Marsh friends unveil strategic plan

Marsh friends unveil strategic plan

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A nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the La Crosse River marsh has come out with a plan for preserving and enhancing the wetland in the heart of La Crosse.

The Friends of the La Crosse River Marsh says its strategic plan, which calls for cooperation among local, state, federal and private partners, is a partial remedy to the challenges of piecemeal ownership and is intended to focus on habitat protection, restoration and enhancement.

“We are responding here to issues relating to the marsh as habitat, as ecology, areas we simply feel have not been at the forefront of so many of the issues,” said Chuck Lee, president of the organization. The goal is “to not simply deal with the marsh as a tangent to transportation planning or a tangent to recreation but to look at it holistically.”

The nearly 1,200-acre marsh is “among the most diverse and productive biological landscapes in the region,” according to the Friends plan. It provides critical habitat for birds, as well as fish and other wildlife, is a key piece of the county’s $214 million tourism industry and serves as an outdoor classroom for thousands of students.

It also stores billions of gallons of water, a vital function in a city built largely in the floodplain.

Started as a coalition of citizens who banded together in 1988 to fight a proposed highway through the marsh, the Friends group incorporated two years ago as a not for profit with about 100 member households dedicated to protecting and enhancing what they consider one of the finest urban wetlands in the state.

But they worry that roads, railroads, utility lines and development have reduced it to roughly half the size it once was.

The strategic plan notes there are housing lots platted under water — a vestige of early 20th century efforts to fill the marsh — and continued incursions, including a second rail line completed last year and proposed roadways being considered as part of a long-term transportation plan.

It calls for protecting the remaining marsh from development, expanding it where possible, and enhancing the habitat through the restoration of native species.

The plan relies on cooperation between the city and county, as well as the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Mississippi Valley Conservancy.

The Friends have asked those stakeholder groups to comment on the plan but has not sought approval.

“We don’t expect them to own it in the way we do,” Lee said. “The strength or weakness of this plan will fall to the Friends of the Marsh. The degree to which we follow this up with real work. We’re comfortable with that. We didn’t want anything in here that we couldn’t do.”

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