Working in Driftless Area a labor of love

A Driftless Area landscape

By Jeff Hastings

See the photo at left? That’s where I work.

Yes, I like my job.

When I describe the Driftless Area, I try to tell people to picture lots of spring-fed creeks filled with trout, rolling hills with scattered forests, green hillside valleys and wildflowers, and no such thing as a straight section of road.

The Driftless is a huge area (29,000 square miles) of the Upper Mississippi Basin covering parts of four states—Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota—that was untouched by the last glaciers. We have so many miles of stream (over 4,000) that you can always find a place to fish and feel like it is just you and the stream.  Some of our streams have as many as 3,000 fish per mile, so once you start fishing a stream (especially if it is a section you have never fished before), it’s hard to get out—you’re always wondering what it’s going to be like around the next bend.

The other special thing about the Driftless is the diversity of plants and animals. Every outing is truly an adventure, as you’ll likely see belted kingfishers, eagles, deer, and variety of frogs and wildflowers.

It’s pretty neat when you can work at a job you’ve enjoyed for 25 years and take the best parts of that job and start a new career.  That’s what I did after working 25 years as a director for a local land conservation department before I joined Trout Unlimited as project manager for the Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TUDARE).  On a daily basis I worked with landowners on stream restoration projects using Farm Bill conservation funds.

That’s still hands-down a favorite part of my job—travelling to meet with a landowner or one of our cooperating agencies to look at a stream we want to restore.  We’ll discuss what habitat practices we want to incorporate, and if there are any opportunities to include habitat for some nongame species.

Repairing an eroded streambank

The Driftless Area Restoration Effort is all about building capacity and partnerships around stream restoration.  We’ve known for years that if we stabilize eroding banks and incorporate overhead cover for adult trout that we can improve the fisheries ten-fold, and in many cases create a self-sustaining trout population!

While we are improving the fisheries we can also improve water quality by eliminating a direct source of sediment from the eroding banks, and even install some habitat for non-game species like frogs, snakes, birds and turtles.

There are many county, state, federal and nonprofit organizations like Trout Unlimited chapters developing projects to restore the 4,000-plus miles of cold water streams in the Driftless.  Most of these projects involve working with private landowners located on cold-water streams where an angling easement has been secured.

To help stretch out project dollars we partner with landowners to pursue Farm Bill dollars that can be applied to stabilize eroding banks and incorporate habitat for fish and nongame species.  The new Driftless Landscape Initiative will bring in an estimated $1 million each year for the next five years to help restore cold-water steams.

The Driftless is a special place. And because of TU’s efforts, it’s just going to keep getting better for anglers in years to come.

Jeff Hastings is project manager for TU’s Driftless Area Restoration Effort.