Reserve tucked in southwestern Wisconsin holds natural and indigenous treasures
Many Wisconsinites are familiar with the state’s habitat-rich areas, such as the Horicon Marsh and Kettle Moraine. They’re key to biodiversity, which sustains life all around us.
But fewer people may have heard of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. It’s about an hour southeast of La Crosse, and it contains trout streams and water coming down over rock ledges. It also has a deep Indigenous thread running through it.
Lynn Kronschnabel is at the wheel of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve’s blue work truck.
“We’re heading south, this is the southern end of the whole reserve, about a mile north of La Farge,” Kronschnabel says.
She had only been on the job as the Reserve’s executive director for four months, but Kronschnabel seemed in total command of this vehicle and every inch of this sprawling 8,600 acres.
“Right now we’re driving on the dam,” Kronschnabel says.
Yes, a dam ... In the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a massive dam project here, envisioning it as a way to control flooding.
Construction didn’t begin until the 1970s after Congress signed off and the Army Corps bought up more than 140 family farms.
Kronschnabel says the project died for a variety of reasons, but not before the Corps had already constructed most of the 1/3 of a mile wide dam and its massive control tower.
“Yeah, it’s amazing, this elevation and to imagine all this beauty and woods, everything being under water,” Kronschnabel says.
The woods and everything would be underwater — it’s hard to imagine.
Preserving and protecting the Reserve’s land and waters, Kronschnabel says, is the utmost priority.
“The other reason I wanted to bring you down here was to show you the Weister Creek project,” Kronschnabel says.
Weister Creek is among the streams, tributaries of the Kickapoo River that also meanders through the reserve, stewarded by Kronschhnabel and her team.
The creek got a quarter million dollar habitat makeover. “So, they reshaped the banks, giving them more gentle slopes. They took out a lot of the woody vegetation to help with flood mitigation. They created habitat for amphibians. They even did some stream-bank areas for nesting birds,” Kronschnabel says.
This project and others within the Reserve happen thanks to partnerships.
“Donations, big donations from Trout Unlimited, the DNR, the KVR (Kickapoo Valley Reserve), the Ho-Chunk, etc.,” Kronschnabel says.
That brings us to the Ho-Chunk Nation piece of the story. “Their biologist, the Ho-Chunk biologist, Randy Poelma, did a lot of surveys of water quality, including trout and aquatic invertebrates before and after this project,” Kronschnabel says.
Ho-Chunk ties to this land run deeper and longer than Weister Creek.
The Kickapoo Valley Reserve falls within ITS ancestral homeland and contains several hundred archeological sites — including shelters, burial mounds, and images etched into the rock. Tina Brown, a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation and in the 1990s, Brown was part of the team that painstakingly surveyed the most critical areas to protect.
“This hill that goes up to the left here. There’s different wave points we established to do our GPS, and we had to get high enough so that we could get signals. So we would hike up and sit up there,” Brown says.
You can hear Brown’s sense of awe and reverence for the land. In 1997 then Gov. Tommy Thompson and then Ho-Chunk Nation President Jacob LoneTree signed an agreement that signaled joint management of the Reserve, of which 1,200 acres were to be held in trust for the Ho-Chunk Nation.
The Reserve was officially dedicated in 2001. Tina Brown is now executive director of the Ho-Chunk Nations DNR and represents the Nation on the Reserve’s board. Inside the visitors center, where 18,000 visitors flow through every year, both Kronschnabel and Brown express a commitment to co-management.
Brown is set to coordinate the prairie restoration on both state and tribal land.
“This prairie diversity goal ties right into another activity that we do together. We do prescribe burning. That’s a practice that my ancestors did, and I have a very talented crew of prescribed burners,” Brown explains.
The crew shares its expertise and equipment to fortify ecosystems on both sides of the reserve. “Realistically and naturally, we need to co-manage what we’re doing on state land and ho-Chunk land works together,” Brown says. “We have high hopes for that."