Fox Wisconsin Heritage Parkway

A non-profit organization dedicated to the improvement and preservation of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers.

Executive Summary

Purpose of the Study

The Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway concept was created in 1991 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, with the purpose of highlighting and enhancing the unique heritage of the State of Wisconsin by exemplifying and promoting the cultural, historical, and recreational resources of the rivers. This area has been recognized throughout the region for its rich cultural and natural history. A National Heritage Area designation would ensure the future preservation of the Fox and Wisconsin riverway and their many stories and artifacts.

This study provides an analysis of the Parkway for use by the U.S. Congress to determine if its resources are nationally significant, sustainable, and feasible as a National Heritage Area, affiliated with the National Park System. Primary components of this study include a National Heritage Area Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment. After the study is concluded, it will be presented to United States senators and representatives for Wisconsin. These officials, along with the National Park Service, will review the project to determine if it meets the National Park Service’s criteria for inclusion as a National Heritage Area. The Park Service will forward the study and review to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who will make recommendations to Congress based on the study’s findings. Should the Secretary of the Interior recommend designation of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway National Heritage Area, congressional legislation will be required to finalize the designation.

Study Area

The boundaries of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway derive from the Fox and Lower Wisconsin Rivers. These rivers span 280 miles across the State of Wisconsin, from the bay of Green Bay to Prairie du Chien, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. The rivers are geographically divided into the Lower Fox, Upper Fox, and Lower Wisconsin. The Lower Fox and Lower Wisconsin are currently listed within the National Rivers Inventory. Fifteen counties comprise this area, running from Brown southwest to Crawford and Grant counties. The total area consists of 1,444 square miles, with 1,115 square miles of land cover.

Fox-Wisconsin Waterway History and National Contributions

It was on these rivers that Father Jacques Marquette and explorer Louis Joliet set out in May of 1673 to seek a route to the Orient. As they entered the Fox River from Lake Michigan, they encountered a landscape sculpted by ice and inhabited by native cultures dating back tens of thousands of years. The explorers were the first Europeans to traverse the entire length of the corridor and to discover the ever-important Mississippi River in the heart of the North American continent. Along the way, they established friendly relations with native tribes, brought Christianity deep into the New World, and mapped their findings for France. It would have been impossible for them to know what would be unleashed by their travels. As the chronicles of American history unfolded, their journey, along with those of other French explorers, resulted in the opening of North American west, the proliferation of the fur trade, and the eventual European settlement of the corridor.

Upon mass European settlement, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the corridor took on a different identity. For thousands of years, the waterway had been a sacred place and a route of survival for native peoples. The desire for wealth, progress, and an overwhelming optimism now transformed this route into a water highway through the Midwest. Loggers felled trees, farmers tilled the soil, and industries set up their operations on the banks of the rivers, requiring improved transportation routes and power sources. Man transformed the water route through the Fox-Wisconsin Improvement Project and established the world’s first hydroelectric dam in the 19th century. All the while, more people came to this area, establishing communities, commerce, and culture.

Interpretive Themes

Several interpretive opportunities are present through natural and cultural resources found within the boundaries of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway. Six themes were identified by the Heritage Parkway Executive Committee and are supported by the public. These themes reflect the extensive history of the area:

Native Peoples and the Trail of the Serpent

Of all the peoples of the corridor, American Indians have had the longest and deepest connections with the waters. Dating back 12,000 years, native peoples heavily utilized the rivers, fishing, gathering wild rice, hunting, and locating their camps and villages along the waters’ edge. This theme explores the contributions and cultures of the American Indian tribes that have lived on this land, from prehistory to the present. It examines their connections to the rivers, encounters with other tribes and peoples, and, finally, their contributions to the corridor today.

Sub-themes include:
  • Wisconsin Indians and the Waters
  • Native & European Engagements
  • Wisconsin Tribes Today
Route of Discovery

For 150 years Wisconsin was under the control of the French as part of New France. It was during this time, from the early 1600s to 1763, that the first white men entered this part of North America to explore, exploit, and prophesy. This theme provides the opportunity to explore and interpret the corridor’s role in developing the frontier in the New World. It examines what life was like along the corridor—the distinct culture and economy that developed here as a result of French exploration and the fur trade. This is a topic that has been largely forgotten by the public. Yet, the contributions of these early explorers, traders, and missionaries remain vivid on the landscape of the Fox-Wisconsin corridor.

Sub-themes include:
  • New France
  • Marquette and Joliet
  • The Fur Trade
Waves of Immigration

In the 1800s, the frontier continued to move west, bringing American settlers and European immigrants to help settle and develop Wisconsin, particularly areas of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers for much of the remaining century. This theme examines the peoples that settled along the corridor throughout three distinct waves of European immigration, from 1800 to 1920. This theme follows their migration, culture, communities, and conflicts, all while examining the role of the rivers in peopling this segment of North America.

Sub-themes include:
  • Draw of the Land (1830s-1840s)
  • Developing Communities, Commerce, and Culture (1850s-1860s)
  • “Cultural Mosaic” (1870s-1920)
Hard Working River Highway

The success of eastern canal systems in the early 1800s stimulated similar transportation development projects in Wisconsin. Situated between two of the most navigable waters in the country, the Fox and Wisconsin would be a direct link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, making the state an important commercial center and stopping place along the route through the continent. This theme focuses on the changing relationship between man and the rivers. It studies the effect humans have had on the corridor, through transportation and power innovations. In an effort of revitalization, today visitors can experience this water highway and learn about the various ways in which the need for transportation and commerce has altered the landscape.

Sub-themes include:
  • Glacial Geography
  • Fox-Wisconsin Improvement Project
  • Hydroelectric Power
  • Current River System Efforts
Land & Industry of Abundance

Since the coming of the first white settlers, industry has played an important role in shaping the landscape of the Fox-Wisconsin River corridor. Likewise, the rivers have had a significant impact on the industry of the region. This theme inspects the corridor’s role in developing the American economy throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It examines the many industries along the Fox and Wisconsin, looking at the various ways in which man has utilized the resources of the corridor for profit and survival, and the way in which various industries and businesses have helped to shape its character.

Sub-themes include:
  • Mining & Quarrying
  • Agriculture: From Wheat to Dairy
  • Logging & Papermaking
Currents of Conservation: Theory and Practice

As the Fox-Wisconsin River corridor continued to develop throughout the mid-to-late 19th century, a concern for the natural world also began to emerge. On the fringe of the advancing frontier, Wisconsin became a forum for conservationist thought, producing notable conservationists such as Increase Lapham, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson. This theme provides a basis for understanding the importance of conservation along the corridor. It explores the people, organizations, and ideas that have influenced environmental perceptions. This theme will encourage the continued protection of natural resources by educating visitors about their impact on this environment and how they can help ensure the future protection of this resource.

Sub-themes include:
  • Leaders in Conservation
  • Environment, Industry, and Conservation
  • Conservation Today

The Affected Environment

The study area crosses through fifteen counties in the State of Wisconsin, each possessing varied social, economic, and land use characteristics. Most of the land is used for agricultural purposes, with forests, residential, and industrial/commercial uses following. The Lower Fox, from Green Bay to Lake Winnebago, is predominantly urban in character, while the remaining portions of the Fox and Lower Wisconsin remain largely rural.

The region possesses many natural resources, including one National Wildlife Refuge, one state riverway, twenty-nine state natural areas, and five National Natural Landmarks. The management and preservation of these resources primarily remain under the control of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Other local, regional, and national organizations and agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Nature Conservancy ensure the protection of these places.

Exceptional recreational opportunities are also found within the boundaries. Five state parks, seven state trails, one National Scenic Trail, and many more campgrounds, boating areas, and wildlife areas are located throughout its length. Several educational and cultural opportunities exist through private organizations, state institutions, and historical societies. The Parkway contains more than 3,500 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 1 National Monument, 7 National Historic Landmarks, as well as many other sites listed on the State Register of Historic Places or local landmarks listings.

Management Alternatives

The Heritage Parkway Executive Committee evaluated two management approaches to preserving and interpreting the resources within the Parkway. These alternatives included: (1) continuing existing activities or no action and (2) seek a National Heritage Area designation. The first and existing management alternative was found to be insufficient as the lack of cooperation and coordination of activities along the corridor has and will continue to result in the continued loss and degradation of important natural and cultural resources, and provide little positive impact on the socioeconomic environment and tourism.

Results of the National Heritage Area Feasibility Study

Ten interim criteria are used by the National Park Service to evaluate regions for eligibility as a National Heritage Area (listed below). These criteria were applied to the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway, its resources, themes, management alternatives, public support, governmental commitment, and other aspects. Based on analysis throughout the development of this study, the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway meets all ten criteria, and is eligible for designation as a National Heritage Area. Upon designation, a newly created Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway Board would assume responsibility for managing the National Heritage Area. For more information see the Introduction and Chapter 6 of this study.

NPS ten interim criteria for evaluation of candidate areas by the NPS, Congress, and the public:
  1. An area has an assemblage of natural, historic, or cultural resources that together represent distinctive aspects of American heritage worthy of recognition, conservation, interpretation, and continuing use, and are best managed as such an assemblage through partnerships among public and private entities, and by combining diverse and sometimes noncontiguous resources and active communities
  2. Reflects traditions, customs, beliefs, and folklife that are a valuable part of the national story
  3. Provides outstanding opportunities to conserve natural, cultural, and historic, and/or scenic features
  4. Provides outstanding recreational and educational opportunities
  5. The resources important to the identified theme or themes of the area retain a degree of integrity capable of supporting interpretation
  6. Residents, business interests, non-profit organizations, and governments within the proposed area are involved in the planning, have developed a conceptual financial plan that outlines the roles for all participants including the federal government, and have demonstrated support for designation of the area
  7. The proposed management entity and units of government supporting the designation are willing to commit to working in partnership to develop the heritage area
  8. The proposed is consistent with continued economic activity in the area
  9. A conceptual boundary map is supported by the public
  10. The management entity proposed to plan and implement the project is described