Every once in a while, something happens in this little burg on the Kickapoo that makes a person proud. Yes, we Kickapoogians have our faults, which can often cause us to be cast in a less than pleasant light. Then, lo and behold, the local folks will band together for a particular cause, carry it through with appropriate gusto and élan to such a degree, that it makes everyone puff up with pride. So, let’s take a look at something that has transpired in the last few months regarding the lands of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.
Yup, We have trouble right here in River City and it starts with a capital “C” as in a controversy once again concerning the “government land”. That damn “dam land” has risen up another time to capture the headlines of the local press. Most of us denizens of the upper Kickapoo Valley had thought that the issues associated with the land taken by the federal government for the La Farge Dam & Lake Project were put to rest some fifteen years ago when the land was legally transferred over by the Feds to state control. Since then, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, which was created from that “government land” (This was a local name bestowed on the dam project lands during that time starting in the 1970’s when the dam project was in legislative and bureaucratic limbo for nearly thirty years as the powers to be tried to figure out what to do with the nearly 9,000 acres. That name for the property is not heard nearly as often in these parts as it used to be.), has grown into one of the most popular public lands in southern Wisconsin. Tens of thousands of people use the Reserve every year to hunt, hike, bike, fish, camp, canoe, ski, bird watch, and cool out. Thousands of school children from all over western Wisconsin come to the Reserve each year to hike its trails, learn about the wonders of nature and become aware of the history of the land.
So what could possibly interrupt this idyllic transformation for these Kickapoo Valley lands from a bad situation into a good one?
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced his proposed state budget to a joint session of the state legislature on Tuesday evening, February 3rd. It was a snowy evening in Madison and there was also a Badger men’s basketball game at the Kohl Center that same evening that I was attending. The combination of the snowy and slippery streets, the crowd coming in for the UW basketball game and the Governor’s budget address made for a traveling gridlock for people driving into the Downtown Madison area. By tipoff time for the Badger game, more than half of the seats were still empty – an extremely rare occurrence.
Eventually the snow stopped and the streets were plowed and salted. Bo Ryan’s Badgers played superbly in dispatching an over matched Indiana team by a score of 92-78. By halftime of the game, the Kohl Center was packed as usual. Everything returned to normal except for that pesky budget presented that evening by Governor Walker.
By the time that we had returned home from Madison that evening, my e-mail started to fill with messages about a particular provision in the Governor’s budget. That policy provision (always a bad deal when included in a budget bill, but Walker isn’t the first Governor to do it) called for a change in the administration of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, moving it from the Department of Tourism over to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The Governor’s proposal for the Reserve caught everyone by surprise. Neither the staff nor the management board of the Reserve had been consulted. The Ho-Chunk Nation, which jointly manages part of the Reserve, knew nothing about the proposed change. Even the DNR, the state agency designated to administer the Reserve in the Governor’s proposal, was unaware of the proposed change.
What was apparent with the proposal was that it had been included in the budget by Governor Walker without proper communication to those most directly affected by the change. Soon a strategy was developed to voice opposition to the proposal. To provide some historical perspective to the story of the lands involved in the Governor’s proposal, I wrote a letter-to-the- editor and sent it off to a few area newspapers. I titled the letter, “Walker’s Proposal a Slap In The Face to the People of the Kickapoo Valley”.
In the letter, I wrote,
“The recent proposal in Governor Scott Walker’s budget to transfer administrative control of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve to the state DNR caught nearly everyone by surprise. The move by the governor was obviously done with little thought to the complex and troubled history of these lands.
In the early 1990’s, a move was made to return the nearly 8,600 acres of land purchased by the federal government for the failed La Farge Dam Project to the State of Wisconsin. Governor Tommy Thompson, State Senator Brian Rude and Assemblyman DuWayne Johnsrud (all Republicans) worked to involve the people of the Kickapoo Valley in that process. A committee of local citizens met with Al Anderson from UW-Extension to see what could be done with the huge section of land located north of La Farge. Meetings were held throughout the Kickapoo Valley to hear from the people. Overwhelmingly, the people demanded that the property NOT be controlled by the DNR.
Eventually the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was created by state statute and the property was administered by the Department of Tourism. It has since developed into one of the most popular public lands in southern Wisconsin. It draws tens of thousands of horseback riders, hunters, hikers, campers, winter sports enthusiasts and others to the northern Kickapoo Valley every year. Thousands of students and adults participate in the Reserve’s education programs and special events each year. This excellent public use of the lands has developed as the people of the Kickapoo Valley had hoped.
Yet, Governor Walker now wants to turn the administration of the Reserve lands over to the DNR – an agency that he also guts of nearly 70 job positions in his same budget message. Due to the governor’s enforced under staffing the DNR cannot manage the lands that it now oversees. How will the DNR administer the proposed new lands of the Reserve – one of the largest areas of public land in southern Wisconsin? Chaos and mismanagement can be foreseen. More importantly, why did the governor go against the wishes of the citizens of the Kickapoo Valley with this “Slap in the Face” move? Perhaps he was too busy being out of state courting his billionaire campaign backers for his presidential bid? He obviously wasn’t studying the history of the Kickapoo Valley.
This shortsighted blunder by the governor can be stopped by the legislature. If you would like to see that happen, contact Assemblyman Lee Nerison and State Senator Jennifer Shilling to get them behind the opposition to Governor Walker’s insult to the Kickapoo Valley. Act now before it is too late!
My rhetoric was a little fiery and over-the-top perhaps, but I intended it to rally some outrage over what the governor was proposing. It may have worked.
Within a week the letter had been printed in newspapers from Baraboo to LaCrosse. Soon it was posted on various Face Book pages and the message spread throughout social media. I was hearing from both old friends and people that I had never met about how to help save the Reserve. Phone calls and e-mails poured in.
On Thursday evening, February 19th, the Management board of the Reserve met with Rep. Lee Nerison and Sen. Jennifer Shilling to see what could be done. It was standing room only that night at the Reserve’s Visitor Center as 150 people crowded in to see what they could do to oppose the governor’s proposal. Both of the elected officials in attendance pledged their opposition to Governor Walker’s proposal and instructed everyone to contact the members of the Legislative Joint Committee on Finance and tell them to pull the proposal from the budget.
The rallying cry was heard and the people responded. By late March, the members of the Joint Finance Committee were starting to indicate that the proposal would be pulled from the budget. Senator Shilling’s office staff said that they had heard from more people about the Kickapoo Valley Reserve proposal than any other issue ever. At a Joint Finance Committee hearing held in Reedsburg on March 26, Co-Chairman Rep. John Nygren spoke to a group attending from the Kickapoo Valley and hinted that the governor’s proposal about the Reserve was coming out of the budget.
On Wednesday, April 22nd, the Joint Finance Committee, by a vote of 16-0, removed Governor Walker’s proposal to change the administration of the Reserve to the DNR from the budget. Once again, the people had remembered the special lands of the northern Kickapoo Valley.
They had spoken and they had been heard - So Far, So Good.