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The unique 24,000 square-mile unglaciated Driftless Area region in the heart of the Upper Mississippi River basin is a natural resource treasure. The scenic landscape with its steep hills and rocky bluffs is home to one of the country’s most remarkable freshwater resources—over 600 coldwater limestone spring-fed creeks supporting a world-class trout fishery. Over 4,000 miles of mineral-rich spring creeks weave across the landscape. These streams support abundant populations of trout, which in turn, attract tens of thousands of anglers to the region each year. A study commissioned by TU found that recreational angling in the Driftless Area generates an astounding $1.1 billion dollar annual economic benefit to local economies in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.
Unfortunately, early European settlement and agricultural practices took a heavy toll on the Driftless Area. The steep slopes, tight valleys and highly erosive soils were ill-suited to the intensive agricultural practices of European settlers and resulted in devastating erosion. A thick layer of deposited sediment accumulated over time, up to 20 feet of eroded soil that blanketed the valley floors. As a result, the now entrenched streams are no longer able to spread out across their floodplains to dissipate energy, resulting in continued erosion, frequent flooding, and serious damage to rivers and infrastructure in local communities.
In recent decades, conservation practices have helped control erosion on the ridges and hillsides, but streams still bear the scars of degrading land uses. In an effort to recover this unique natural resource, TU launched the Driftless Area Restoration Effort (DARE) in 2006—a collaborative effort to restore watersheds, stream, and fish to benefit the environment and local communities of southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa, and northwest Illinois. The goals of TUDARE are to restore watersheds and improve water quality by reducing sediment and to protect and restore habitat for fish and other non-game species. We've created a manual for non-game habitat development with help from our partners, which provides plans for habitat for snakes, turtles, shorebirds, waterfowl and other species, and has become the standard text in the field.
TU has raised a substantial amount of money to fund restoration work in the Driftless Area and to increase capacity of partnerships to implement on-the-ground projects in the region. As a result, more miles of stream than ever before are being restored and made available to recreational anglers. Through the efforts of TU chapters and state agencies, more public fishing access easements have been added in the three largest states than were available before the project.
TUDARE is in the process of a five-year strategic planning effort to find ways to expand and improve its restoration efforts, help a wider range of partners get involved, and establish this unique region's identity as the area the glaciers missed—and where we can find miles and miles of first-class trout fishing opportunities along healthy streams in spectacular surroundings.
Strong partnerships have been built with federal agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), state departments of natural resources, and county conservation departments. In addition, many projects involve local schools, colleges, and community and conservation groups which have never had an opportunity to see watershed restoration in action. TUDARE has developed manuals for best management practices for non-game species, cooperated with prairie restoration and other wildlife groups.
TUDARE is founded on the great work and passion of TU volunteers. There are more than 15 chapters around the region that have worked with agency partners to restore sections of approximately 60 streams. We've raised over $10 million in state, federal and private contributions for stream restoration projects. Each year, the project restores approximately 12 to 18 miles of stream each year in the region.
We've organized six stream restoration project planning workshops and have trained 400 volunteers on restoration techniques. As a result, we have seen an increase in chapters leading major restoration projects throughout the Driftless Area.
We're also working closely with Minnesota Trout Unlimited on administering over $10 million on over 50 stream restoration projects in the state.
Farm Bill funding plays a major role in funding TU. In 2012, the TUDARE project manager collaborated with five other conservation organizations to develop a proposal that potentially could bring in an additional $30 million for stream restoration and upland conservation over the next five years. In 2013 the proposal Driftless Area Conservation Landscape Initiative was approved and almost $3 million was awarded to private landowners for conservation in the first round of funding.
Jeff Hastings, Project Managerjhastings@tu.org
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