Monday, May 5, 2014

La Farge Dam Project - An Environmental Movement Incubator

There was a time in the not too distant past when La Farge, that little town in western Wisconsin located on the Kickapoo River, was the epicenter of a national debate on environmental awareness.  For a long time, most of the residents of the community did not realize that they were “front and center” in the discussion of whether a federal flood control project was an enhancement or a degradation to the environment that it was altering.  By the time that the environmental dilemma had played out its course and the dam project on the Kickapoo was stopped, many of the residents of the greater La Farge community were disillusioned with the whole process.  Some reacted with bitterness to the loss of the lake project and struck back in whatever way they could with various forms of protest.  (There will be more on that protest movement later.)
Placing the federal La Farge dam & lake project at the center of the nation’s emerging environmental debate of the early 1970’s should probably be credited to Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey.  When he was elected governor of the state in November 1970, Lucey immediately began to look for ways to stop the federal flood control project at La Farge.  In doing so, Lucey was reacting to the concerns about the La Farge project that were raised by the state’s emerging environmental contingent, which was based on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  Citing poor water quality in the proposed lake, degradation of the natural environment of the Kickapoo Valley and the loss of rare and endangered plant species, environmentalists based in Madison petitioned Governor-elect Lucey in late 1970 to put a stop to the La Farge project.  Accomplishing that feat was easier said than done.
In looking back at that time in the early 1970’s when the debate on the La Farge dam & lake project often demanded headlines in most daily newspapers in Wisconsin, it is interesting and very important to remember that a federal flood control project like the one at La Farge had never been halted previous to this time.  Indeed, when one views the events in the dam project debate that play out during that time, it is still hard to surmise that the project would ever be stopped in the matter that it was.
Governor Lucey’s administrative team really had no idea how to accomplish the stoppage of a federal project like the one at La Farge – mainly because of the ominous reality that it had never been done before.  They tried to use as a model an earlier attempt to halt a federal dam project in Georgia that had been led by Governor Jimmy Carter as a possible way to attack the La Farge project.  (Ironically, later in this dam story, it would be President Jimmy Carter who would pound in one of the last nails in the coffin of the federal project at La Farge.)  But it is important to remember that the state’s attempt to stop that federal flood control project in Georgia had failed and the dam was built to completion and water backed up behind it.  So using the Georgia attempt as a model had its problems.
Eventually, Governor Lucey called upon the Corps of Engineers to conduct an “Intensive Review” of the La Farge project.  The review would focus on alternatives to the proposed dam and lake on the Kickapoo River.   
And so it was that the La Farge Dam and Lake Project became an incubator of sorts for an emerging national environmental movement.  The “environmentalists” who opposed the project at La Farge would use it as a “petri dish” to create and germinate methods and ways to oppose such federal projects and to protect natural resources.  The Corps of Engineers project was intended to dam up the Kickapoo River at a location just north of La Farge and create a lake that would cover the northern part of the river valley from there to Ontario.
The Kickapoo River project had originated with the dam to be used strictly as a flood control structure, backing up water behind it during times of flooding.  This strategy was developed by a federal study emanating from the great Kickapoo River flood of 1935.  The concept of a flood control plan for the Kickapoo that included a dam structure north of La Farge (originally to be built just north of Rockton) and protective levees for the villages of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills further down stream was developed by 1940.  However, any actual construction on the project was put on hold for over two decades.  Severe flooding on the river system in the 1950’s brought the federal project back to life.  Later in the mid-1960’s the project was expanded to include a significantly larger dam on the river that would create a 1,800-acre lake with potentially vast recreational and economic benefits for the region.  As part of the expansion, thirteen different recreational areas would be developed around the lake that would range from a drive-in overlook area near the dam structure that created the lake to a fully developed 300-site campground.
When Governor Lucey called for the “Intensive Review” of the project at La Farge to look at alternatives to the dam and lake, he was reviewing a project that had been scrutinized in one form or another for nearly a third of a century.  The Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies had explored options to deal with flooding problems on the Kickapoo River extensively over those years.  But the project had not been looked at through the new lens of reality being focused by the emerging national environmental movement.
The announcement from Madison about the “Intensive Review” of the dam project also radically changed the perspective from La Farge about the project.  That local perspective had already undergone significant changes in the decades before Patrick Lucey was elected governor.  The concept of a flood control dam on the Kickapoo River had been around in one form or another for such a long time, that people of the Valley, and especially those in and around La Farge, grew tired of the continually changing proposals from the federal government.  Eventually after years of “starts and stops” and federal inertia on the project, folks around La Farge thought that the dam project was really never going to happen.
When the Corps of Engineers and various Wisconsin state agencies began to work together on the Kickapoo River project in the 1960’s and came up with a new and vastly expanded vision for flood protection in the Valley, many local people were staggered by the progress.  There was not only a new plan to control flooding on the Kickapoo, but a way and a schedule to make the new plan happen.  Politicians at the local, county, state and federal level were finally aligned to make the proposal work.  All of a sudden, the flood control plan that was never going to happen became a plan that was actually going to become a reality.
So when Governor Lucey called the summit meeting to look at alternatives to the dam at La Farge and possibly stop the project, the reaction from the little village on the Kickapoo was fast and furious.  But more on that next time when we look at that local “drawing of the lines” on the dam project.  Were you for the dam project or against it?  Was there a middle ground to stand on?

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