The Driftless Landscape – A National Treasure
The Driftless Region is an enchanted land that a mysterious force shielded for more than a million years from the powerful, massive continental glaciers of the last Ice Age. The landscape is filled with rugged, stunning scenery, bizarre microclimates–some desert-like with cactus and lizards and others arctic-like with Pleistocene species, and deep caves. The world’s oldest river meanders its way through the center, having carved beautiful cliffs lush with rare wildflowers and topped with pine relicts. Native America effigy mounds and petroglyphs remain from a thousand years ago.
Here’s a list of cool facts about what makes the Driftless Region so spectacular with its wealth of scenic, ecological, archaeological, geological and historical significance.
1. 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.
2. More recently, the significance of the area’s ecology was confirmed by the fact that a Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1989 to protect the federally endangered Iowa Pleistocene snail and threatened northern monkshood plant. Habitats that support these species are also home to other glacial-relict snail and plant species that require specific cool moist conditions to live. These species occur only on algific talus slopes or moist sandstone cliffs. In these fragile places, constant cold air exiting from a cliff or talus slope creates a unique microclimate, one that may be considerably different from areas only meters away. The ultimate goal is recovery and removal of both species from the Federal list of endangered and threatened species.
3. 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.
4. Some geologists believe that the Kickapoo River may be the oldest active river in the world.
5. The majority of ancient Native American effigy mounds, along with prehistoric cave art, is concentrated on the Mississippi River bluffs of the Driftless Area. As a result, the Effigy Mounds National Monument was created right across the Mississippi River from Crawford County.
6. Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet were the first Europeans to visit the upper Mississippi Valley, the area now proposed to be a national park, when they reached the Mississippi River by way of the Wisconsin River on June 17, 1673.
7. 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.
8. Trout Unlimited recognized the significance of the world-class trout streams of the region when it launched its TUDARE program (Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort) in 2004. Large sums of money are being spent restoring the ecology of the coldwater resource of the Driftless Area.
9. The limestone and karst geology of the Driftless Area resulted in numerous deep caves, including several known sites in Crawford County, such as the Kickapoo Caverns and Larson Cave.
10. A nearly complete mastodon skeleton was discovered in 1897 a few miles east of Crawford County near the town of Boaz.
11. The Driftless Area is the subject of both a book, The Becoming of the Driftless Rivers National Park, and a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, in recognition of the significance of the natural, historical and archaeological resources of the region.
12. Our nation’s first soil conservation project of the 1930s was launched in the Coon Creek Watershed around Coon Valley, Wis. (just a short distance north of Crawford County) 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.