The Upper Mississippi River Blufflands –
The Heart of America
“Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages--everything one could desire to amuse the children.” ~ Mark Twain, 1886 interview
Just as Mark Twain observed more than a century ago, each bend in the river reveals another striking juxtaposition of working and natural lands. The 24,000 square mile Driftless Area was bypassed by the last wave of continental glaciers, resulting in a steep and rugged landscape – often in sharp contrast to flatter land just miles away. The land’s diverse topography, soils, and diverse plant communities harbor many globally-imperiled natural communities with amazing contrast like hot-dry sites with prickly pear cactus and “goat” prairies to Ice Age holdovers like Pleistocene snails on algific talus slopes.
Here, prairie, oak savanna, wetlands and deciduous forests remain part of a mosaic of farms, suburban and urban areas. Here, the once free-flowing and meandering Mississippi River has been modified – but never completely tamed. Rather, as Congress declared in 1986, the Upper Mississippi River is both a nationally significant ecosystem and commercial navigation system.
This special place is designated as highest priority for the Wildlife Action Plans of the four states of the Upper Mississippi, though birds long-ago “designated” it as a major transcontinental migratory flyway. Strong local public-partnerships led by an alliance of area land trusts work with conservation-minded landowners and active communities to protect these natural resources for their own sake – and for their economic, health, aesthetic and other human benefits. These partners work cooperatively to achieve “a state of harmony between men and land” as sought by the great conservationist and Wisconsin native, Aldo Leopold.
The river floodplain along MVC's territory was declared the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924 – another gift to the future from the hard work of citizen conservationists along with public and private agencies. 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 recreation and tourism economy. Just recently the Upper Mississippi River was designated a RAMSAR wetlands of global significance.
We, as an American people have both been shaped by this river and its blufflands, and we have shaped it as well. There is an important story to be told about the interrelationship between this mighty river and people and this Midwestern landscape. This landscape is here for all of us to enjoy, on foot, on bicycles, by auto, train and boat. There is a story around every bend.
It is the story of people taking care of the places they love.