Agreement with conservancy fulfills landowner's vision.
LA CROSSE, WI – When a pioneering physician purchased part of an island in the Mississippi River at La Crosse in the early 1900s, the land was wild floodplain forest subject to the powerful whims of the river that Mark Twain had been writing about not long before. More than a hundred years later, it is still mostly wild . . . and will be forever, according to a newly completed easement on the land with the Mississippi Valley Conservancy.
The land is the north end of Barron Island, which it shares with Pettibone Park, 65 acres purchased by Adolph Gundersen from A. W. Pettibone and where, in 1918, Gundersen built a cottage in a style that would remind his wife Helga of their Norway homeland. Gundersen came to La Crosse in 1891 to work with Lutheran Hospital and was instrumental in starting the Gundersen Clinic.
Now, retired physician Sigurd Gundersen III and his wife, Jean Ann, own the property and made the cottage their full-time home in 2017. Prior use had been as a summer retreat. In an interview, they said it is time to give the land the permanent protection it needs to remain undeveloped. They looked to the conservancy to advise them on the best way to do it, Sigurd said.
The land remains private, but the easement prohibits future activities that would disturb the habitat.
Sigurd and Jean Ann were among the early members of the Conservancy and Sigurd was a board member from 1999 to 2006. They cited the land’s importance for wildlife including beaver, bats, fox, warblers and other birds that use the forest as a feeding stop on the migrations. And sandhill cranes visit, including one that danced for its reflection in the glass of a storm door of the house.
The property includes wetlands, ephemeral ponds, about one and a half miles of shoreline on the Mississippi, and artesian springs. The forest includes cottonwood, silver maple, swamp white oak, green ash, hackberry, and willow. According to Abbie Church, conservation director for the Conservancy, “This site offers an incredible opportunity to expand upon the largest protected corridor in Mississippi Valley Conservancy’s nine county service area. That corridor includes the surrounding US Fish and Wildlife Service Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which is a Wetland of International Importance and a Globally Important Bird Area. Sixty percent of all North American birds use the Mississippi River corridor as their migratory flyway, and the abundance of diversity is evident when visiting this property. The Mississippi River itself is such a distinct resource, it is an honor for us to be able to protect this private property. Sig and Jean Ann’s actions today will provide benefits for wildlife for decades to come.”
Flooding remains a threat.
Sigurd and Jean Ann stocked up on food and other supplies before the 2023 flood – planning to be isolated for about 12 days based on predictions of flood levels in the Army Corps of Engineers website. The floodwater came close to the house as it had in previous flood events, but so far the river hasn’t damaged the house, although the long, elevated driveway required repair.
“We got in our kayaks and paddled around the house,” Jean Ann said with a smile. She noted the heavy snow in the north and warm temperatures in April and May brought a rapid melt and so much water that the river couldn’t handle it.
So the river can still be wild as it was in Twain’s day.
With the more intense storms that have been part of the changing climate, the property continues to evolve and change. Such changes have happened before. The northern tip of the island, notable for trees on a knoll, was once called Thompson Island, named for the man who had built a home there when it was separated from the Gundersen tract by the flow of the main channel. When the lock and dam construction redirected the flow of the main channel, the space between the two islands filled in. Sigurd said Thompson Island was purchased sometime in the 1940s and, in the 1960s, the abandoned house was demolished.
In many ways, then, the rewilding and conservation of the land, which is part of the scenic views from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the river, is a work in progress. With all the change happening, it’s difficult to know, Sigurd added.
About Mississippi Valley Conservancy
Founded in 1997, Mississippi Valley Conservancy is a nationally accredited regional land trust that protects more than 25,602 acres of scenic lands in southwestern Wisconsin by working with landowners, businesses and local communities on voluntary conservation projects. The focus of the Conservancy is to conserve the forests, prairies, wetlands, streams and farms that support native wildlife and enrich communities for the current and future health and well-being of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. For more information about how to become a member or a volunteer for the nonprofit organization, visit www.mississippivalleyconservancy.org.
Photo by Conservancy staff shows upstream view from the north end of Barron Island.