Today, in the current political climate, with national parks falling into disrepair because of budget cuts and parks and monuments threatened with downsizing, I was astonished to learn about a newly proposed national park. What’s even more surprising is its location: this time, it isn’t a vast tract of land in the wide-open and beautiful West, but in my home state of Wisconsin.
The dreamed of, 375,000-acre Driftless Rivers National Park derives its name from Wisconsin’s Driftless Area: the ruggedly beautiful bluff lands of the Kickapoo River and Upper Mississippi River Valleys. According to the Driftless Rivers National Park Foundation, this suggested, heart-of-America park already meets and exceeds all of the criteria necessary for creating a new national park.
But today, is officially creating a new national park even a remote possibility, or is it destined to remain a pipe dream into the far distant future?
A Driftless Rivers National Park is deserving
The Driftless Area escaped the steamroller effects of the most recent period of the Ice Age, known as the Wisconsin Glaciation, which began 1.5 to two million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. During that time, mile-thick ice dumped deep layers of gravel, rocks and sand—called drift—on the surrounding terrain. Since the glaciers did not extend into the Driftless Area, the rivers of this landscape have been left alone to carve the topography for many millions of years. The result is a scenic landscape of steep bluffs, limestone and sandstone cliffs, and valleys that form treelike patterns.
The Paleozoic Era sedimentary rocks of the Driftless Area are up to 545 million years old, and even the most recent strata of bedrock are hundreds of millions of years old. Some geologists believe that the Kickapoo River may be the oldest active river in the world.
The Driftless Area was a refuge for animals and plants during the Ice Age; and as a result, arctic-type species continue to thrive here but not in surrounding areas. Many globally-imperiled natural communities find harbor here, and they run the gamut from hot-dry sites with prickly pear cactus to Ice Age holdovers such as Pleistocene snails and northern monkshood wildflowers, sustained by chilled air from subterranean ice caves and rock fissures.
The Mississippi River bluffs of the Driftless Area hold ancient Native American effigy mounds and prehistoric cave art, as well. Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet were the first Europeans to visit the Upper Mississippi River Valley, when they reached the mighty river by way of the Wisconsin River on June 17, 1673. In 2012, the Huffington Post declared the Great River Road Scenic Byway in Wisconsin—a route that runs through the proposed park area—the prettiest drive in the nation, besting Hana Highway in Hawaii for the title.
Of the national parks east of the Mississippi River, the Driftless Rivers National Park would be fourth in size, with only Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains and Isle Royale National Parks larger. The facts that Isle Royale, surrounded by Lake Superior and currently the Midwest’s only national park, is rather inaccessible and remote and that it prohibits the use of any wheeled vehicles makes the Driftless Area a prime location for a new, user-friendly national park.
But could a Driftless Rivers National Park be detrimental?
Some would argue, however, that naming an area a “national park” does more harm than good to our places of natural grandeur and dwindling native ecosystems.
In the September 2008 issue of Outside Magazine, writer Jason Daley proclaimed that national parks needed to be killed. “Killing ’em all,” he wrote, was the only way to save “the crown jewels of American public land.” It isn’t so much “America’s best idea”—according to Ken Burns’ subtitle of The National Parks series—that Daley thought needed to be done away with but the term itself. He believed that declaring an area a national park is just asking for it to be exploited. For example, says Daley, take a place on a map, color it a bright green, label it national park and, as if by magic, the number of visitors will double, triple and then quadruple in a matter of years. Shade the same spot on a road atlas brown, give it a name such as monument or wildlife refuge, and the count of the people who frequent it is usually cut in half.
Daley has a point. Once a place has reached the status of national park, you’ll find that the wildlife has been radio-collared and categorized, the mountains have big holes bored in them so highways can snake through and towering cliffs are topped with grand hotels. If there’s a national park, I guarantee you’ll find a gift shop somewhere in it. Soon, a highly sensitive area of great natural beauty is on the list of must-sees for almost everyone on the planet.
Daydreaming Driftless Rivers National Park: another “best idea”
I think, however, if we don’t set aside some new natural lands as “national parks,” we risk losing them to strip malls and parking lots. And, as Ken Burns once suggested, crowded national parks are good. It lets us know that Americans are enjoying them and engaging with them; and those activities usually result in advocacy. Beautiful and visionary as they are, most of our national parks reside far out West or in Alaska. Consequently, they are out of reach for a vast number of us who could greatly benefit from visiting a national park.
Perhaps a new national park in the Midwest is an idea whose time has come—even in these unparalleled and perilous times.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,