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Defining the "Driftless Area"

The Driftless Area, sometimes referred to as the Paleozoic Plateau, is a unique region of the Upper Mississippi River Basin with a landscape that is rich with ecological and economic opportunities. The area was by- passed by the last continental glacier and has differential weathering and erosion that results in a steep, rugged landscape referred to as karst topography.

Karst topography is defined as that type of terrain and geologic region underlain by soluble bedrock, such as limestone, and characterized by depressions in the ground, or sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage. The land, soils and ecosystems are diverse, and the area is home to hundreds of threatened and endangered state and federal animal and plant species.

Many of the high quality rivers and cold water trout streams in the region are recognized on state and national levels for their economic and environmental importance. One of the unique features of this area is the presence of algific talus slopes, which are usually north facing and found where air circulation passes over underground ice to produce a constant stream of moist cool air which escapes through vents onto the adjacent hillsides. Often, sinkholes are associated with algific talus slopes and can be up to one-half mile away. Air flowing from surface vents ranges from 30 degrees F to 55 degrees F spring to fall (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1984). The vegetative community on algific talus slopes is different than the surrounding forest and typically contains ferns, mosses, liverworts, evergreen species, some of which are federal and state threatened and endangered plants and animals such as the Iowa Pleistocene Snail and the Northern Monkshood flower, both on the federal endangered species list, which are found only in these environments. Summer temperatures on the slopes range from 42 °F (6 °C) to 55 °F (13 °C). In winter, the air is drawn into the vents, and the groundwater again freezes. Because of the cool temperatures and moist conditions, unusual plants for this part of the country grow on the slopes that are usually only found much further north. Even on a midsummer day when the outside air temperature is 90 °F (32 °C), ground temperatures on these slopes range from 42 °F (6 °C) to about 55 °F (13 °C). Although the slopes will freeze in winter, the temperatures are moderated. These slopes form a micro-climate and remain cool throughout the year and are home to other rare species of plants and animal such as various yews, balsam firs, showy lady’s slipper and golden saxifrage.

This area includes rugged hills and steep topography that drains to priority rivers before emptying into the Upper Mississippi River. Although the region has a high ecological value and restoration potential, it is also a major source of pollutants to the Lower Mississippi River and the Northern Gulf of Mexico. The area includes 18,365,000 acres or 28,965 square miles of land. It is fragmented by political boundaries and the Mississippi River and includes portions of four states that have similar landscape, land use trends, hydrogeology, water quality issues and habitat restoration potential: SE Minnesota, SW Wisconsin, NE Iowa and NW Illinois. This fragmentation has exacerbated efforts to reverse negative land use trends that have serious consequences for water quality of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Since European settlement, the loss of thousands of acres of timber has changed the hydrology of the area and increased soil erosion potential on steep deforested hillsides. Land that was converted in the 1800’s from timber, to hay and pasture for dairy and meat production, is rapidly being replaced with annually tilled crops such as corn and soybeans. These trends has resulted in significant increases in soil erosion, sedimentation, and run-off. An estimated ninety percent of the nitrogen lost from this area is delivered to the Northern Gulf of Mexico where it contributes to the problem of hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen and related impairments of aquatic life).

Because water can enter the subsurface easily through conduits and fractures in the soluble limestone bedrock, the karst aquifers in this area are highly susceptible to contamination. Karst topography features include; springs, streams that disappear into bedrock fissures, sinkholes, caves, and steep, highly erodible hillsides. These features provide direct mixing of surface and ground water. There are thousands of springs in the Driftless Area, including the largest springs in Iowa and Minnesota. Subsurface karst flow is rapid and has been documented to carry surface water through underground passages quickly. Floodwaters have been documented to traverse entire basins in less than a day. The rapid flow associated with Karst topography increases the regions nitrogen losses to groundwater and surface water.

The Driftless Area comprises nearly one-sixth of the area of the Upper Mississippi River Basin. The majority of the area is identified as Major Land Resource Area 105. (MLRAs were developed by the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service --today’s Natural Resources Conservation Service -- for inter-state, regional and national planning.) The remaining acres are the upper portions of the watersheds that flow into MLRA 105; most of which are in MLRA 104.

  1. MLRA 105, called the Northern Mississippi Valley Loess Hills, includes 22,210 square miles in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. While the majority of land use in MLRA 105 is agriculture, small and moderate dairy and beef enterprises have been most prevalent, as is hay and pasture. Topographic relief and the potential for soil erosion are severe in MLRA 105. Karst topography makes the agricultural landscape extremely susceptible to nitrogen losses to groundwater and surface water. Groundwater-fed streams are capable of supporting native brook trout, but are sensitive to degradation from land use changes.
  2. MLRA 104, called the Eastern Iowa and Minnesota Till Prairies, comprises 9,700 square miles of flat to moderately sloping land, most of which is used for row-crop agriculture and intensive livestock production, especially hog production. Extensive artificial drainage of intensively farmed row cropland provides efficient delivery of nitrogen to surface water. MLRA 104 forms the headwaters for many watersheds in the western part of the region.

Challenges

Fragmentation of the Driftless Area among four states has exacerbated efforts to reverse negative land use trends that have serious consequences for water quality of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Since European settlement, changing land use has vastly increased soil exposure, disturbed habitat for wildlife throughout the region, and altered the hydrology of streams and rivers. Land that was converted in the 1800’s from prairie or timber, to hay and pasture for dairy and meat production, is rapidly being replaced with annually tilled crops such as corn and soybeans. The amount of land dedicated to CRP is diminishing each year.

StateActive CRP AcresExpiring ac 07-09Total Crop Acres% in CRP
Illinois44,93919,969610,2137.4
Iowa297,700130,8722,571,05411.6
Minnesota87,02734,2841,826,4764.8
Wisconsin404,078160,1554,144,2489.8
Totals833,744345,2809,151,9919.1

Less than 1% of original native grasslands remain, and forest health has declined after a century of exploitative management. These trends have resulted in significant increases in soil erosion, sedimentation, and run-off. Sediment delivery and poor water quality in some streams and rivers have resulted in the loss of habitat for many fish and other aquatic species. Although the Upper Mississippi River and the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge spanning the length of this incredible resource provide habitat for a vast array of wildlife species, water quality issues stemming from agricultural inputs and human development have resulted in many serious impairments both in the river and beyond. An estimated ninety percent of the nitrogen lost from this area is delivered to the Northern Gulf of Mexico where it contributes to the problem of hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen and related impairments of aquatic life)

Opportunities

The Driftless Area Initiative focuses on strengthening productive partnerships in this multi-state region by implementing projects of regional significance in support of natural resource conservation, sustainable rural economic development, and strengthened community identity and vitality. DAI serves as a catalyst, providing leadership on projects and issues with cross-boundary implications. DAI promotes inter-disciplinary understanding of issues, and integrated, system-based approaches for achieving goals through existing organizations. We work to build the capacity of partner organizations and individuals through funding, acquisition, information sharing and development, and by increasing regional and national visibility and support for Driftless Area resource issues.

The DAI was formed through a process of public participation involving hundreds of people and organizations focused on natural resource stewardship in the Driftless Area. Participating stakeholders include, but are not limited to, RC&D Council members from 4 states, federal and state agencies, private conservation organizations, and concerned individuals.

The Driftless Area Initiative envisions a vibrant landscape supported by an active network of well informed citizens working to optimize environmental and economic health for present & future generations in the Driftless Area.

Efforts of the Driftless Area Initiative are vital to improving and maintaining the quality of life enjoyed by Driftless Area residents, and the unique landscape enjoyed by visitors.