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The Driftless Area

image angler plying a trout stream in the blufflands

Coldwater trout streams call attention to the ecological health of southeastern Minnesota.

By Tori J. McCormick

Wading in knee-high water as clear as moonshine, I stripped off three feet of fly line, made two rhythm-gathering false casts, and feathered my dry fly to a fishy haunt 15 feet to my front.

The dry fly -- a Parachute Adams -- dimpled the water's surface as softly as a cotton ball. A nice-sized brown trout had been sipping insects there moments before, and I had yet to solve the increasingly maddening aquatic riddle, despite switching fly patterns a half-dozen times. I tied on another Adams, this one a hook-size smaller.

Online Extras:

 Driftless Area Web Directory

Bingo! The trout inhaled, I lifted my rod tip, my fly line went taut, and the trout rocketed downstream. Riddle solved.

It was a lovely sunny day on a gorgeous stretch of Trout Run Creek in southeastern Minnesota bluff country. After releasing the fish, I sat on the bank of the creek, watching the clear water quiver and pulse as the bright sunshine refracted off riffles and pools.

It's a near-perfect stretch of creek, I thought, reminiscent of presettlement days, when savanna grasslands fortified Great Plains watersheds, nurturing what trout can't live without: clean, cold, well-oxygenated water.

"If an angler has a good day of trout fishing, it's easy to assume that these watersheds are healthy. But many are not," says Jeff Broberg, geologist and president of Minnesota Trout Association.

These bluffland watersheds -- part of a much grander landscape called the driftless area that stretches into four states, encompasses six major watersheds, and includes more than 600 spring-fed creeks -- are at once achingly beautiful and environmentally fragile. The long-term health of these watersheds is inextricably linked to how the land surrounding them is managed. And on that land, serious problems exist.

During the past two decades, perennial vegetation has given way to row crops. Row cropping makes nearby streams more susceptible to runoff of sediment and other pollutants.

"What I hear most is that more and more anglers are finding more sediment, and sediment in their favorite streams," says Broberg. "And that's not a good sign."

Fortunately, the plight of the driftless area has attracted the attention of numerous conservation groups, federal agencies, and state natural resources departments in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. The area's ecological health will also depend on the conservation outcomes of the 2007 federal farm bill.

Driftless, or not?

Retreating glaciers leave behind silt, clay, sand, gravel, and boulders -- called drift. Glacial drift includes till (unsorted material) and outwash (layers deposited by meltwater streams).

The Wisconsinan glaciation, the last to scrape across Minnesota, retreated 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. It bypassed corners of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois, and southwestern Wisconsin. This 24,000-square-mile area contains no Wisconsinan till, but it does contain older glacial drift.

Nevertheless, early geologists coined the term driftless area. Because it's a misnomer, geologists prefer not to use the term today.

Rare species

The southeastern Minnesota landscape is characterized by dramatic limestone bluffs, river valleys, and forested hillsides. Here streams sometimes disappear into sinkholes, flow through underground caves, and reappear as springs.

"There aren't many places in the world like the driftless area," Broberg says.

According to DNR plant ecologist Ann Pierce, this ecoregion comprises 3 percent of Minnesota's land area but provides habitat for 43 percent of the state's plant and animal species listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern. The broad beech-fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera) grows in the Minnesota blufflands. So does Leedy's roseroot (Sedum integrifolium ssp. leedyi), a rare cliff plant. The DNR Minnesota County Biological Survey found rare wildlife species such as blue-winged warblers, Karner blue butterflies, and timber rattlesnakes.

"The driftless area has a diversity of habitats, and that naturally leads to having a high number of species in fluctuating environments -- from very hot and dry, to moist and cool, and everything in between," says Pierce. "Now factor in increased human pressures, agriculture, and development; and you begin to understand why so many species in the region are at risk. But restoring watersheds can help with that."

Settlement story

European settlers began farming this area in the mid-1800s, altering a landscape of oak savanna and its streams brimming with brook trout. They cut trees for firewood and building and grazed livestock on valley slopes. By the early 1900s, extensive hillside erosion created masses of sediment that accumulated in valleys and streams.

Awash in silt, the region's trout ribbons became shallower and warmer. Flash floods increased, streambanks broke down, and new stream channels were carved by fast-moving water running off the cleared land. Groundwater recharge diminished because too little water was being captured by plants and filtered through the soil. Native brook trout had trouble reproducing in the degraded waters.

"By 1930 it had become clear to all except the ecologically blind that southwestern Wisconsin's topsoil was slipping seaward," wrote famed conservationist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac.

"Following the 1930s, we saw watershed improvement," says Larry Gates, DNR watershed coordinator for southeastern Minnesota. The federal government promoted better farming and soil conservation practices -- crop rotation, contour farming, tree planting, and the use of water- and sediment-retention structures.

"Throughout the 1970s and '80s, water quality improved as we reduced runoff and sediment transport," says Gates. "Better farming practices helped improve the streams, and trout populations responded. It's a simple formula, really. Give trout clean, cold water and they'll thrive."

New threat

Gates says the streams and their watersheds are threatened again today.

"Intensive row-cropping started in the 1990s and has continued," says Gates. "We see larger fields of corn and soybeans. We see more conservation tillage, but I don't think it can offset the huge changes in land use because we've lost so much of our perennial vegetative cover: hay, small grains, pasture, and CRP acres."

This loss in perennial vegetation corresponds with a shift away from livestock in southeastern Minnesota agriculture, says DNR agricultural policy coordinator Wayne Edgerton.

"Federal farm program subsidy payments for corn and soybeans have resulted in more row-crop farming," Edgerton says. "The farmer is simply reacting to the lead from the federal farm bill, because that's where the money is."

"Row-crop agriculture is our greatest polluter of fresh water," says Gates. "It uses the greatest amount of chemical pesticides, and it is the greatest degrader of biodiversity. And there's no way of getting around those facts."

Follow the trout

Steve Klotz, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Lanesboro, heads long-term trout population monitoring on parts of 20 coldwater streams. While trout hatching success was excellent in 2006, Klotz says that in 2004 and 2005 heavy runoff flushed sediment into some streams and hampered trout reproduction. Sediment in runoff covers gravel runs and riffles where trout spawn. Sediment also can smother trout eggs. Klotz says more permanent vegetation on the landscape could slow runoff and reduce sedimentation.

Pollution is another concern from cropland runoff. From 1993 until October 2006, Paul Wotzka kept tabs on water quality on the Middle Branch of the Whitewater River as a surface water hydrologist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (today he works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency). During that time, he checked readings from an automated stream-monitoring station in the Middle Branch, which ran continuously and measured 29 commonly used pesticides and nutrients. Wotzka says the corn herbicide atrazine showed up constantly. According to tested samples from 2001 to 2006, atrazine levels increased dramatically. After some storm events, atrazine levels increased to roughly 10 times the MPCA standard set to protect coldwater trout streams.

Call to action

While the Department of Natural Resources has been doing stream habitat work in southeastern Minnesota for decades, additional conservation groups and government agencies have formed alliances to accelerate and expand the effort to improve watershed health in the four-state driftless area.

Last spring, Gov. Tim Pawlenty joined governors from Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois and the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in signing a resolution endorsing a unified approach to land and water restoration in the region.

The resolution should funnel more resources to conservation programs such as the Midwest Driftless Area Restoration Effort, a broad coalition formed in 2005 that includes DNRs from the four states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and national and regional chapters of Trout Unlimited. MDARE also includes several local conservation districts, watershed partnerships, and private landowners.

"We want to be a model for collaborative stewardship because the more people we have vested in these watersheds, the better," says Jeff Hastings, a driftless area project manager for Trout Unlimited.

MDARE has raised about $500,000 from government grants and private donations for watershed and stream restoration projects. "And it's likely we'll double that amount in the near future," says Hastings.

Another such coalition of local groups and government agencies is the Driftless Area Initiative, which has been working to restore streams in the Lake Pepin watershed for the past three years.

More recently, the DNR launched a trout habitat restoration project on 13,000 acres near Lewiston, where some of the region's last native brook trout live.

Until recently, it was thought that southeastern Minnesota's brookies were descendents of hatchery brook trout from the northeastern United States. Those trout were stocked in the 1970s.

Recent genetic testing revealed that brook trout in Coolridge and Hemmingway creeks are likely remnant populations of brook trout native to southeastern Minnesota, and possibly the greater driftless area as well.

DNR Fisheries will soon finish research for a proposal to restore native brook trout populations in Coolridge, Hemmingway, and other area creeks. "We'll find out what those brook trout need," Gates says, "and then we'll do our best to give it to them."

Future farm bill

Despite this multitude of habitat restoration projects, DNR fisheries biologists say the future of this imperiled landscape is likely being decided now at the nation's capitol.

"The biggest driver of land use is the federal farm bill, which is up for reauthorization in 2007," Klotz says. "If the new bill offers incentives for more sustainable agricultural systems, like keeping more perennial cover on the landscape and fewer row crops, then we'll have some meaningful water-quality improvements across the driftless area."

Many conservationists would like to see the new farm bill expand the Conservation Security Program. Enacted in 2002, CSP rewards farmers for incorporating conservation practices into their farming operations.

One CSP supporter is Mike McGrath, agriculture policy specialist with the nonprofit Minnesota Project, which advocates sustainable agriculture. McGrath raises grassland-fed beef cows on his 275-acre farm in the Root River watershed near Lanesboro. He has 100 acres enrolled in CSP: 50 acres is pasture on which he practices rotational grazing; 50 acres is hay that he cuts after July 1 to protect ground-nesting birds such as pheasants and meadowlarks.

"If you want to improve water quality in the driftless area, get more farmers enrolled in CSP," McGrath says. "It has great potential."

Thus, the fate of my fishing spot on Trout Run Creek, as well as the other 150 southeastern trout streams and the greater driftless area, likely hinges on whether federal policymakers write a new farm bill that rewards such conservation practices.

As an old friend and fly-fishing sage once told me, "If we manage the land with an eye to the future, the water will follow."

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors and environmental writer from Red Wing.

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