“These things take time.” That’s what those of who started Mississippi Valley Conservancy a dozen-plus years ago often said as they learned the patience required to build an enduring institution for land preservation where none had existed before. Land protection is a slow, careful process and so were the steps to starting the organization.
Some of the founders had gathered on the deck of Dave and Gretchen Skoloda’s house on a sunny June day in 1995. Rose-breasted grosbeaks serenaded them as they brainstormed how to preserve some of the ecological and scenic features of the region they believed were important.
After the meeting, they invited The Nature Conservancy to look at a bluffland property as a possible project. The TNC official who came from Madison said after walking the property that it was certainly worth preserving, but it wasn’t in a TNC priority area. She suggested local folks start their own land trust.
A year went by before a group met at the La Crosse South Side Library. This group continued meeting and became the first board of directors of a new nonprofit land trust in 1997. The first officers were: Dave Skoloda, president; Craig Thompson, vice president; Maureen Kinney, secretary; and Pat Wilson, treasurer.
Philip Gelatt joined the board before the organization went public with an event on Grandad Bluff Oct. 13, 1997. He brought both substantial financial backing and vision to the young organization. As the board huddled in the Grandad Bluff shelter after the public announcement on a windy, cold day, Gelatt asked the group to identify a project that could make a significant, immediate impact beyond the ability of the young organization to tackle. Craig Thompson told him of a 340-acre farm near Holmen in the Conservation Reserve Program that was a breeding area for rare grassland birds. It would likely be developed for housing in the near future. Not long after that Gelatt said that he would acquire and preserve the farm by swapping land that he owned next to the freeway in Onalaska. It took time, but several years later, he did just that. Gelatt had been restoring The Northern Engraving Grasslands to prairie for several years with MVC’s help. MVC purchased it in 2007 using money from the State Stewardship Fund and a donation of a substantial part of the value by Philip Gelatt.
Early on, MVC established ties with the Blufflands Alliance and received startup grants from the Iowa Natural Heritage and Stry Foundations. MVC also had early support and advice from Gathering Waters, the state support group for land trusts. MVC’s paid membership had reached 200 by April 1998. In October 1998, the organization hired its first executive director, Cynthia Olmstead, and established an office in La Crosse.
MVC’s first project, the La Crosse River Conservancy, was announced in 1999 – a cooperative effort with Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center, Western Technical College, the cities of La Crosse and Onalaska, and a couple private landowners to preserve the wetlands along the La Crosse River behind the Valley View Mall area. MVC’s first land purchase came later in 1999 when MVC signed an option to purchase 77 acres of Sugar Creek Bluff near Ferryville. After that purchase was completed, extensive volunteer and staff labor restored the goat prairie on the bluff, a model for what would be accomplished on other sites acquired since then. (Sugar Creek Bluff State Natural Area has grown to 420 acres through multiple additional acquisitions.)
In 2009, MVC protected its largest individual tract—the 1,118-acre Kings Point Farm Tract adjacent to MVC’s Tunnelville Cliffs State Natural Area. This big parcel was donated outright by the Babson family.
In February 2012, MVC was awarded national land trust accreditation by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. As of that time, MVC was one of only four land trusts out of about 55 in Wisconsin, and one of 158 out of 1,700 land trusts nationally, to achieve the distinction.
Oh, and what about the property that the group discussed with the Nature Conservancy so long ago? The 240-acre bluff land with woods and goat prairies changed hands since then and is now owned by George Kerckhove, the MVC board president. He placed a conservation easement on it in 2008.
These things do take time.