Partners Protect Plum Creek Conservation Area for Community, Climate, and Wildlife

land on lower Kickapoo River protected for climate
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Photo by Samuel Li

LA CROSSE, WI – 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. 

“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,” said Carol Abrahamzon, executive director of MVC. “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 The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin (TNC), and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI-DNR). 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. Additional funding from TNC, the Paul E. Stry Foundation and the John C. Bock Foundation covered the remainder of the transactional and other costs.

TNC’s 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 TNC's 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. 

Craig Thompson of the WI-DNR, which has been working to find ways to conserve the land since the 1980s, said, “It's been a long time. 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.’ ”

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, Thompson said.

It may take a number of years before the property is healed and restored to its ecological health. That's the challenge that Mississippi Valley Conservancy has taken on, according to Abbie Church, MVC conservation director. She 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,” she 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. 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.”

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.’ “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,” said Thompson. 

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.

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,” said Carol Abrahazon.

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

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, 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.” He 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 as: natural beauty, open space, small town atmosphere, proximity to family and friends, and recreational opportunities.

Schlimme said 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."

Photo by Samuel Li. All rights reserved.