Historical Prologue of Our Region – Southwest Wisconsin
Before Euro-American settlement the Landscape was dramatically affected by Native American
culture and their activities. Native Americans occupied western Wisconsin since the last glacial
period, utilizing the abundant food resources of the area, cultivating crops on the fertile floodplains,
and building settlements on higher landforms. Fires were set by Native Americans to aid in hunting
and to provide habitat for the game they desired and plants they used. These fires prevented forests
from expanding and kept the landscape in prairie, oak savanna, and open oak woodland. A map of
southwestern Wisconsin published by Chandler in 1829 states that “not more than a tenth is
covered by timber in detached groves, the remainder being prairies” (Schorger 1954). When
European settlers arrived in the early to mid-1800s, fires were stopped and forests quickly expanded.
By 1854, Daniels (1854) stated only one third of southwestern Wisconsin was prairie. He attributed
this rapid change from prairie to timber to the cessation of fires and rapid growth of young trees on
the open prairie.
Land Use Impacts
Historical impacts – (excerpted and paraphrased from the: “State of the Bad Axe-La Crosse Basin
Report” 2002). There have been dramatic changes in the land use and land cover in this Landscape.
Settlers plowed the prairies on the ridge tops and valleys for farmland, cut trees on the steep slopes
for building homes and barns, and grazed the slopes with cows. The Landscape went from a
primarily open structure of prairies and oak savanna at the time of Euro-American settlement to the
current patchwork of agricultural fields on the ridges and valleys and second growth forests on the
steeper slopes and other places that could not be tilled. Less than 0.1% of the prairies and oak
savannas remain today.
During and after settlement most of the area was farmed resulting in large-scale soil erosion and
flash flood events. Crop fields were mostly rectangular on this highly dissected landscape, and
plowing was often done up and down slopes. Steep wooded slopes that couldn’t be farmed were
grazed by cows compacting the soil and removing the under story plants that prevented runoff.
Millions of tons of topsoil moved from hilltops and hillsides to valley floors. An average of 12 to 15
feet of topsoil was deposited in the valley floors in the Bad Axe-La Crosse Basin, burying roads and
bridges. Deep gullies were common where water washed away the soil. By the 1930s, after nearly
eighty years of cultivation and grazing, virtually every rainstorm resulted in flash floods. By this time,
farming in the Bad Axe - La Crosse River Basin developed into a frustrating venture with every new
rainstorm washing away valuable crops, pasture and soil. The once crystal clear streams which held
brook trout were now shallow, wide, warm and full of silt. The tons of sediment that reached the
valley floor buried many springs and seeps, causing many perennially flowing streams to become
intermittent, flowing only after rainstorms. Streams became braided meanders with their channel lost
to the massive amounts of sediment now in the valley. In-stream fish habitat was lost, and the cold
water brook trout were replaced by warmwater species such as suckers, carp, chubs and other
In 1934, the Federal Soil Erosion Service launched the Coon Valley Erosion Project in the Coon
Creek Watershed. Men from the newly founded Civilian Conservation Corp (C.C.C.) planted trees,
fenced livestock off of steep slopes, reconfigured fields to follow the hills’ contours, planted grassed
waterways, and stabilized gullies. Efforts to restore streams were also attempted by adding wood
and rock deflectors to force floodwaters away from streambanks toward the stream's center, and
planting vegetation on streambanks. These land management practices were successfully adopted
and most are still in use today.
Even after the various conservation measures, the Landscape was degraded, and flash floods
continued to damage land and property in the basin. From the 1940s to the 1960s, farms on marginal
land in the basin did not succeed, and the land reverted back to more natural conditions. In the
1970s, many farming operations went deeply into debt, overvalued land prices fell, and interest rates
remained high. In the early to mid 1980s, many producers were forced to financially dissolve their
farms. Large amounts of farmland were purchased by hobby farmers who were not interested in
raising livestock or growing crops as their source of income, and these farms reverted to natural
The Food Security Act of 1985 required compliance with farm specific conservation plans in order to
receive any kind of government subsidy. From 1983 to 1988, land under conservation tillage in the
area increased over 700%. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was an incentive to remove
highly erodible land from crop rotation and replace it with perennial vegetative cover.
Conditions have improved with these conservation actions. Infiltration of rain and snowmelt into the
soil has reduced runoff. Conservation practices such as contour farming have reduced soil erosion.
CRP has taken highly erodible land out of crop production. Streams are recovering, many once
again becoming narrow, deep, and cold. The Landscape still has the highest percentage of southern
forest types in the state and has many rare and significant features. However, the landscape is
dramatically altered from its original condition; for example, millions of tons of soil were permanently
relocated from hilltops and hillsides to other areas such as the valley floor
Current impact - Current disturbances in the Landscape are largely due to human activities, primarily
agriculture, timber production and harvest, and cessation of fire. Human disturbance also includes
the long-term conversion of land to houses, roads, agriculture, impoundments, and utility corridors.
In Freeman Township, the frequent use of “prescribed” fire continued long after it stopped in many
other areas of western Wisconsin. Farmers understood its value for keeping brush out of pastures,
stimulating and increasing the nutritional value of pasture plants, and in some cases “just to get rid
of the rattlesnakes”. Evidence of this is commonly found in the form of fire scars on the uphill side
of trees in many areas of the township. Fred Hogan of Lansing IA remembers “the river bluffs on the
Wisconsin side of the river burning every year” (Fred Hogan personal communication) as a young
man. Jake Sandry of DeSoto stated “the river bluffs always got burned, sometimes being lit by the
Native Americans that lived just south of town” (Jake Sandry-personal communication). The fires set
by locals up into the 1960’s helped maintain some of the rarest habitat in the United States; prairie
and oak savanna, and helped to give our township the unique opportunity to restore and maintain
these types that is nearly unmatched.