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La Farge Dam Project

by Al Anderson, UW Extension

The La Farge dam was proposed as early as the 1930s as a means to control flooding in the northern part of the Kickapoo River Valley. After many false starts, in 1962 Congress authorized a flood control dam at La Farge. With some modifications, it took its final form of a larger flood control dam with tourism and recreational potential in the mid-1960s. Acquisition of the property with compensation at market value started in 1969, and ultimately 140 farms were purchased most unwillingly from local property owners. From the beginning, the dam was controversial. Many local people were against it, but the promise of flood control, tourism and economic benefits for a fairly poor area was a powerful argument.  Artist Rendition of La Farge Lake and DamConstruction started in the early 1970s, but the project was plagued with problems. In 1970, the Federal Environmental Protection Act was passed, requiring that the project prepare an environmental impact statement. The La Farge dam was a very early example of a federal project preparing an environmental impact statement. Numerous environmental concerns were raised. There were a number of endangered species of plants and serious concerns were raised about the dam’s effect on water quality. The US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) made some provisions in the structure of the dam to address the water quality issues and the project was given the go-ahead for completion. By 1975, over half of the dam structure was completed and the state highway from La Farge to Rockton had been relocated. However, costs escalated due to delays caused by the environmental impact statement and modifications made to the plan. In 1975, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire asked for a re-evaluation of the cost-benefit ratio for the dam and the project collapsed due to that analysis. The project came to a halt in 1975.
From the Start

From the start, conflict between dam opponents and proponents, coupled with property owners who did not want to sell their property—but were forced to—set the stage for a controversy that would last for almost 20 years.

Proponents of the dam, many of whom had invested in properties to take advantage of potential tourism development, were furious and demanded the dam be finished. Many of the local farmers who had lost their farms wanted their farms returned. Some people who were opponents of the dam early on, were disgusted at the wasted government money and wished to see the project finished. Over $18 million had been spent by the time the dam project stopped. There was nearly $20 million left to spend. It didn’t make sense to local people that the government would build half the project and not finish it. As one local farmer said, "You don’t build a barn and then not put a roof on it!" Lawsuits followed to force the government to finish the project—all of these efforts failed.

In 1983, a final analysis was made of the project to see if it was possible to build a smaller dam that would act as a flood control structure, but not have the tourism benefits. It would involve a smaller impoundment of water, do less environmental damage and cost less money. This smaller project also failed the cost-benefit ratio test.

Local citizens were outraged. A great deal of economic harm had been done in the removal of almost 100 families from the local communities, a third of the local students in the La Farge school system were transferred out, and perhaps as much as a quarter of the economic trade area for the La Farge business district was also displaced. The promised good of flood control and increased tourism dollars being spent in the community, did not come. However, as a public sacrifice, property owners had given up their land and livelihood for the benefits of flood control and tourism. It was the worst possible scenario for the communities—economic loss with no economic gain.

The community was divided on what to do with the property. Ideas ranged from finishing the lake, developing the land as a golf course and condominium complex, giving the land back to the original property owners, to selling the land for recreational home development. All of these ideas divided the community. The only unifying force for the region was a general distrust and hatred for government, based on the experience of the dam project.

In addition, the community had stopped thinking about or looking toward its future and was focusing on the bitter past. It was in this environment that the Kickapoo Valley citizens’ participation project, beginning in early 1992, attempted to get the community to focus, not so much on the pain and disappointment of the past, but on some acceptable use of the property for the future.

Citizens' Participation Model

Early in the process, a citizens’ participation committee was developed, representing the entire Kickapoo River Valley. Each village and city was asked to appoint a representative to this Advisory Committee. In addition, representation was gained from local banks, county boards, local tourism organizations and state elected representatives in an attempt to get a cross section of people to think about the economic woes of the community and what some of the solutions might be.

The Advisory Committee to the Kickapoo Valley Project met six times. Participants were presented with data and information on multi-decade trends in the Valley to better their understanding of its economic make-up. For example, data showed a shift from agriculture to service and manufacturing. Other data illustrated the high number of elderly, low per capita incomes, and housing and poverty statistics.

When the Advisory Committee was asked to set priorities for what should happen in the Valley’s future, the number one issue was creating jobs; the second was trying to find a way to resolve the long-standing dispute of the La Farge dam. Tourism was also identified as one of the key components in creating jobs. The Advisory Committee felt that tourism was a significant economic sector—but not the only one—for the future of the Kickapoo River Valley.

After the Advisory Committee had set priorities for the Valley, the economic development agent tried to interest participants in forming a Valley-wide organization to address these issues. However, although the issues facing the Valley were ones that Advisory Committee members could all relate to, they all felt that the issues needed to be dealt with on a local basis, rather than a valley-wide basis. The only issues that seemed to lend themselves to consensus from a Valley-wide perspective were promoting and developing tourism and resolving the La Farge dam issue. The committee felt that tourism was a Valley-wide issue and would address one of the goals identified by the committee, that of creating new jobs. The La Farge dam issue and its tourism potential particularly affected the villages of La Farge and Ontario. Nonetheless, even people from the far ends of the Valley, who were not directly impacted by the dam, felt that this was an issue that should be tackled and solved.

In December if 1992, the planning process began to focus in on the La Farge dam property. Because of the controversial nature of the dam project, the local Advisory Committee was expanded by inviting the full town boards of the Town of Stark and the Town of Whitestown, the townships in which the La Farge dam property resided. In addition, the village boards and school boards of La Farge and Ontario were invited to participate in the Advisory Committee process. It was these communities who lost students from their school system and farmers who would normally shop in their communities to buy goods and services.

The expanded Advisory Committee had its first meeting in La Farge in December of 1992 and a series of options were presented. First, the normal process of disposition of an unfunded Army Corps of Engineers project was explained. Since no construction money had been spent on the project for nearly 10 years, federal law would require that the Army Corps of Engineers request direction from Congress whether to continue or deauthorize the project. Because enough studying had been done on the project to guarantee it would never be reauthorized, the deauthorization of the project was inevitable. Taking its normal course of action, the federal government would slowly solicit input from Congress that eventually would lead to the federal government disposing of the property. The federal government would offer the property to any other federal agency, such as the National Park Service, the military, Native American tribes, et cetera. If no other federal agency was interested in the property, it would be offered to the State of Wisconsin, and if the state was not interested, ultimately it would be put up for sale to private individuals.

Another important study shared with the Advisory Committee was a Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau study that showed the impact of keeping the property public or transferring it to private hands. That study analyzed the impact on state aid to local schools and local property tax initiatives. It challenged the long-standing argument that taking the property off the tax role had been detrimental to the local economy and school district. In reality, the loss of the property from the property tax role had decreased tax revenues, but increased school aid and the impact on the local school district was neutral. This information, coupled with the normal deauthorization process of the land taking many years, led to the Advisory Committee deciding that something needed to be done now. The committee came to a unanimous decision that special legislation should be initiated to deauthorize the project early and circumvent the long, tedious governmental process of offering the property to various federal agencies.

In its first meeting, the expanded group did not come to a conclusion of whether or not to leave the property public or private, but did feel strongly that the property should not be allowed to languish for years waiting for final disposition. The committee decided to meet again and work on ideas for use of the property in the future, including ownership, as well as seeking some mechanism to speed up the process. The land, in the view of the local people, had set idle too long in a way that was not an asset to the community. A more positive use of the land needed to occur.








View from dam of dam tower

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.

WRDA 1996*

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.

Current Management

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



The Kickapoo Reserve Management Board acknowledges that the state and federal lands that comprise the Reserve fall within the ancestral homelands of First Nations people including the Hooçak Nation. We recognize the sovereignty of the Hooçak and other First Nations and will work towards a shared future by continuing to create collaborative opportunities to protect and preserve these lands.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve | S3661 State Highway 131 | La Farge, Wisconsin 54639 
Phone: 608-625-2960 | FAX: 608-625-2962

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