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Cupp manages the many facets of the Riverway job
If you need to talk to Mark Cupp, Lower Wisconsin Riverway Executive Director, you may find him in his office in Muscoda. On the other hand, he may be on a bluff overlooking the Wisconsin River, out on the river, or heading off to a meeting in Madison.

Muscoda Progressive

MUSCODA - Thirty years ago the lead front page story in the January 25, 1990 issue of “The Progressive” started: “Vince Limmex, Chairman of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, has announced that Mark Cupp of Fitchburg, formerly of Richland Center, has been hired as the Board’s Executive Director.”

Thirty years and eight days later, Cupp noted that at this point he is not thinking about retirement, although he does have some reservations about the relationship of his knees and his sometimes requirement to get to the top of a Lower Wisconsin River bluff.

In 1990, Cupp was chosen from a field of 43 applicants for the newly-created position.  According to Limmex, the candidate number was reduced to “four highly qualified candidates.” When Governor Tommy Thompson appointed Cupp to the position he told the 29-year-old the position was not to be viewed as a short-term adventure; he expected the applicant to stay at the task for at least three years.

Now, Cupp and the former governor both think forming the Riverway was a “moment in time” accomplishment that could not have been done earlier or now, considering the current political divides. At this point Cupp continues to be the first – and only – holder of the Executive Director position.

Cupp recalls that he was encouraged to apply for the position. At the time he was Senior Administrative Assistant to State Senator Richard Kreul of Fennimore.  Cupp says he was enjoying his job. “The Capitol was a wonderful place to work.” On the other hand, he grew up in Richland Center, attended school there, and had an interest in returning to this part of Wisconsin.

He had an idea about the challenges the new job would bring. Because of his position with Kreul he had helped write the original law that gave birth to the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.

The new position started as a “pencil and pad” operation with a desk and couple of chairs in a corner of Muscoda’s Kratochwill Memorial Building. There was a “slow learning curve” for everyone as the effort to protect the scenic beauty of the Lower Wisconsin River shoved off.

Office help came and went several times. That gradually changed and now Executive Assistant Marsha Nachtigal is nearing the 20-year mark as a knowledgeable part of the task at hand.  Office space grew when the move was made to the building next door that had served as the office of Dr. W. E. Klockow and Katy Bailey’s Floral Clinic.

Cupp notes that the opportunity is unique. For one thing the six-member Riverway Board is the smallest Wisconsin government agency. It’s the only one in the country assigned with the task of protecting the natural beauty of a specific area, such as the 92 miles of the Lower Wisconsin River and its adjoining lands.

Now, after three decades, perhaps many local people do not realize the Riverway has “not always been here.” However, in the beginning there were strong opinions by people favoring protecting and preserving the river and adjoining lands. Other folks were strongly against the law, fearing increased regulations would decrease the value of their property and result in over-regulation by the state.

There has been a continuing effort by the Riverway Board and Cupp to work with land and timber owners to not have a heavy hand, but provide people with the best solution possible within the provisions of the law.

Preserving the Riverway’s natural resources has many facets that have expanded Cupp’s interests. He notes the importance of the area’s Indian burial and effigy mounds. He once rented a house on land west of Blue River belonging to Bill Wanek.  A mound on that property turned into a learning experience, helped by the Muscoda Public Library providing many books about the subject. Cupp now knows the location of all or nearly all of the mounds in the Riverway.

Much of the return of the American bald eagles to this area has been during the past three decades. Several important eagle roosting sites are within the Riverway boundaries.

“Where else would I have had the opportunity to hold a baby eagle in my hands if it were not for the Riverway job and working with DNR scientists?” he asks.

Guiding voyageur canoe trips on the river during the summer has been an opportunity for folks to have a better understanding of the river and its history, spiced with Cupp’s  historical tales.

Most of Cupp’s responsibilities are not locked in his Wisconsin Avenue office. He says, “I have been to the top of almost every bluff in the Riverway.” On the day of the interview for this article, he noted that on a following day he would not be available – “I will be in the woods.”

A key part of Cupp’s task is to review the applications for timber and structure permits and make recommendations to the board regarding his on-site findings.

He described a recent venture that he and a technician with the DNR took into the Fish Trap area in the river bottoms between Muscoda and Blue River.

Beavers are causing problems, flooding roads as they build dams. Also, a water control structure installed many years ago has rusted away and should be replaced

Cupp recalls being a bit reluctant about the journey down the rustic road leading to the North Rice Lake. Rings of ice on trees made it obvious how high the water had been just days before. But his driver noted the truck “has a winch.” That, Cupp said, didn’t do much to soften his thoughts, “If we get stuck it will be a long walk out of here!” 

Such adventures are something he may not have thought about when he applied for the job all those years ago.