Protecting the Driftless Area since 1997

Dedicated volunteers shared a vision

In 1995, a group of concerned citizens gathered to discuss the need for land conservation in the Driftless Area. They were drawn together by a common vision: to preserve the precious and fragile areas of the region and retain the character of the land. 

After that meeting, Gretchen Benjamin and Craig Thompson, both Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employees at the time, arranged a meeting in August with representatives from The Nature Conservancy. The representatives said they admired and supported the idea but didnt have the resources to help and encouraged the group to start its own land trust.

About a dozen people with varied backgrounds, occupations and skills continued to meet and garnered support from Gathering Waters, the Bluffland Alliance and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Philip Gelatt joined the board before the organization went public with an event on Grandad Bluff Oct. 13, 1996. 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 (CRP) that was a breeding area for rare grassland birds. It would likely be developed for housing in the near future. Now known as New Amsterdam Grasslands, the property was purchased by the Conservancy in 2007 with funds from Wisconsin's Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and a donation of a substantial part of the value by Philip Gelatt.

Early on, the Conservancy established ties with the Blufflands Alliance and received startup grants from the Iowa Natural Heritage, McKnight, and Stry Foundations. It also had early support and advice from Gathering Waters, the state support group for land trusts. Paid membership reached 200 by April of 1998. In October 1998, the organization hired its first executive director and established an office in La Crosse.

The Conservancy'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 of private landowners to preserve the wetlands along the La Crosse River behind the Valley View Mall area.

The Conservancy'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, the Conservancy protected the 1,118-acre Kings Point Farm Tract adjacent to the Conservancy's Tunnelville Cliffs State Natural Area. This big parcel was donated outright by the Babson family.

In the years since, thousands more acres have been protected by the Conservancy each year. Of those, roughly 75% are private lands with conservation easements and 25% are permanently protected with public access.

Most recent and largest of the Conservancy's land acquisitions is the Plum Creek Conservation Area in Crawford County. The 1,611 acre property was acquired in early 2022 with a major gift from an anonymous donor and support from the Nature Conservancy and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

Now, in 2023, the Conservancy protects nearly 25,000 acres in its nine-county service area, thanks to member support. The Conservancy's Climate Action Plan includes criteria by which the potential for climate change mitigation serves as a factor in selecting which properties to protect for biodiversity and the ecological services provided by the land.

Most of the founders of this organization continue to be active, some as board members and some as volunteers and donors.

We invite you to get involved.