Celebrating 30 Years of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway

Former Governor Tommy Thompson (left) and Mark Cupp, Executive Director of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board at the 30th Anniversary Celebration of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. Photo by Tim Zumm, Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway.

There was a time when lawmakers from both sides of the aisle worked together to get things done. One of those times was celebrated on November 10, 2019 at The Vintage Brewery in Sauk City.

Former State Representative Spencer Black (Democrat), Former State Senator Dale Schultz (Republican) and Former Governor Tommy Thompson (Republican) gathered to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.

In August of 1989, Governor Tommy Thompson signed Wisconsin Act 31, which created the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. It was the culmination of years of bipartisan efforts to craft consensus and legislation that would protect both the rights of property owners and the scenic integrity of the 92-mile stretch of riverway that flows from the Prairie du Sac dam to the confluence at the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien.

According to Todd Ambs, Assistant Deputy Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the corridor contains 95,893 acres, 5000 acres of easement, 23 miles of trails, 20 state natural areas, 12 canoe launches and 61 rare and endangered plants and animals. It’s one of the most diverse landscapes in the state due to the uplands and the lowland areas.

Former State Representative Spencer Black, a Democrat, served the 77th Assembly District, from 1985-2011. He served for many years as the Chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. He was instrumental in the formation of the law.

“The lower Wisconsin River is something worth celebrating 30 years later,” he said. “We are blessed with abundance in Wisconsin, and that includes this 92-miles of river and 61 threatened or endangered species. With such a blessing comes responsibility of being a wise steward of resources. The Lower Wisconsin River State Riverway is an example of this stewardship.”

He explained that more than 20 million people live within a half days drive to the river that looks largely like it did back when early voyageurs explored the area.

Yet another big reason to celebrate was how the law was established.

“Back then, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. There were slight differences of opinion on policy.” 

However, he explained that people were willing to listen and work together and that resulted in what we are celebrating today.

“We are celebrating what we accomplished, not what we disagreed with. It’s a living lesson to today’s politicians on how to get things done. I’d like to think that we planted something 30 years ago that others will enjoy for many years to come.”

Former Republican State Senator Dale Schultz, who represented the 17th district from 1991-2015, that includes the river valley, said that anything can be accomplished with three things: wisdom, courage and vision. He credits then governor Tommy Thompson with bringing people together. “Tommy was a wise person and knew he had to work with others to get things done.”

He reminisced about the 1980s.

“I was angry because people were coming out (to the valley) to tell us what do with something (the river valley) that we were protecting all along. Thompson had the wisdom to tell me that maybe you can get what you want and others can get what they wanted.” 

“Spencer had courage. He knew that if he wanted something he would have to work with the people, legislators, and Thompson,” he said. “Then Dick Kreul (Republican Senator) got together local officials into an advisory committee that came up with a tougher law than Spencer Black!”

“By golly, it was all made possible because Spencer Black said that we had to work together with these people.”

He also gave credit to Bob Cary, one of the original board members who set the bar for future boards.

The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board was established to implement the performance standards set forth in the law. The board is comprised of local people who live in the river valley.

“He (Cary) did an outstanding job of taking what the advisory committee said and put it into practice.”

Former Governor Tommy Thompson said that he had more fights with Spencer Black that any husband and wife in the state.

“But I liked him. He could have stood in the way, but he decided to get things done. That shows bipartisanship and that we’re here to do the people’s business. He knew it was time to get something done.”

“We have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in proportion,” he said.

He said that it wasn’t easy.

“Many were opposed. That’s why Dick Kreul set up the Local Officials Advisory Committee to bring together elected officials. Legislators, like Black, went up and down the valley and met with the opposition. People came out to stop it, yet it’s amazing what can happen when you sit down and talk. Ronald Reagan said that it’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

“Farmers and elected officials all thought it was too beautiful not to protect,” he said.

“When I signed the law, I appointed Mark Cupp to serve as the first Executive Director of the Riverway Board. I told him that this is a very important job. It will take patience, wisdom and listening. And, you have to stay awhile. I’m so proud of you as a person, as a leader, as somebody who has made this the best river law in the country.”

Finally, the Executive Director of the Riverway Board, Mark Cupp spoke. He has served as the one and only executive director of the riverway board.

“I never dreamed that I would be here 30 years later,” he said. “Dick Kreul and Dale Schultz both served as mentors.”

I loved my job at the state capitol and spent a lot of time working on the law and understood that’s where I needed to be. What a privilege to start a state agency.

He said that in the early days, he would speak to anyone who would listen to him because there was still a lot of fear about what the law meant to private property owners. But once landowners saw that the law was simply putting into practice sound timber management practices, tensions lessoned.

He then thanked everyone who had contributed to the success of the project over the past 30 years: current and former board members, citizen’s advisory committee members, landowners, non-governmental organizations, Department of Natural Resources personnel, local elected officials, business people, and finally those who recreate on the river.

He closed by advocating for more love and less hate in the world.

“Let’s have less vitriol. Take that message away today,”  he said.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: