LA FARGE — This is a place to escape without the crowds that have become common at state parks.
The bathrooms, visitor center and campsites at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve are closed as a precaution against the COVID-19 coronavirus, but its namesake river continues its unencumbered flow towards the Wauzeka Bottoms 36 miles to the south before dumping into the main channel of the Wisconsin River.
The wildflowers in the KVR were beginning to pop last week as bald eagles soared above, sandhill cranes grazed in openings and, on a pond just beyond a covered bridge, Canada geese courted and the chorus of spring peepers echoed.
There are stands of hemlock, white pine, maple and oak. Trails for biking, horseback riding, hiking and, in the winter, cross-country skiing zig-zag the 8,600-acre property just north of Organic Valley’s headquarters.
And much of it should be underwater.
A plan decades ago to build an earthen dam in an attempt to control flooding in this valley and beyond never came to pass. Ron Johnson made sure to preserve and protect the KVR’s natural beauty after the property was turned over to the state and the Ho-Chunk Nation from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. He also made it a point not to remove the reminders of the failed plan so that visitors could better understand the history of the property.
“It’s a special place,” Johnson said last week as we walked along a trail that in a previous life had been a state highway. “There was a lot of luck in this, also. We came through when the (political) parties were working together.”
Johnson, 73, the antithesis of the U.S. senator from Oshkosh with the same name, is retiring from his position as chairman of the Kickapoo Reserve Management Board. He has been the only chairman since the board’s inception and is part of the history of this Vernon County sanctuary along Highway 131 between La Farge and Ontario.
Had the plans for the dam been completed, a 3,000-acre lake would have covered the lowlands of the property and made the channel of the Kickapoo River only visible on the screen of an electronic fish locator. The dam was about two-thirds of the way completed when the project was halted in 1975 and remains in place along with a 110-foot-tall concrete intake tower that was built as an overflow control mechanism for when the lake would get too high.
There was talk early on of removing the tower, but it’s now the ultimate conversation piece and stands out just north of the partially completed dam just west of Wintergreen Bluff.
“He didn’t exactly understand the political route that things could go, but he knew what he wanted to get done,” Marcy West, the KVR’s executive director for the past 24 years, said of Johnson. “We didn’t always agree on everything but that’s all right. It got done.”
“I was more of an ideas man,” Johnson added. “I was really into letting people say what they want even though it wasn’t fun at times.”
The KVR’s history includes Native American settlements, a river prone to catastrophic flooding, the displacement of farms and an epic environmental battle.
The first proposals for a dam came in the 1930s following devastating floods. The Army Corps in 1938 recommended a dam on the Kickapoo River, but it wasn’t until 1961 that Congress, with the support of then-Gov. Gaylord Nelson — who would go on to become a U.S. senator and is considered the father of Earth Day — began a serious push for the dam. Studies followed and the initial plan called for a 400- to 800-acre reservoir. But in 1967, plans were revised for a 1,780-acre lake that would require the removal of 149 farms from the valley. Two years later, the Army Corps began purchasing 9,000 acres of land from farmers only to see the project halted in 1975 over environmental concerns, budget overruns and a UW-Madison study showing the lake would quickly silt in and the dam would not be a cure-all for flooding issues.
That led to talk of a smaller dam, but bipartisan political efforts ultimately led to the Army Corps returning the land to the state and Ho-Chunk Indian Nation in late 2000. The 11-member Kickapoo Reserve Management Board was formed in 1995 so it could be up and running and have a plan in place once the transfer was completed. The board includes representatives from local towns and villages, school boards, the Ho-Chunk Nation and the state.
Of the 8,600 acres that make up the reserve, federal legislation transferred 1,200 acres to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in trust for the Ho-Chunk Nation and the remaining 7,400 acres to the state of Wisconsin.
“Preserve and protect,” Johnson said of the management board’s mission. “We felt there were people that wanted to give the land back to (farmers and the Ho-Chunk), but our group figured that would never happen. So we figured if we could make some good recreational uses and preserve the land with the remembrance of why it’s here, that would be good.”
The $2.4 million visitor center was dedicated in 2004 and includes classrooms, offices for staff, a gift shop operated by the KVR Friends group and an exhibit area filled with arrowheads, stuffed otters, a log chewed by a beaver and 360 small paintings that are part of a fundraiser for the KVR, which has a $1 million budget and educates 5,000 students a year through a variety of programs.
‘Off the beaten path’
A flood gauge that marks the history of floods is one of the telling pieces in the exhibit. The 2018 flood is at the ceiling, when water from the Kickapoo rose to 19.4 feet, more than 4 feet higher than the 2008 floods. A campaign is also underway to raise $600,000 to update the exhibit space where more than 20,000 people a year pass through.
“The (KVR) gets a lot of people that are just amazed at the beauty of this part of the state,” West said. “It’s off the beaten path.”
The remoteness of the area is what drew Johnson to this spot, located about 17 miles east of Viroqua and a scenic 85-mile drive to the northwest from Madison.
Johnson grew up in Pennsylvania, came to Wisconsin to attend UW-Superior but then transferred to UW-La Crosse, where he met his wife at a freshman dance. He has spent his career as a gold- and silversmith and now is focused more on silver with projects ranging from jewelry to pictures made with layers of silver. Johnson and his wife moved to their property in 1970 when they began renting for $20 a month a dilapidated farmhouse with no indoor plumbing. Seven years later they bought the place, added indoor plumbing and now have 86 acres that overlook the west side of the KVR.
“I’m an old hippie,” Johnson said. “When we got here you could see all the way around here. It was farmed or pastured or logged so there were very few trees.”
Plans for a golf course and ATV trails were considered for the KVR but were rejected. Instead, efforts have focused on maintaining 900 acres for farmland, creating trails, primitive camping sites, providing suitable habitat for native species and the restoration of trout streams. One of those examples is Weister Creek, where over the last four years long stretches of the stream have been cleared of invasive vegetation, rock has been installed to provide shelter for trout and small waterfalls built to create oxygenated pools.
For Johnson, he takes pride in the efforts of the board over the last 25 years but is cautious about too much promotion for the property.
“I fell in love with it right away,” Johnson said. “One of my mantras is, let’s take care of people when they come here but let’s not tell people how neat it is.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.