APRIL 15, 2006
The Dells of the Wisconsin River is not the same as it once was, and it needs more protection. The movie "A River Runs through It" portrayed the lives of two brothers and their love of fly-fishing on a Montana River. While the story line of the movie does not fit this area, the title could be a slogan for the Wisconsin Dells area. Just as fly-fishing on that river in Montana shaped that family's life, the Wisconsin River shaped the life and the character of the Wisconsin Dells area. A decade ago, visitors here could travel up or down the river, and the scenery would convince them they had stepped into a pristine wilderness. The signs of civilization vanished as the boat chugged upstream past the Jaws or floated down past the Sugar Bowl and other formations. Visitors could easily imagine what it must have been like for early pioneers to find this strange and beautiful scenery amidst the prairies and hills of Wisconsin. Today, that feeling of isolation and the sense of a wilderness is being eroded. The erosion is not natural. The sandstone cliffs shaped by wind and water are not crumbling. Trees are not dying natural deaths of old age. Civilization in the form of more and more boaters, homes and developments threatens the scenery that made this area famous and an attraction for tourists since the first railroad tracks were laid. Homes, condominiums and resorts are claiming the heights along the river. Everyone wants a view of the water and wants to play in it. Unrestricted access, unrestricted views from the cliffs and letting everyone on the river will destroy it for future generations. This is not to say resorts like Chula Vista should not expand. The expansion of that resort and the construction of other projects along the river are vital to the area's continued growth. They will provide year-round jobs that many people need. A balance is needed. Local officials primarily have the heavy burden of protecting the goose that laid the golden egg -- the Wisconsin River and the stretch we know as the Dells. That protection needs to come from the city of Wisconsin Dells, the village of Lake Delton and others. To successfully protect the river and its scenery will take the cooperation of the Department of Natural Resources, the boards of the towns along the river, and the counties -- Adams, Juneau, Sauk and Columbia. What is needed and needed soon are strict, detailed and enforced conservancy laws. Developments should be set back from the river's edge. How much may vary from place to place, but the idea should be to keep developments and even single-family homes invisible to those traveling on the river. The setbacks must include height restrictions. Houses and condominiums that tower over trees will not give visitors the idea that they are in a wilderness. Setbacks or conservancy zones where buildings are not allowed will not do much if condominiums and homes landscape the zone so that it looks like a manicured park. The river's beauty is in its naturalness, not in how it can be turned into another suburban look-alike yard. Politics on a state level also need to come into play. The Dells has always had plenty of political clout -- much more than its size would ever suggest. That clout should be used to add more land along the river to the Dells of the Wisconsin River Natural Area and to establish laws on water front properties. That clout should also be used to see that the DNR has funding to patrol and protect the river's fragile ecosystems and formations. More than 100 years ago, George Crandall stepped forth with his own money to buy land along the river to protect it from development and restore the forests that once crowned the cliffs. We need some latter-day George Crandalls, who value nature as much as they value money. A few people are worried, but more are needed who care enough to speak out and take action to protect the beauty of the river that flows through it.