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Lessons from Coon Valley: The Importance of Collaboration in Watershed Management

The soil erosion problem had advanced to the point that gullies looked more like canyons.

The Education Fellow Experience

As a 9 month Education intern, I get to teach about Leopold on a regular basis. Although it’s invigorating to immerse myself in Leopold’s legacy—and how his ideas are being applied today—I find it difficult to distill his vast accomplishments down to a digestible level. Thankfully, being part of the Education team at the foundation is not only about teaching. More often, I find that I am really just always learning! One of the best ways to learn and grow your understanding of something is to research and write about it, and I’ve been encouraged to contribute to the blog on a regular basis to deepen my understanding of Leopold’s legacy. I feel very fortunate to have access to our extensive archives and a group of inspiring scholars, whose work I have admired in the past and from whom I have already learned so much.

Greg reads from A Sand County Almanac at an Arbor Day event at the Arington Tree Farm.
Greg reads from A Sand County Almanac at an Arbor Day event at the Arington Tree Farm.

The focus on celebrating the United Nations’ International Year of Soils in the current issue of the Leopold Outlook magazine inspired me to research how Aldo Leopold influenced soil conservation in Wisconsin, and to find out if similar conservation measures are being taken today in my hometown of Green Bay.

Leopold’s Contributions to Soil Conservation

Agricultural intensification has increased food production, but also produced ecological consequences. Perhaps the most striking example is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when the industrialization of agriculture coupled with severe drought sent millions of pounds of soil skyward and rushing toward the sea. Soil erosion, however, was not just an issue for the Great Plains; it affected communities across the country. The nation’s first attempt at watershed restoration took place in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, and served as a model for other communities to follow.

Leopold Coon Valley (BLOG FINAL)
Leopold and others inspect an eroded stream bank near Coon Valley, Wisconsin. Evidence like this confirmed Leopold’s thinking about the importance of soil health.

The Civilian Conservation Corps Transforms Coon Valley

Aldo Leopold played a critical role in bringing the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to Coon Valley in the 1930s. After lobbying from Leopold and others, the Roosevelt administration dispatched the CCC to Coon Valley in 1934 to initiate the first “soil demonstration area,” designed to showcase the effectiveness of erosion control on private land.

In his essay on the topic, Leopold summed up the issue quite well: “Coon Valley, in short, is one of the thousand farm communities which, through the abuse of its originally rich soil, has not only filled the national dinner pail, but has created the Mississippi flood problem, the navigation problem, the overproduction problem, and the problem of its own future continuity.”

The fertile—yet thin—soil eroded away. Unrelenting grazing, logging, and straight-rowed planting took its toll, resulting in fast disappearing soil, deep gullies, and decreased ability of the remaining nutrient-stripped soil to hold moisture. Coon Creek—once a deep, cold water trout stream—became a shallow, muddy water course prone to flooding. Additionally, the Great Depression and decreasing crop yields put farmers in a uniquely grim situation.

Coon Valley Gully - NRCS (BLOG)
The soil erosion problem had advanced to the point that gullies looked more like canyons. Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Therefore, the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)—the agency in charge of the project—had to prove they would simultaneously increase farm income and conserve soil. Farmers were required to enroll in a five-year farm plan, or a “cooperative agreement” which they would help write. The government provided seed, fertilizer, lime, fencing supplies, and much of the labor. In the end, most farmers joined the ranks, and many of those that didn’t ended up adopting the practices on their land anyway.

The project transformed Coon Valley in a matter of years. To prevent erosion and gully formation, the CCC terraced and strip-cropped the valleys, replanted the formerly wooded hillsides, converted 10,000 acres from pasture to forest, created wildlife habitat, constructed dams, and planted gully slopes with trees and sod. The management technique with the most important and lasting effect was teaching farmers to plow along the contour lines of their farms, running perpendicular to sloping land in order to slow runoff. When the CCC left in 1937, more than half (43,000 acres) of the Coon Creek watershed was under sustainable soil management.

NatGeoStrips (BLOG)
An aerial photo of a Coon Valley farm taken in 1995 displays the current effects of the anti-erosion techniques pioneered in the 1930’s. Photo by Jim Richardson ©Richardson Photography

Forty years after the Coon Valley project, the erosion rate fell by 75 percent and sedimentation decreased by a striking 98 percent, and between 1934 and 1942, farm income of those participating in the program rose 25 percent, indicating better soil management resulted in sustained yields and financial success. Although 95 percent of the watershed eventually came under management, corn and soybeans are now replacing dairy farms, and therefore, contour plowing. Gullies and erosion are again becoming issues. Nevertheless, the work done by the CCC saved the watershed from ecological collapse, and helped bolster the livelihood of farmers as well.

The Coon Valley project is a compelling example of a public-private partnership to improve land health, benefit farmers, and provide work in the public’s interest. Many lessons can be drawn from this New Deal project that resonate today. In the face of new challenges stemming from modern agricultural intensification, a pilot watershed management project resembling Coon Valley’s is occurring in the Fox River watershed of northern Wisconsin, which I am uniquely tied to by growing up along the Fox River in the city of Green Bay.

Soil Conservation Today

Currently, phosphorous pollution is a mounting concern for Wisconsin waterways, and the Clean Water Act and state regulations passed in 2010 are attempting to tackle phosphorous runoff in a number of ways. Point source pollution (from sewage treatment plants, for example) are more heavily regulated than non-point sources (most farm reductions are voluntary) and therefore must bear the brunt of reductions. However, the phosphorous rules contain a cost-effective “adaptive management option” facilities can use to comply with the law by working with farmers to reduce overall watershed pollution in place of installing expensive equipment.

The Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District (NEW Water) is pioneering this management technique with the Silver Creek Pilot Project in the Fox River watershed that drains into Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, the largest freshwater estuary in the world. The Silver Creek project is a partnership of NEW Water, the Oneida Nation, farmers, and other stakeholders. The objective is to test the feasibility of implementing these practices across the watershed in a fiscally responsible manner.

Green Bay Watershed (Journal Sentinel) BLOG
The lower Fox River watershed and the dead zone (shown in red) that has developed in Green Bay due to excessive nutrients. Image courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Most of the reductions in farm runoff will come from creating buffers, such as restoring wetlands, planting trees and shrubs along drainage ditches, and other efforts that will necessarily take land out of production. Therefore, just as in Coon Valley, farmers must be properly compensated for lost revenue and hopefully see improved crop yields overall. Partnerships with conservation organizations are vital for this project to succeed, and NEW Water is developing relationships with these groups, as well as farmers, to ensure adequate funding is secured.

Phosphorous pollution in Green Bay is of particular concern due to the dead zone (an area no longer able to support most life due to oxygen depletion) that developed from excessive nutrients in the water. As phosphorous pollution continues to threaten drinking water supplies—as Toledo, Ohio experienced last summer—projects such as these will increase in importance. Although the issues are somewhat different, we can surely draw parallels between erosion control in Coon Valley and our attempts at reducing phosphorous pollution in our waterways today. Just as Leopold championed, bridging the urban-rural divide, and working with private landowners will be crucial in preserving our soils and cleaning our water. We must remember that only through collaboration, trust, and understanding can we achieve environmental protection while also sustaining livelihoods. Indeed, we cannot have one without the other.