In January of 1993, the committee met again and began the planning process. They decided that a smaller working group would be formed to come up with a proposal of what to do with the land and how to speed up the land ownership change. They set some goals for themselves: that a proposal be prepared by the early spring of 1993, and that the full Advisory Committee have the opportunity to review that plan and give comments on it. In addition, the group decided that the plan, whatever its final form would take, should be shared with state agencies and environmental groups, which were perceived to have been obstacles in the past.
After the full Advisory Committee and other local agencies and organizations had provided their input, the committee wished to modify the plan as necessary and then share it with local organizations, governments and citizens during the spring of 1993. These groups would include the local school boards, village boards, town boards, county boards, as well as local community organizations. Finally, public meetings would be held to share the information with the general public for feedback and ideas. With slight modifications, this was the basic plan that the committee developed.
The planning of the planning process was critical to ensure that the local Advisory Committee felt comfortable with the ideas and direction in which they were headed. It ensured many opportunities for local input into the process, as well as double-checking with regional and statewide entities to be sure there were no roadblocks. If all went well, the intent was to approach Governor Tommy Thompson to seek assistance in adopting the plan legislatively. Planning the planning process also assumed that people would be comfortable with the results and take ownership in the project. This was critical to the plan’s success and would pose a significant challenge given the past history of diverging opinions about disposition of the property.
The Advisory Committee asked volunteers to draft a proposal. This was a smaller group of people and was referred to as the Drafting Committee. They were to develop a proposal and bring it back to the full Advisory Committee for reaction and input. Starting in February of 1993, the group began to meet on a regular basis to think through ideas and options for the federal land.
At the February 1993 meeting, the issue of public versus private ownership was dealt with. The group voted to recommend that the land stay in public ownership. This was a key issue because it could help the group focus in on a narrower choice of options for uses of the property.
A small group of citizens, who had been meeting separately from the process, approached the Drafting Committee with a draft proposal. The Drafting Committee reviewed the proposal, liked the basic concepts, and over the next few months, met to refine the plan. In April of 1993, the document was brought to the full Advisory Committee. The proposal included recommendations to keep the land public and develop it for low impact ecotourism, complete Highway 131 and seek federal monies to accomplish these goals. In addition, the proposal suggested that federal legislation be drafted that would transfer the property to the State of Wisconsin, and that state legislation be drafted that would create a local management board to oversee the property. Finally, the group wanted the state to pay property tax on the land once it was in state ownership.
The full Advisory Committee endorsed the proposal wholeheartedly. What followed was an extraordinary occurrence—a region that, for decades, had plans drawn up and developed by outsiders at agency levels, suddenly had itself developed a plan for its future. The Advisory Committee members presented their ideas to state and federal agencies and to the state and federal governments.
In April and May of 1993, the proposal was circulated to the State Historical Society, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Wisconsin Environmental Decade, the Wisconsin chapters of The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers regional office in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was also brought to the attention of Congressional Representative Steve Gunderson and Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, as well as State Senator Brian Rude and State Assembly Representative DuWayne Johnsrud.
Meetings were held in May with the DNR and State Historical Society representatives. They approved the basic concepts as outlined by the local planning process.
In June and July of 1993, members of the Drafting Committee and the Advisory Committee took the proposals to local units of government and local organizations. This resulted in votes supporting the proposal by the village boards of Ontario and La Farge, the school boards of La Farge and Brookwood-Ontario, the town boards of Whitestown and Stark, and the county boards of Crawford, Vernon and Monroe counties, as well as numerous letters of support from other organizations, including the Vernon County Tourism Council.
Finally in August 1993, two public informational meetings were held in La Farge and Ontario and were attended by the general public. The proposal was presented by the Drafting Committee to the local citizenry and citizens were asked to give verbal comments as well as written feedback on the proposal. No negative comments were received on the written ballots that were returned. Based on this local citizen support of ideas for keeping the land public, creating a local management board and transferring the land to the state government, State Senator Brian Rude and Assembly Representative DuWayne Johnsrud began discussion of state legislation that would create the mechanism for complying with local wishes.
In September and October of 1993, the Drafting Committee continued their work by answering a number of questions presented by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau. The staff at the bureau had provided a list of key questions that needed to be answered before legislation could be drafted. The Drafting Committee met six times during this period to answer the questions. At the first September meeting, representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation, were invited to attend and comment. They were invited due to the Drafting Committee’s concerns about protecting the archeological sites on the property.
The state legislation was drafted in November of 1993, went to hearing in February of 1994 and passed in March of 1994. The very quick action by the state set up the impetus for federal legislation to be drafted by the Wisconsin Congressional delegation. Representatives Steve Gunderson and Tom Petri of Wisconsin drafted the House bill and Senators Feingold and Kohl introduced the Senate bill.
In October of 1994, federal legislation passed the House of Representatives, but was stalled in committee in the Senate and had to be reintroduced in January of 1995.
Ultimately, the legislation passed as a portion of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1996. In summary, the federal legislation: authorized the transfer of up to 1,200 acres to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to be held in trust for the Ho-Chunk Nation and the remaining 7,300 acres to be transferred to the State of Wisconsin; required the State of Wisconsin and Ho-Chunk Nation to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding by October 31, 1997 specifying which lands would go into trust and how the two entities would jointly manage the property, required the lands be preserved in a natural state, and only developed to enhance outdoor recreation and educational opportunities; require the Corps of Engineers to undertake completion of the state highway route 131 from Rockton to Ontario, site restoration of abandoned wells, farm sites and safety modifications to the water control structures. Seventeen million dollars was authorized but not appropriated to complete the deauthorization.
In addition to the $18 million dollars spent on construction of the incomplete dam, the Corps of Engineers spent $8.1 million from 1975 through 1989, and $370,000 from 1990 through 1996. Cost projections for the completion of the project features and road construction will surely exceed the estimated $17 million dollars. For federal fiscal years 1997, 1998 and 1999, dollars were not appropriated in the President’s budget. The 1997 and 1998 appropriations were secured through Wisconsin’s Senators and Representatives as budget amendments. Fighting for funds to bring closure to the project are expected to continue in upcoming Congressional budget debates.
After a year of negotiations, the Ho-Chunk Nation and State of Wisconsin signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on October 30, 1997 - one day before the federally imposed deadline. The MOU met all of the statutory provisions and jointly requested the Corps of Engineers to transfer the property no later than January of 1999.
The Kickapoo Reserve Management Board (KRMB) began meeting in 1995 to discuss all issues related to the property and pending ownership transfer. The State sanctioned board meets monthly in the villages of Ontario and La Farge. The Corps of Engineers consults with the Board on issues related to trails, agriculture leases, enforcement and recreation in addition to the project features outlined in WRDA 1996.
In June of 1997, the KRMB opened an office in La Farge staffed by an Executive Director and Executive Assistant. In May of 1998, the KRMB entered into an interim lease with the Corps of Engineers to assume day to day management responsibility of the property. During the same period, State legislation was signed into law adding two representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation to the KRMB to further insure joint management. The eleven member board retains a local majority and now includes: three at large members appointed by the Governor; two representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation, one of which must be a resident of the Kickapoo Valley; two representatives of the Kickapoo watershed; and four members nominated from the communities and school boards immediately adjacent to the Reserve lands. On December 28, 2000 the deed was recorded at the Vernon County Courthouse, officially transferring 7,369 acres to state ownership.
Although progress is being made, difficult decisions continue to surface. Some residents have not gotten over the tremendous loss they witnessed within their community. The future of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve will surely need to include a memorial to those who sacrificed so much. Perhaps the beauty of the property itself and the guarantee it will be preserved for future generations will be the most important tribute to their sacrifice.
* Segments added by Marcy West, Executive Director to the Kickapoo Reserve Management Board