New Amsterdam Grasslands: A protected home for grassland birds

New Amsterdam Grasslands
Conservancy Stories
Mississippi Valley Conservancy

It was no secret to several species of increasingly rare birds that a rolling grassland near the Mississippi River flyway was a good place to raise a family. Real estate developers were thinking the same thing back in the late 1990s as development advanced on the birds' nesting area near Holmen, one of the state's fastest growing communities.  

Grasslands and remnants of native prairie were becoming scarce in Wisconsin when Craig Thompson discovered the vast grassland next to Highway 35 north of Holmen. Thompson, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologist and bird expert, brought the situation to the attention of Mississippi Valley Conservancy’s board. He identified it as one of the last refuges and breeding sites for grassland birds in the region – including bobolinks, meadowlarks and rare Henslow sparrows and Bell's vireos. 

The race for the land was on. A developer had plans to build homes on the property. But Philip Gelatt, a concerned board member, stepped in after the board assured him of the conservation value of the land. He had his business at the time, Northern Engraving, trade land he owned near the junction of I-90 and Hwy 53, and he was able to trump the developer’s offer with a land swap. 

The deal went through and the property became the Northern Engraving Grasslands. But that’s not the end of the story. Gelatt contributed additional funds to support restoration of the 310 acres to prairie while the young conservancy turned to the State of Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program for funding to help permanently protect the land. 

With one of its largest-ever land protection grants, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program granted $964,500 to Mississippi Valley Conservancy in 2007 to purchase the land and protect it in perpetuity. Gelatt donated land value to match the grant. And the grassland habitat became the New Amsterdam Grasslands. 

The land has been gradually returned to prairie under a long-term management plan, including planting and prescribed fire, that respects the needs of the rare species, some preferring one type of vegetation over another – and nearby residents and visitors get to enjoy the land for recreation (except for 275 acres with restricted access during the bird nesting season of April-July). 

The story of New Amsterdam Grasslands is recounted each year to the students of UW-La Crosse’s Environmental Ethics classes when they visit the property. It’s a story, like many others, that would not have been possible without the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program – a major source of conservation funding that will soon expire if not renewed in Wisconsin’s 2019 budget.

Please speak out

Renewed funding of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is now being considered by Wisconsin's Joint Finance Committee. Please share this story and let your elected officials know that their support is urgently needed. We invite you to use the handy letter-writing tools on our website for this purpose: