What is the Driftless Area/Region?
The Driftless Area, also known as the Paleozoic Plateau, is a region in the Upper Midwest that escaped the crushing and scouring effects of glaciation during the last glacial period. Its size is variously calculated between 16,000 and 29,000 square miles. These differences seem to be the result of the strictness with which one defines the boundaries, as parts of the Driftless Area were overrun by one or more of the four major glaciations of the Pleistocene epoch, whereas a large portion of southwest Wisconsin and the northwestern tip of Illinois completely escaped glaciation. The term refers to the absence or lack of glacial deposits (“drift”).
What distinguishes the Driftless Area?
Unlike the surrounding, glaciated regions that were plowed by mile-thick glaciers that dumped deep layers of sand, gravel and rocks on the terrain, the Driftless Area landscape has had its rivers and streams left to carve deep valleys over the past 1.6 million years. The result is a scenic landscape of steep bluffs with limestone and sandstone cliffs and valleys that form dendritic (treelike) patterns. In 2012, the Huffington Post declared the Great River Road Scenic Byway in Wisconsin the prettiest drive in the nation, edging out a highway in Hawaii for the title.
Because of this undisturbed status and other factors, some geologists believe that the Kickapoo River may be the oldest active river in the world.
The area repeatedly has served as a refuge for animals and plants during the glacial assaults to surrounding areas. As a result of this refuge status, coupled in some instances with a bizarre geological formation known as an algific talus slope, arctic-type species continue to thrive in the Driftless Region but not in surrounding areas.
The land’s diverse topography harbors many globally-imperiled natural communities with amazing contrast, spanning the gamut of hot-dry sites with prickly pear cactus to Ice Age holdovers like Pleistocene snails and beautiful northern monkshood wildflowers sustained by air chilled and vented from subterranean ice caves and rock fissures.
Why is the Driftless Area special from a conservation perspective?
In addition to the high biodiversity and number of rare species found in the Driftless, the area is unique in its conservation role-model status. The Driftless is the Lambeau Field of conservation—an almost-mythical place with a storied history of leadership.
Our nation’s first soil conservation project of the 1930s was launched in the Coon Creek Watershed around Coon Valley, Wis. with the leadership of Aldo Leopold, the “father” of wildlife conservation. Phil Lewis, a retired UW Professor of Landscape Architecture, identified the Driftless as a region that should be preserved as a natural playground and retreat for surrounding, large urban areas as part of his Circle City concept developed decades ago.
The river floodplain that bisects the Driftless was declared the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924. This 240,000-acre refuge, which runs for 261 miles along the river valley, provides habitat for 40% of America’s waterfowl, more than 300 bird species and 260 species of fish. With more than 500 access points and harbors, the river is a recreational resource to more than 3 million people annually (more than Yellowstone), supporting a $6.6 billion annual recreational/tourism economy. Just a few years ago, the Upper Mississippi River was designated a RAMSAR wetlands of global significance.
Additional conservation focus comes from the Driftless Area Initiative as well as a coalition of nonprofit land trusts known as the Blufflands Alliance. Trout Unlimited recognized the significance of the world-class trout streams of the area when it launched its TUDARE program (Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort) in 2004.
The Driftless Rivers National Park would serve to protect the core area of the Driftless Region while also making it accessible for outdoor recreation and nature appreciation.
How old is the Driftless Area?
The sedimentary rocks of the Driftless Area are from the Paleozoic Era and up to 545 million years old, and even the most recent strata of bedrock are hundreds of millions of years old. Since the glaciers of the last Ice Age, which started between one and two million years ago and ended roughly 13,000 years ago, did not extend into the Driftless Area, the rivers of this landscape have been left to carve the rugged topography for many millions of years. As a result, some geologists believe that the Kickapoo River may be the oldest active river in the whole world.
When did Europeans first reach the Driftless Area?
Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, were the first Europeans to visit the region when they reached the Mississippi River by way of the Wisconsin River on June 17th, 1673.
What types of fossils have been found in the Driftless Area?
The sedimentary rocks of the region contain large numbers of fossilized sea creatures, including trilobites and cephalopods. In addition, a nearly complete mastodon skeleton was discovered in 1897 a few miles east of Crawford County, Wisconsin near the town of Boaz.
Have there been archaeological discoveries in the Driftless Area?
The Driftless Area is rich with unique archaeological discoveries. Massive earthen effigy mounds, burial mounds constructed in the shapes of animals, are concentrated on the high bluffs overlooking Driftless Area rivers, including the Mississippi and Wisconsin. Such effigy mounds, found predominantly in Wisconsin and Iowa, with a few specimens as far away as Ohio, are unique in all the world. Effigy mounds were constructed over a period of about 400 years until they suddenly and mysteriously stopped about 1050 AD.
Native Americans also left behind extensive ancient cave paintings and rock carvings, which have been documented by the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center and others. Even a stone carving of a human head was found in a cave along the Wisconsin River.