By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Jun 27, 2005 at 5:23 AM

{image1}What Midwest attraction draws more tourists than Yellowstone Park annually? The answer might surprise you.

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the western Wisconsin border for about a couple hundred miles, attracts an estimated 3.7 million visitors per year. That's about a million more than Yellowstone.

The Refuge runs for 261 miles from near Wabasha, Minnesota, to Rock Island, Illinois, and encompasses around 240,000 acres of floodplain.

You won't find any theme parks here or Mall of America shopping centers. What attracts the people is great hunting and fishing, and a view of nature along the Great River that dissects the heartland of the nation.

What attracts the people is the fact the Refuge also attracts wildlife by the thousands. Forty percent of the continent's migratory waterfowl stay in the refuge for at least part of the year. Fifty percent of the canvasback duck population spends time there.

An estimated 1,000 eagles nest along the river's banks during winter. About 5,000 heron and egret nests can be found in 15 colonies in the Refuge.

More than 115 species of fish inhabit the waters of the Refuge. More than 300 species of birds and 50 types of mammals live there. Eleven kinds of turtles -- exceptional for this far north -- share the water and land.

Turning to homo sapiens, 70 human communities sit along the refuge. Eight Senators and six Congressmen represent the areas along it. A major navigation route runs right through the refuge.

Among the 3.7 million tourists in 2004, roughly one million anglers fished its waters, while another 1.3 million people used beaches and camped on islands and other lands within this outdoor wonderland.

The Refuge has a budget of $3.1 million and 37 full-time employees. It is divided into four districts, with headquarters based in Winona, Minn.; La Crosse; McGregor, Iowa; and Savanna, Ill. The financial impact of the refuge on surrounding communities is in the millions.

Not High Impact Tourism

This isn't the Wisconsin Dells or Door County. Both offer wonderful glimpses of nature, but have made major accommodations for humans.

The Refuge is river land nature in about as pure a state as you can find it. Some parts of it are closed entirely to tourists, especially during migratory and breeding seasons for wildlife.

You'll need a boat to reach much of the scenic areas of the Refuge, and even then you might not be able to use a motor in some areas.

Before this writer waxes too eloquently about the purity of nature in the Refuge, let me say that degradation of nature has occurred and is a major concern. The locks and dam system needed for commercial and other navigation of the river flooded many of the wetlands in the Refuge. Tourists have trashed parts of it.

It's very attractiveness to hunters and fishers work against it. Perimeters around closed hunting areas of waterfowl find hunters lining up in what is called "firing lines" to shoot birds when they fly out of the restricted areas.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, working with the natural resource departments in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, the Corps of Engineers and the public, has been asked by Congress to come up with a 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the refuge.

Hearings were held in May and early June. Workshops involving members of the public started in mid-June. Public input on the plan is scheduled to wrap up at the end of August. A plan is expected by spring of 2006.

FWS officials have been floating four alternative plans. They favor one that tries to integrate preservation of the natural wonders of the Refuge with public access.

The plan includes some new fees and a few additional restrictions on access to certain areas of the Refuge. As one would expect, those have created controversy.

Wildlife Attracts Tourism

But, tourism will not be able to continue long range if nature is destroyed in the Refuge. Without wildlife, the attractions for humans dwindle.

"We have to think not of ourselves, and not just of our own use," said Melinda Knutson at one of the hearings on the CCP. "We need to really concern ourselves with how our kids and grandkids and great-grandkids can enjoy the river."

Here are a few ways of enjoying the Refuge without denigrating it:

  • Fish the backwaters in designated areas only. You can still have spectacular catches.

  • Canoe or kayak the backwaters. You'll get closer to nature than you ever could with a motorboat.

  • Camp on an island site, but make sure you pack everything out that you bring in.

  • View nature from some of the many parks in the Refuge. One of this writer's favorites is Goose Island, south of La Crosse.

  • Respect the bluff lands that tower over parts of the Refuge. Stay on trails if you are hiking up there. It's also the safest way to go.

  • Take in some of the environmental education programs run by FWS. They will provide more ways you can enjoy the Refuge without hurting it and can teach you more about the eco-system and wildlife in the area.

Congressman Ron Kind, who represents more of the Refuge area than any other Congressman or Senator, said recently before one of the hearings on the CCP, "I believe the fish and wildlife people are trying to balance protection of this beautiful resource we have here with public access to it. It's a big task. The fact people have turned out for these hearings shows how much they care about the river and the refuge."

Kind said the Refuge gives people in the Midwest a "wonderful natural resource" in their backyards, but that the Mississippi is a "multi-purpose river" that also moves freight and people.

"My concern is that bricks and mortar often get priority when we consider funding for these types of things," Kind said. "I want to make sure there is adequate funding for environmental protection in whatever gets passed in Congress."

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.