States, federal government vow to restore Driftless Area

Imposing bluffs, such as these, are common sights in the Driftless Area.
Photo courtesy of Illinois Natural History Survey

(AP) - The governors of four states, including Minnesota, and the U.S. agriculture secretary promised Wednesday to work together to restore the waters and land of an area of the Upper Midwest known for its trout fishing and beautiful scenery.

Four states
The Driftless Area covers parts of four states -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.
Map courtesy of Trout Unlimited

The effort by the governors of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns aims to conserve and restore a 24,000-square-mile area marked by limestone bluffs, caves, waterfalls, springs and streams.

The area is sometimes called the Driftless Area because it was bypassed by the last glacier some 12,000 years ago.

While considered a national treasure by environmentalists, the area's 3,600 miles of streams are marred by decreasing water quality and shrinking fish populations. Farming practices of the 1800s and early 1900s caused problems including massive erosion and flooding that continue to haunt the region today.

The Driftless Area
Patches of rough terrain in the unglaciated Driftless Area, primarily in southwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota, stand out from the smooth glaciated ground surrounding it. The river toward the left of the image is the Mississippi, and the river toward the right is the Wisconsin.
Image courtesy of National Atlas

"The Driftless Area will be one of the finest trout fisheries in the country with the type of restoration that we're talking about," said Chris Wood, vice president for conservation at Trout Unlimited, which works to protect trout and salmon fisheries and has spearheaded the project.

The area cuts through a broad swath of western Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, eastern Iowa and the northwestern corner of Illinois. The states and the federal government released a joint resolution Wednesday at a ceremony in La Crosse promising to work collaboratively to address the problems.

The resolution - signed by Govs. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Johanns - calls for using federal conservation programs to fund the restoration.

Supporters already have secured nearly $1 million in state, federal and private funding for the restoration and hope Wednesday's commitment will lead to more money, Wood said. The effort will take years.

Trout stream
Hundreds of miles of trout streams run through the Driftless Area, and one of the goals of the restoration project is to protect the health of those streams.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Wood said the restoration work would entail removing trees along the streams, peeling back soil encroaching in the streams and reseeding areas with native prairie grasses. He said his group is doing an inventory of the streams to prioritize the work.

"The actual restoration of these rivers and streams requires skilled operators of heavy machinery and provides family-supporting jobs," said Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton of Wisconsin. "Restoring the Driftless Area holds promise to be a huge jobs program for the region."

Mark Rey, the USDA's undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, noted the federal government has worked since the 1930s to improve farming practices in the area.

"Through Farm Bill conservation programs, we will continue to improve the health, diversity and productivity of these watersheds and the quality of lives for the people that live in them," he said in a statement.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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