s “LaCrosse River Marsh Study,’ whose purpose was to examine its uses present and past. Those uses included recreation, economic development, and transportation. They partnered with Sierra Club to sponsor a public information forum attended by 150 concerned citizens. From there, the LaCrosse River Marsh Coalition was formed. Along with LWV and the UW-LaCrosse Biology Department, the Coalition hosed a weekend educational forum in October of 1988.

Following the forum, in the 1980s and 1990s, LWV developed support statements regarding the marsh, including definition of best uses, prioritizing preservation, stopping further wetland loss in LaCrosse County, opposing further industrial/commercial development in marshlands north of County B and up to Highway SS, pushed for a moratorium on fill, and supported alternatives to traffic congestion so transportation through the marsh would not be necessary.

The 2000s

In the 2000s, the local LWV chapter worked with other state leagues to study the funding mechanisms to address issues of water quality across the state. Statewide consensus was achieved on two issues”

• Given water quality issues in the state, are additional dedicated sources of revenue needed to fund water quality projects?

• Given a list of possible state resources, how would you prioritize funding for water quality projects?

At the 2003 state convention, the consensus was added to LWV statewide positions. Since 2014, LWV of Wisconsin has adopted a formal position on water quality stating, “We support water quality and quantity standards and support managing water as a natural resource.”

Since 2015, the boards of the Dubuque, Jo Daviess, Cedar Rapids and LaCrosse leagues began meeting to develop and organize an Upper Mississippi River Region Inter-League Organization. The ILO is intended to deal with Mississippi River Region issues.

The UMRR ILO is now made up of 60 local leagues and five state leagues in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed, from its headwaters in Itasca State Park, Minnesota, to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River enters the Mississippi. In 2023, the St. Louis and the Missouri leagues joined leagues in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

“The UMRR bylaws emphasize the preservation of our water resources within the watershed that we all share – the Upper Mississippi River Basin,” Nugent explained.

Wildlife Refuge

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge (UMRFWR) is also celebrating 100 years of protection in 2024. Talking about the history of the Refuge was Hallie Schulz, an Outreach & Education Specialist. Shulz made an appearance earlier in the year at the Ferryville Eagle Days event.

“The UMRFWR allows more public use than other wildlife refuges in the U.S.,” Shulz told the group. “But unlike with our National Parks, on refuges, wildlife comes first.”

In showing the group a map of where Wildlife Refuges are located in America, Schulz pointed out that they are all located along flyways for migratory birds. She said that wildlife refuges in the flyways provide everything migratory birds need to complete their migrations. She compared it to the amenities travellers need when going on a road trip – food, fuel, and lodging.

Shulz said that the impetus for establishing wildlife refuges was founded in a movement started by women in Boston to convince other women not to wear the plumes of birds on their hats. This led to the founding of the Audubon Society. In 1903, the first U.S. wildlife refuge was formed in Florida – the Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge, which was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Shulz told a funny story about how, to this day, her mom still thinks she works for WDNR. She explained that her employer is actually the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which along with the National Parks Service and the Bureau of Land Management, are part of the U.S. Department of Interior. She explained that by contrast, the U.S. Forest Service is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources focuses on wildlife within state borders, and in particular, on game species. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service focuses on migratory wildlife, and federal threatened and endangered species.

Legal history

Shulz said that in 1894, John Lacy visited Yellowstone National Park, and subsequently sponsored legislation to give the Department of the Interior authority to arrest poachers. In 1900, the Lacy Act became the first federal law protecting wildlife, and prohibiting the interstate shipment of illegally taken game.

Then, in 1896 the Massachussetts Audubon Society was formed, and Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall organized a series of afternoon teas to convince Boston society ladies to eschew hats with bird feathers. In 1910, the U.S. Congress made it illegal to sell bird plumes. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act put all migratory birds under federal protection.

Then, the legislation that created the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924 was spurred along by the work of a couple of passionate river enthusiast, Winona philanthropist John Latsch. He purchased land and gave it to states to create parks, including the John Latsch and Merrick state parks.

Another trailblazer in the effort was Chicago advertising executive Will Dilg, who formed the Izaak Walton League in 1922. In 1923, Dilg learned about the USDA’s proposal to drain about 300 miles of the Upper Mississippi River to create levee districts for farming. He organized a mighty movement around the idea that the Mississippi River backwaters and floodplain forests USDA proposed to drain were crucial for fish and wildlife habitat. His movement eventually gained the support of Herbert Hoover, then U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

The effort was supported by the General Federation of Women Club, and stimulated a letter writing campaign among its more than two million members. In just one year, Dilg was able to gain support from President Calvin Coolidge, and the Upper Mississippi River Wild Life Refuge Act was passed by Congress on June 7, 1934.

Law is passed

After passage, the Secretary of Agriculture was authorized to acquire by purchase, gift or lease, land between Rock Island, Ill., and Wabasha, Minn. The refuge was intended to be a breeding place for migratory birds, other wild birds, game animals, fur-bearing animals, and conservation of wildflowers and other plants.

In the 1920s and 1930s, there were more than 4,000 transactions to purchase 110,000 acres for the price of $5 per acre. Because states had to agree to sell the land, there were many political disagreements that arose during those years.

Then, in the 1930s, the Lock & Dams on the Upper Mississippi River were completed. This U.S. Army Corps of Engineers  project allowed for navigation of vessels on the river. The U.S. government purchased a total of 106,000 acres in order to build the system, and construction caused some of the floodplain area protected by the Refuge to fill in permanently. As a result, there was a large loss of habitat.

Enthusiasm for wildlife management on the Refuge continued to grow in the 1940s and 1950s. Intiatives were launched on Wood Duck production, a formal process was developed to report wildlife numbers, bird numbers increased due to closed areas on the Refuge, and sportsmens clubs stocked wildlife.

In the same time frame, there was a massive surge in public use of the Refuge, particularly with beach use and fishing. By 1954, the Refuge had enjoyed a half million recreational visits. In the 1960s and 1970s, the plight of Bald Eagles on the river had drawn public attention after Rachel Carson wrote her book ‘Silent Spring’ which documented that the pesticide DDT had caused Bald Eagle numbers to plummet severely.

After DDT was banned, Bald Eagle numbers on the Refuge began to recover, from a historic low of four nests only in Pool 9, to more than 200 in that same stretch of river in 2023. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, partnerships in wildlife protection continued to grow, resulting in the formation of the Mississippi River Collaborative.

Habitat restoration

Since about the year 2000, the focus on the Refuge has shifted to habitat restoration – both of the backwaters that were gradually filling in and of the floodplain forests. The new initiative became ‘Habitat Rehabilitation Enhancement Projects’ or HREP. This led to the attempt to build islands where trees could be planted to restore damaged habitat.

After 12 years, it was clearly established that areas where these habitat restoration projects had taken place were preferred by migratory birds.

Since then, the focus has expanded to invasive species management, protecting floodplain forests from the ravages of increasingly severe flooding, and addressing the issue of sedimentation of the backwaters.

“The greatest single threat the Refuge experiences today is its connection to flooding, sedimentation and nutrient deposits from tributary watersheds,” Shulz told the group. “My understanding is that a chapter of the Izaak Walton League is in the process of forming in the LaCrosse area.”

Shulz finished by saying that the agency, like the Leage of Women Voters, is looking forward to the next 100 years. Shulz said that outreach and education to the public is key, because if the public doesn’t know about the Refuge and enjoy it, then they won’t want to protect it. She said that key issues for the next 100 years will be environmental justice, and creating resilience in the face of climate change.