MVC buys its biggest property, along Kickapoo River and Plum Creek, for more than $3 million

Area will be restored to provide natural services such as flood protection, recreation and wildlife refuge
Plum Creek
The lower Kickapoo River meanders through the 1,600-acre Plum Creek Conservation Area, which the MVC is protecting migratory birds, wildlife habitats, farmland and water. Existing hunting and fishing easements remain in place. (MVC photo)

LA CROSSE — The Mississippi Valley Conservancy leveraged $3 million — its largest monetary gift ever — to buy 1,600 acres of rugged land along the lower Kickapoo River.

Just north of Wauzeka in Crawford County and the MVC’s biggest property, the site includes a stretch of Plum Creek. The MVC dubbed it the 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,” said Carol Abrahamzon, executive director of MVC.

The area will be restored to provide natural services such as flood protection, recreation opportunities and “an expanded area of connected lands that provide refuge for wildlife whose native habitats are threatened by climate change and development,” Abrahamzon said.

The MVC bought the land with the $3 million gift in collaboration The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Abrahamzon said.

Another partner, the Savanna Institute, will help plan the long-term restoration of the land to help MVC reach its conservation goals for the project. Additional funding from the TNC, the Paul E. Stry Foundation and the John C. Bock Foundation covered other costs.

The project was a high priority for acquisition, said Kurt Schlimme, the conservancy’s land strategy director, who cited its size, proximity to other protected lands and its prominence within The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient and Connected Lands analysis. That study identified a network of lands and migration corridors across the United States that best support plants and animals in a changing climate.

The Wisconsin DNR has been trying to find ways to conserve the land since the 1980s, said the DNR’s Craig Thompson.

“It’s been a long time,” Thompson said. “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 more than 5 and a half miles of frontage along the west bank of the Kickapoo and more than 2 miles along both banks of Plum Creek, a Class I trout stream. It is next to the DNR’s 1,927-acre Kickapoo Wildlife Area-Wauzeka Unit, which includes the 635-acre Kickapoo Wild Woods State Natural Area.

These protected areas 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 to restore the land’s ecological health, said MVC conservation director Abbie Church.
Many of the woodlands have been longtime grazing sites, and the farmland offers several opportunities to implement conservation practices, she said.

“Erosion and habitat degradation both need to be addressed,” Church said. “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.”

The MVC combined a gift of $50,000 from a couple and $200,000 from TNC to create an endowment to help manage the long-term care of the property. The MVC, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, is launching a match campaign to double that amount.

Peter Lewis of Madison represented the property owners during the negotiations. His father, Robert, 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.

Robert Lewis, who was an agriculture staff assistant for former Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson, had a lasting commitment not to carve up the property for hobby farms, Peter said.

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. … 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.”

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

Recent headlines on News 8 Now

La Crosse airport, MTU go mask optional after federal judge cancels national mandate

City of La Crosse unveils new plan to address homelessness and make Houska Park safe

Thompson opts out of potential bid to return as Wisconsin governor

La Crosse Parks Department encourages ‘No Mo May!’ to help pollinators such as bees