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Sandbars, swamps and cactus leads to international recognition for the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway
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Sandbars, swamps and cactus leads to international recognition for the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway

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MUSCODA — There are beaver, massive sturgeon and primitive paddlefish.

Eagles are common, along with kingfishers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and red-headed woodpeckers.

The flora includes river birch, swamp white oak, vibrant cardinal flower and bright orange jewelweed.

Sandbars are among the most noticeable. They help define the character of the 92-mile Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and provide camping and resting spots for paddlers but limit traffic from motorized watercraft.

Among the most striking aspects of the Riverway’s rich ecological diversity, however, can be found on a ridge about six miles west of Muscoda.

This is where the wetlands meet the desert, and you can feel and smell the differences. Lily pads, reeds, frogs and turtles thrive just yards from the arid environment of the Blue River Sand Barrens State Natural Area, home to prairie and five-lined skink, greenish covers of lichen, prickly pear cactus and annoying pebble-size sand burrs that cling to shoes and clothing.

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Just yards from the backwaters of the Wisconsin River, the ecosystem changes to desert at the Blue River Sand Barrens State Natural Area, where prickly pear cactus can be found.

“The whole ecosystem is so intact and diverse, you could spend your whole life studying it and just enjoying it,” said Mike Mossman, an ecologist and volunteer with Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. “The more you know about it, I think, the more beautiful it is. It’s got everything.”

And now the Riverway, which stretches from the Prairie du Sac dam to the bluffs of Wyalusing State Park before emptying into the Mississippi River, is getting global attention. The Riverway has been named a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and joins 2,402 other Ramsar sites around the world and 40 in the U.S., including five in Wisconsin. To celebrate the announcement, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association is scheduled to host two, live on-line presentations. A Sept. 11 program will focus on the Riverway's natural resources and ecology and a Sept. 25 event will offer up the history of the Riverway.

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Sandbars are signature features of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and provide camping opportunities from Prairie du Sac to the Mississippi River. The sandbars are in constant change and appear above and below the water, depending on the ever-changing water levels. Taking a break from a day on the water are, from left, Mark Cupp of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, ecologist Mike Mossman and Timm Zumm, both with the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, and Katie Beilfuss of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association.

The Ramsar Treaty, named after the city in Iran in which it was signed in 1971, recognizes the importance of wetlands and encourages wetland conservation and the “wise use” of wetlands, which can include rivers, marshes, coral reefs and other adjacent habitats. A Ramsar designation does not impose restrictions on landowners and is not a regulating entity but can bring economic benefits to surrounding areas due to increased tourism, fishing and recreation, according to its website.

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Mike Mossman, an ecologist with the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, points out an obedient plant at the Fish Trap Flowage near Muscoda. The Riverway is home to a diverse collection of flora and fauna.

‘Adds to the mystique’

Few could be more excited about the Riverway’s designation than Mark Cupp, who was hired more than 30 years ago as the first executive director of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, a position the Richland Center native still holds. Cupp administers the scenic protection regulations designed to protect the beauty and natural character of the Riverway. A student of history, he has memorized some of the writings of Father Jacques Marquette, who, along with fur trader Louis Joliet, paddled the Riverway in June 1673.

“It just adds to the mystique of the Lower Wisconsin River Valley. It just emphasizes how important the bottom lands, the flood plain forests, the backwater sloughs and those very pristine wetlands are,” Cupp said of the Ramsar designation, as he stood on a sandbar just downriver from Muscoda. “What Marquette and Joliet saw and countless generations of Native Americans before them, is what we can still see today.”

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board office in downtown Muscoda. The board was created in 1989 to help administer laws designed to protect the scenic beauty of the 92-mile stretch of river from Prairie du Sac to the Mississippi River.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, in 1989, signed a bill into law that identified the winding stretch of water as a Riverway and came after hundreds of hours of public meetings, debate at the state Capitol and ultimately legislation crafted by lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle. The law is intended to protect and preserve the scenic beauty and natural character of the river valley and “manages the resources of the area for the long-term benefit of the citizens of the state,” with the regulations designed to minimize the visual impact of an activity when viewed from the river during leaf-on conditions. For example, permits are required for the construction of new buildings, modification of existing structures, placement of mobile homes, construction of utility facilities, and timber harvests and for walkways or stairways that provide access to the river.

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Dan and Judy Torphy, of Pewaukee, take in the view as they look out toward the Wisconsin River during a visit to Muscoda last week. The river is a major draw for bird watchers, paddlers and anglers, and some stretches are just a 20-minute drive from Madison's Far West Side.

The Riverway Board was created to administer the regulations. The nine-member board includes residents from Crawford, Dane, Grant, Iowa, Richland and Sauk counties.

In addition to the 92 miles of free-flowing water unimpeded by dams, the Riverway also includes 95,893 acres of land, about 49,000 acres of which are part of the Ramsar designation. The vast majority of the land in the Ramsar area is owned by the state and managed by the Department of Natural Resources. The Riverway Ramsar site also includes 30 acres of land from one private land owner, about 150 acres owned by the Federal Bureau of Land Management and 600 acres that include a mile of shoreline owned by the Ho-Chunk Nation.

‘Relatively wild’

The Riverway joins other Ramsar wetland sites such as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the Amazon Estuary and its mangroves in Brazil, Western Port Bay in Australia, Niagara River Corridor in New York, Florida Everglades and the turtle beaches and coral reefs of Tongaland, South Africa.

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

A bald eagle perched above the Wisconsin River near Muscoda. The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway draws more than 140 species of birds.

“The Riverway is one of Wisconsin’s most significant conservation and recreational areas because of its relatively wild, continuous natural area with a wide variety of native plant-animal communities,” Ramsar wrote on its website. “The area’s natural resources attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year who come to hunt, fish, paddle, and relax, fueling the region’s economy. However, the ecological value of the site is under constant threat from invasive species of aquatic and terrestrial plants and invasive animals and pests.”

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Katie Beilfuss, outreach programs director for the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, looks over the flora at Fish Trap Flowage near Muscoda. Her organization, along with land owners and citizens, helped achieve international recognition for the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway between Prairie du Sac and the Mississippi River.

Katie Beilfuss, outreach programs director for the Madison-based Wisconsin Wetlands Association, took her wedding party on a day-long paddle of the Riverway more than 20 years ago and continues to paddle and camp on the river with her family. Her association submitted the Ramsar application on behalf of a nominating committee comprising representatives from the DNR, Bureau of Land Management, Ho-Chunk Nation and private landowners and citizens. The Wetlands Association has, since 2012, helped get three other Wisconsin wetlands on Ramsar and more are likely on the way, Beilfuss said.

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Timm Zumm, with the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, picks up litter at a sandbar on the Wisconsin River near Muscoda. The river can be heavily used by campers and day paddlers.

Among the Riverway’s attributes attractive to Ramsar are its connections of ecosystems from the bluffs and upland topography to the waterways and sloughs.

“Waterways and wetlands are dependent on the uplands that are around them. They can’t be healthy and functional without healthy uplands around them,” Beilfuss said. “The fact that we can have that matrix and connectivity here on the Riverway is super important. This designation is a really big deal.”

Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Mike Mossman, an ecologist with the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, shows off a map of the Riverway, now recognized as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Mossman, who spent 35 years with the DNR before retiring, spent much of his career studying the Riverway. It holds 98 species of fish, 140 bird species, 45 mussel species, 39 species of mammal and 38 species of reptiles and amphibians. Turtles are a summer staple, and include the rare wood and Blanding’s turtles. But their nesting habitat on dry ground is being threatened by higher than normal spring and summer water levels. Those water levels are also having a negative impact on flood plain forests, which can tolerate seasonal water but not year round.

“I’ve seen a lot of trees lately that I think some of them have just reached their limit as to how much summer flooding they can take. I think the turtle population is good but there’s concern it could be on a downward trend,” said Mossman, who spends as much time as he can camping and canoeing the river and exploring its diverse habitats, which also include prairies, oak savannas, bluffs and, of course, the river itself.

“It’s got it all. The Wisconsin River has been one of my loves.”

Photos: Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at


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