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Partners join Mississippi Valley Conservancyto protect wildlife habitat
Plum Creek Conservation Area
Plum Creek Conservation Area
THE CIRCLED AREA shows the approximate location of the new, 1,600-acre Plum Creek Conservation Area. The large tract of land was acquired for permanent protection by Mississippi Valley Conservancy through the $3 million donation of an anonymous citizen. The map shows the area's proximity to other protected areas managed by Wisconsin DNR in the Lower Kickapoo River and Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.

LOWER KICKAPOO RIVER - Local land trust Mississippi Valley Conservancy (MVC) has purchased 1,600 acres of rugged land along the lower Kickapoo River for permanent protection. The site, just north of Wauzeka in Crawford County, which includes a stretch of Plum Creek and is located on both sides of Plum Creek Road, will be known as Plum Creek Conservation Area.

The property includes over five-and-a-half miles of frontage along the west bank of the Kickapoo River, and over two miles along both banks of Plum Creek, a Class I trout stream. It is next to DNR's 1,927-acre Kickapoo Wildlife Area-Wauzeka Unit that includes the 635-acre Kickapoo Wild Woods State Natural Area. 

“These protected areas, now enlarged by the MVC purchase, support one of the highest concentrations of rare forest-interior breeding birds in southern Wisconsin, including many considered high conservation priorities in eastern North America,” the WDNR’s Craig Thompson said.

The protected land will be open to the public for hunting, fishing, and low-impact recreation such as hiking, paddling, and wildlife observation. 

“Public lands are an asset to Crawford County,” said Dave Troester, the Crawford County Conservationist. “People come here to fish the streams, to hunt, to enjoy the rivers and scenic beauty. Public land makes that possible for more people, as access to private land for hunting is harder to find these days.” 

Troester also cited Crawford County’s Comprehensive Plan, in which a survey of county residents rated the things they most value about living in Crawford County. Most highly rated by survey respondents was natural beauty, open space, small town atmosphere, proximity to family and friends, and recreational opportunities.

Supporting biodiversity

The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Director of Land Strategy, Kurt Schlimme, called the project ‘a high priority for acquisition’ because of its size, its proximity to other protected lands, and its prominence within their ‘Resilient and Connected Lands’ analysis, which comprehensively identified a network of lands and migration corridors across the United States that are best able to support plants and animals in a changing climate. 

On their web page, ‘Connected Landscapes,’ TNC describes the process used to designate high priority conservation landscapes:

“Resilient sites are sites that continue to support biological diversity, productivity and ecological function even as they change in response to climate change. Resilient sites buffer their resident species from the direct effect of climate change by providing temperature and moisture options in the form of connected microclimates that can differ as much as 10-15 degrees Celsius. Sites with high microclimate diversity allow plants and animals to persist locally even as the regional climate appears unsuitable, thus slowing down the rate of change”

To map site resilience scientists first grouped the land into distinct geophysical settings and then analyzed every acre for two characteristics:

• Landscape diversity:The presence of characteristics (topography, elevation range, wetland density and soil variety) that create microclimates and habitat variety.

• Local connectedness:The absence of barriers or fragmenting roads, dams, development, etc. that prevent plant and animal populations from taking advantage of local microclimates.

On their ‘Connected Landscapes’ map, the entire Kickapoo River Valley as well as the Lower Wisconsin Riverway are described as ‘far above average’ for this kind of resilience.

Land Legacy Report

“It's been a long time coming. I'm really glad to see MVC and TNC succeed in the conservation of the land. The ‘Wisconsin Land Legacy Report’ describes it as ‘one of the most diverse assemblages of natural communities in the state,” Craig Thompson, WDNR Program Manager at the LaCrosse Office, said. 

The Wisconsin Land Legacy Report was compiled in 2006 to identify places critical to meet Wisconsin’s conservation and outdoor recreation needs over the next 50 years.

The report resulted from public and staff meetings over a three-year period, from 1999 to 2002. The purpose of the meetings was to gather information, local knowledge, and opinions about Wisconsin’s land and water. The report identifies and described 229 legacy places, and eight statewide needs and resources.

Specifically, the report says of the Kickapoo River Valley:

“The valley’s forests support breeding populations of many forest-interior species, especially birds. Stretches of the upper river and its tributaries pass through sandstone cliffs, which provide habitat for numerous rare plants and animals, including globally rare species such as northern monkshood and several species of land snails. In addition, the Kickapoo River corridor provides an opportunity to ecologically connect the large block of public lands in the Central Sands Plains (Fort McCoy), Black River State Forest, and many county forest lands with the Wisconsin River.”

Thompson notes the need to move with some haste to restore the land because of the importance of the area to migrating birds, and the rapid decline of their numbers “on our watch.” He said that there is broad agreement among conservation practitioners that we have about a decade to set a course for the future of our planet for its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

Management vision

Another partner, the Savanna Institute, will provide planning services for the long-term restoration of the land to help MVC reach its conservation goals for the project. 

In addition, TNC signed a memorandum of understanding with MVC last fall regarding its assistance in developing and implementing MVC’s management vision. 

"It's definitely been a team effort to see this property protected. And it will continue being a team effort as we move forward," TNC’s Schlimme said.

TNC will help to provide planning oversight, and will join with WDNR to provide ‘boots on the ground’ involvement in restoration and regeneration efforts as well.

“It may take a number of years before the property is healed and restored to its ecological health,” MVC Conservation Director Abbie Church said. “That's the challenge that Mississippi Valley Conservancy has taken on.”

Church said the majority of the woodlands have a long history of grazing and the farmland offers ample opportunities to implement conservation practices. 

“Erosion and habitat degradation both need to be addressed,” Church said. “We will be working closely with our partners at TNC and the Savanna Institute over the coming year to develop a long range plan and vision for the site to achieve conservation goals that include healthy habitats, water quality protection, and resilience to climate change” 

Church explained that much of land will continue to be farmed and grazed, while integrating regenerative farming practices as part of the management plan. The land will continue to generate property taxes to support the local community, as it has in the past.

“Part of the benefit of partnering with Savanna Institute in management of the land will be the opportunity to put demonstration projects on the landscape, showing how land can be managed to achieve both a profitable agricultural system as well as a variety of ecosystem services,” MVC’s Abrahmzon explained.

Abrahamson emphasized that with an undertaking of this size, many partners will be needed to realize all the goals for the property. She said that in the future, additional partnerships will be explored for additional areas of restoration and regeneration.

Generous donations

“This land acquisition was made possible by an anonymous donor who is passionate about land and water conservation in this part of Wisconsin and gave a gift – the largest we have ever received – to purchase the property. Plum Creek Conservation Area is now the largest property the Conservancy owns,” Carol Abrahamzon, Executive Director of MVC said. “Thanks to the generous donor and our diligent partners, the land will be protected and restored to provide natural services such as flood protection, recreation opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, and an expanded area of connected lands that provide refuge for wildlife whose native habitats are threatened by climate change and development.”

Abrahamzon went on to explain that MVC purchased the property with a $3 million gift from the anonymous supporter, and in close collaboration with TNC and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). 

“Craig Thompson was one of the driving forces in helping to facilitate this acquisition,” Abrahamzon explained. “It has been his vision for many years to expand this vital migratory corridor for wild birds and other rare and threatened species that make their home in the area.”

Additional funding from TNC, the Paul E. Stry Foundation and the John C. Bock Foundation covered the remainder of the transactional and other costs.

With a gift of $50,000 from a generous couple and $200,000 from TNC, MVC has created an endowment to help manage the long-term restoration and care of the property.  Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, MVC is launching a match campaign to double that amount.

Contributions to help reach the $500,000 management endowment fund goal can be sent to Mississippi Valley Conservancy, with ‘Plum Creek Conservation Area’ noted in the memo. Their website includes many different donation options, as well as an online donation portal. To send a check, the mailing address for MVC is:

Mississippi Valley Conservancy, P.O. Box 2611, LaCrosse, WI 54602 

Owners and donors

Peter Lewis of Madison represented the owners of the property during the negotiations. His father, Robert Lewis, and other friends and family began buying land for the farm in the 1970s. They raised cattle and had fields in a rotation of corn and hay. According to Peter, his father, who at one time was the staff assistant for agriculture in the Gaylord Nelson administration, had a lasting commitment not to carve up the property for hobby farms. 

This commitment has made it possible for the project partners to acquire the property at a scale, in terms of contiguous size, that is much larger than is typically available in southern Wisconsin.  

“We are grateful that Robert Lewis and his family had a vision that included keeping this property together. It created this wonderful opportunity to ensure that the property will forever remain whole as Robert envisioned,” Abrahamzon said.

The intact sale and protection of this land "is the highest possible ending I can imagine," Lewis said.

Asked about the gift to buy the land, the anonymous donor said: 

"I love Crawford County and am so fortunate that I can help the real experts who have worked to save this land for future generations. This county is bounded by the Mississippi River on the west and the Wisconsin River to the south with the beautiful Kickapoo flowing through the middle – what a joy to live here! And to have this opportunity for habitat protection, in such a unique place, on such a large scale, this is all beyond my wildest dreams. My deep gratitude goes to all who made this happen, especially to the Lewis family."