The Yellow River flows some seventy miles through northwest Wisconsin, from headwaters northeast of Spooner to the St. Croix River at Danbury. It is a clean stream and an important wildlife corridor, and it has a long and storied human history. But, unlike many other cherished tributaries of the St. Croix, the Yellow has relatively little legal protection — with less public land and government designation than the nearby Namekagon or Totogatic Rivers, for example.
Now, a new group is trying to ensure the river stays healthy.
The Yellow River Protection Conservancy recently acquired its first property along the river in an experimental new preservation effort. The group purchased about five acres on the river in the city of Spooner. They plan to add conservation policies to the land’s deed and then resell it to a private buyer, using the proceeds to buy another property.
“The idea is to turn the property over for sale as soon as we get the protections in place, recoup our money, pay off the mortgage, and then get started on the next place,” says Kathy Bartilson, a board member of the group. Bartilson served for many years in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and has lived on the banks of the Yellow for twenty years.
By creating a revolving fund for acquisition and preservation, the organization is hoping to make sure the river’s banks stay wild and the water flows free. The program will also keep the parcels on tax rolls, providing government revenue and opportunities for private development in balance with conservation goals.
It’s a different strategy than many other conservation efforts, which typically acquire property to donate to local, state, or federal agencies, or keep in private trust. This method also doesn’t depend on conservation easements, which don’t make much sense for the sorts of small properties the group is targeting. Instead, they are trying to see if they can accomplish their goal through deed restrictions, which can be used to require vegetated buffers along rivers, or limit impervious surfaces that don’t let rain soak into the ground.
“Our worry is that as more and more properties get developed along the Yellow, we’ll see loss of shoreline buffers that are pretty intact right now,” Bartilson says. “We’ve seen so much shoreline development with removal of the layers of vegetation that really break the velocity of the rain.”
That vegetation not only prevents erosion and reduces flooding, it provides critical habitat for countless birds, insects, and other animals. Bartilson says the river is a haven for wildlife, as she reports trumpeter swans and river otters as her frequent neighbors along the river this winter.
So far, the land acquisition program has been made possible by a private loan, individual donors, and help from Shell Lake State Bank. The group is hoping they can raise money from other sources to seed the acquisition fund, and have already received several contributions for the effort. The purchase was approved by a unanimous vote of the board of directors.
“I just really give our board a lot of credit that they’re willing to take this risk,” Bartilson says. “It’s a financial risk to the organization. Definitely to put up the money for a piece of land, hoping we can protect it and resell it in a short time frame and not spend a lot of our money on interest.”
There are potential downsides to using deed restrictions for conservation, particularly regarding who will monitor and enforce them. Bartilson says it will depend on buyers, sellers, and neighbors knowing the restrictions exist. The volunteer board is learning a lot from this first project, and planning to adapt the strategy as needed.
“It’s comparable to being like a starter home, a starter parcel for us to try out the process,” Bartilson says.
The Yellow River Protection Conservancy is only about two years old, and moving quickly. Bartilson says they have been eager to get to what she calls “the real work.” Time is of the essence in conservation, and the group is not wasting it.
“We were working on our first land purchase at the same time we were making decisions on our logo.”
Focusing on the Yellow seems long overdue. Despite not being designated as “wild and scenic” or even an “outstanding resource water,” the river is rich in life, and lessons.
Noted conservationist Sigurd Olson, who had roots at his in-laws’ farm near the Yellow, spent a summer in the area in the 1920s, working with the Wisconsin Geological Survey. It made an impression on the young writer and wilderness advocate.
“During that summer we surveyed roads and trails, plotted them on relief maps, made a study of the Yellow River from its spring-fed source to its lower reaches where it runs into the St. Croix,” Olson wrote in his 1969 book Open Horizons. “We measured depth and flow, bottom structure, ledges, rapids, and tributaries. Wading rivers and creeks was not new to me, but this had little to do with rising trout or the sound of whitethroats at dusk. What I discovered on the Yellow was the physical character of a waterway, and through this a new comprehension of all streams and an intimate involvement with their real nature.”
Every spring, lake sturgeon still spawn in shallow stretches of the lower Yellow River, which is home to one of the largest and healthiest lake sturgeon populations in the nation. These ancient, long-lived fish can grow to great size, and have not changed much since the time of dinosaurs.
The waterway has also been important to humans for a long time. One of the first Ojibwe settlements in the St. Croix River watershed is located near its mouth, and the river and lakes along its course are renowned for wild rice, or manoomin. Bartilson says there are still places on the river banks where one can see pits where indigenous people once threshed the husk off rice by “dancing” on it with mocassin-clad feet.
Upstream on Yellow Lake, early fur trading posts were built, as was a Presbyterian mission and school. The river floated many white pine logs down toward Stillwater, and powered mills for wood and grain.
Despite its many ecological and historical attributes, the Yellow has been a bit ignored in the past century or two. It has now taken on a new importance, as a “resilient corridor” for protecting vulnerable species as the climate changes. The Nature Conservancy has identified the Yellow as a prime opportunity to protect biodiversity, and the Landmark Conservancy, which protects land throughout northern Wisconsin, has made the Yellow one of its priorities.
“The resiliency of these areas is attributed to their physical geography. That is to say, the geology, soils, mineralogy, slope, aspect and temperature all create the physical diversity of place to host the resulting ecological diversity,” Landmark wrote in 2018. “These are the places that over thousands of years have hosted rich species diversity and will continue to do so even with a changing climate, although the composition of that diversity may change.”
Parallel protection programs
Land acquisition and deed restrictions are not the only strategy the Yellow River Protection Conservancy is using. A lot of conservation is possible through voluntary steps, Bartilson says. Voluntary conservation can accomplish a lot.
“I like the idea of ways everybody can help, whether you’re a land owner or not,” she says.
One priority for the group is getting landowners along the river to sign a conservation pledge, describing how they want to care for their property and the river.
“’What are your goals?’ And ‘how will you work over time to protect the river?’” The pledge encourages people to answer, Bartilson says. “It’s certainly not anything legally binding, but I think it’s a really good way for people to stop and think, ‘what would we do differently?’”
But it’s not just shoreline owners who can make a difference. The group is also addressing other issues affecting the Yellow River, including invasive species education and volunteer water quality monitoring.
As the Yellow River Protection Conservancy starts its third year, they’re not slowing down. They’re expanding the water quality effort, partnering with new groups, and keeping their eyes open for other parcels that might be possible to buy, protect, and sell.