By Emily Benz
Vision and generosity are a potent combination — one that offered a brilliant display at the close of 2020 as a conservation buyer worked with the Driftless Area Land Conservancy to create a new 308-acre preserve in southern Dane County that, for now, we are calling the Spring Valley Tract.
Five miles outside the town of New Glarus, this preserve will serve as a flagship property for the Dodgeville-based DALC that includes native habitat restoration and management, public access for recreation and outdoor learning, and a shift to regenerative agriculture all in one place.
It is not every day that opportunity and resources align as seamlessly as they have for this project. Driftless Area native Fil Sanna went looking for a way to return to the land near his boyhood home between Mount Horeb and Black Earth. He wanted to find a habitat restoration project on a gem of a property — one that needed some tender care but that had great promise. He wanted to create a special legacy of conservation by donating this property to DALC and assuring its protection forever.
Through a fortunate referral from The Nature Conservancy, Fil called DALC and shared his vision. Fil wanted to buy a property to live and work on himself, but with a legacy plan in place for the long-term protection and care for the land after he is gone. Ultimately, the model that worked best for this scenario was donating the land to DALC, with an endowment fund for long-term management. DALC Executive Director Jen Filipiak and land protection specialist Cindy Becker took up the charge and visited several sites together before a fortuitous partner in the Town of Primrose got wind of the project.
Martha Gibson, Town of Primrose supervisor, knew of a particularly special property loaded with native plants and slated for sale to a developer. “When I visited the site I immediately saw native wetland plants and I would look up at the sandstone bluff, see remnant prairie, little blue stem, cactus … I thought it was special.” Martha was working to get area nonprofits to look at the property and introduced it to local ecologist David Cordray, who confirmed that it indeed had considerable ecological value. Martha, David and Cindy all agreed this place needed protection. According to Martha, “it is a diamond in the rough,” and seeing its potential demanded everyone’s attention.
The property itself is remarkably diverse and has value much greater than any plot of homes and blacktop. The northeast corner boasts a 25-30-acre bur oak savanna with sand prairie beneath it. There are about 90 acres of mesic upland forest mixed with oak woodlands interspersed with pockets of oak openings. And for good measure, there’s a 50-acre wetland complex, pasture dotted with native plants and contoured crop land. The entire site drains to a spring-fed cold-water stream that flows through the property.
The group finally introduced the land to Fil and, although it was much larger than he initially envisioned, it became the site where he could enact his dream. He was smitten with the land and its potential and knew he would need sustainable partnerships to make it all happen. Fil sought to collaborate with a long-time friend and the two purchased the property in late 2020. With DALC’s expansive network of resources and Fil’s jovial connection to countless neighbors, he felt confident that the vision was moving forward with adequate support. On Dec. 31, 2020, the property was transferred to DALC, along with the beginning of an endowment fund for its care, and a commitment in sweat equity. Fil will live on a portion of the property owned by him and will be the preserve’s lead volunteer land steward under the direction of DALC. He is excited to share the restoration process, the abounding beauty and outdoor classroom for years to come.
“The whole thing has unfolded into more than I possibly could’ve imagined,” Fil reflected recently. “It feels like I am weaving a tapestry with threads that go back to childhood memories of living on native prairie. Something within my heart drew me to this project. I am absolutely convinced that unseen, benevolent forces are helping this all come together.”
The whole team at DALC is thrilled by the opportunity to showcase that ecological restoration, outdoor recreation and agriculture can work in concert with one another. This site will become a place of learning, collaboration and enjoyment. “The combination of the longer-term partnership and funding together with staff commitment makes this an exciting project,” said DALC Board member Carol Lind during a recent Board meeting.
The Spring Valley Tract will open to the public once a land management plan and strategies for careful use have been properly mapped out. “This property has extremely fragile habitat along with a complex hydrology — water flows over, under and through the property in unique ways which give rise to such diverse habitats,” notes Filipiak. “We must understand the rhythms of the natural systems before we can start building access for the public.” For the time being, the public can only access the property through DALC-led events.
The land has a rich history and a promising future. As Fil puts it, “We will be building a human community here that is equally important to the ecological one we seek to restore.”
Fil’s vision and the immense generosity of this community are making a way for future connections to the land and to each other. It is with deep gratitude and great optimism that we announce this project and look forward to sharing it with you in all the days to come.
Emily Benz is education programs coordinator and communications lead at the Driftless Area Land Conservancy. For information about ways to support DALC restoration efforts at Spring Valley and to sign up to learn about volunteer opportunities and events at Spring Valley, see www.driftlessconservancy.org/spring-valley. For another view of Spring Valley and poem by Fil Sanna, see here.