From Flood Control to Nature Reserve
Floods on the Kickapoo River
As farmers filled the Kickapoo River Valley, and towns like La Farge grew along its banks, the river’s periodic floods became more and more troublesome. Major floods occurred in 1907, 1912, 1917, 1935, 1951 and 1956. The floods caused millions of dollars of damage to the towns and farmsteads.
After the 1935 flood, some Kickapoo Valley residents, along with Congressman Gardner Withrow, traveled to Washington, D.C. They hoped to get a flood control project for the Kickapoo River. In 1936 Congress passed the first national flood control act. In it, Congress authorized the Corps to study the Kickapoo’s flooding. By 1950, the Corps had prepared three flood control plans for the river. In 1959, following the floods of 1951 and 1956, the Corps and the Wisconsin Conservation Department began discussing a dam and 800-acre reservoir for the Kickapoo River above La Farge.
A Flood Control Project
Responding to repeated flooding, growing damages, and increasing pressure from local interests, Congress authorized a flood control project for the Kickapoo River in the 1962 Flood Control Act. The Corps estimated that the reservoir project would cost $15 million and the work downstream at Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills another $1 million.
Excitement grew following the authorization. Hoping to boost the local economy, several citizen groups formed in the early 1960’s to support recreational use of the new reservoir. One organization, Citizens for the Kickapoo Area (CKA), acted as a liaison to the community and later helped sponsor the ground-breaking ceremonies. Valley residents also formed the Kickapoo Valley Association (KVA) to support the project and to advertise the area’s scenic and recreational values. Local citizens cleared and cleaned the river for better canoeing and put up signs marking the Kickapoo Trail and camping areas.
In 1967, following a more detailed study aimed at increasing the project’s recreational benefits, the Corps proposed a larger dam and reservoir. The new lake would be 1,780 acres, taking in the runoff from 263 square miles. The dam would lie about one mile above La Farge and extend for 12 miles upstream. The price rose to $24.5 million.
Wisconsin governors Gaylord Nelson (1959-63), John W. Reynolds (1963-65) and Warren P. Knowles (1965-71) avidly backed the new project. Senator William Proxmire and Nelson, when he became a senator, also supported the project. The senators, however, would soon turn against it.
Shortly after the Corps proposed its new design, the project became mired. America's attitude toward the cultural and biological environment was changing. In 1966 Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, requiring federal agencies to consider the impact of their projects on archeological and historic resources. Three years later, Congress authorized the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Now federal agencies had to evaluate the effects of their actions on the biological environment and research and write an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In August 1970, the Corps submitted its draft EIS, which was among the first published in the country.
In 1970, reflecting the growing concern for the environment, local interests organized to stop the project and asked for help from the John Muir Chapter of Wisconsin Sierra Club. The Sierra Club criticized the Corps' EIS. Soon the Citizens Natural Resources Association of Wisconsin, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other environmental groups joined the Sierra Club. Twice in the early 1970s, the Sierra Club led suits against the Corps--both would fail. But the efforts by local interests, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups began undermining the La Farge Lake Project's support.
Local project supporters fought back. Forming their own group--Citizens for Progress--they lashed out at their opponents. The project began dividing the valley's residents.
By the summer of 1971, the hopes of environmental interests faded. Governor Patrick J. Lucey (1971-77) announced his support for the project in May 1971. The Sierra Club answered with its second suit to stop the project, but it failed.
On August 13, 1971, the Corps held a groundbreaking ceremony and began acquiring the land needed for the project. The agency bought some 140 farms, totaling 8,569 acres. By 1975 the project was well on its way to completion. The Corps had spent $15 million getting the land, building part of the dam and relocating State Highway 131. But environmental interests had not given up.
Turning the Tide
Adding to the earlier environmental acts and environmental opposition to the project, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act on December 20, 1973. At least four endangered plant species lived in the project area.
At Governor Lucey's request, the Corps agreed to a more intensive environmental review. In 1974 the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, released a report on the project's environmental effects. The study declared that the dam would adversely affect the environment (especially the water quality), it was economically unsound, and it was a poor public policy.
Support for the project began to erode. In August 1974, Senator Nelson formally opposed the project. In November, on the basis of the institute's study, Governor Lucey joined the senator in opposing the project. When the Corps' own Council on Environmental Quality recommended a halt to construction, the project's future became clouded. In April 1975, the Corps agreed to stop. The agency had acquired 80 percent of the project lands; the dam was 39 percent complete, and the Corps had spent approximately $18 million.
During the next two decades, the Corps and others explored many alternatives for the La Farge Lake Project but none received enough support. Solidly against the project, Senator Nelson proposed that the land be made a national park, because of its unique geological features, but for 20 years, the project remained in limbo.
Out of Limbo
By the 1980's, the Corps sought closure to the project. In 1985 the Secretary of the Army recommended deauthorizing the project, but this was denied. In 1992 Governor Tommy Thompson set into action an economic plan to help residents determine the future of the La Farge project area. A diverse group of local citizens met and developed a proposal that would become the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. In 1995 the Wisconsin Legislature endorsed that proposal and passed a resolution calling for the federal government to return the land to the state for "educational, recreational and low-impact tourism."
These efforts, among others, led Congress to include a provision in the 1996 Water Resources Development Act to return the project area to the State of Wisconsin and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in trust for the Ho-Chunk Nation (up to 1,200 acres) and authorized $17 million to close out the federal responsibilities.