Driftless Terroir: Innovating Cooperatives for Eco-Restoration

By Heather Harris

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).”
— Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac”

Heather Harris

In the early 1930s, naturalist Aldo Leopold stopped at a farm in southwestern Wisconsin for a drink of water during a meander and forged a friendship that evolved into the Riley Game Cooperative. The cooperative was a hunting preserve located between Mt. Horeb and Verona — a collaboration between farmers and sportsmen that aimed to revive and manage a healthy pheasant population and habitat. Members gained hunting access by working on the land: building winter shelters, planting shrubs and trees and helping raise and track animals.

Almost a century later, I’m meandering the Driftless myself, heading from my home in Mineral Point to see my friend Chris Ladika in Cazenovia and learn about a similar collaboration he’s embarking on with two other visionaries. I wind through the twisty curves of Highway 130 along Otter Creek, take the old Wisconsin River bridge and head through Lone Rock where early river navigators used a sandstone promontory to mark their path. I drive past the Smith Slough and Sand Prairie State Natural Area and soar along Highway 58 through big-named small places like Ithaca and Neptune. The lush Willow Creek watershed is hugged by forested foothills and dotted by sandstone cliffs. All along the way, there are lots and lots of whitetail deer.

A mural of the old Pickety Chute railroad shows the Cazenovia townsite. 

I reach the sweet 1850s village of Cazenovia, population 358, and make my way into the historic storefront where Chris lives. An avid hunter and budding land manager, he reminds me that today merely 5 percent of Richland County is public property. “One outcome of current agricultural policy is an explosion in deer herds, who have no natural predators en masse,” he says. The arrival of chronic wasting disease, a prion disease causing rapid fatal deterioration, means that herds have progressively grown “younger.” “Fertility is outrunning its headlights, but CWD creates a built-in expiration — and children end up raising children,” he continues. CWD advocacy, policy intervention and collaborative hunting can help manage the spread of the disease if the public demands it. Barring better tools, fed-up locals guided by Leopold’s land ethic are making a direct effort.

Pairing Leopoldian philosophy with modern tech, a new cooperative will provide a digital registry where landowners can post their conservation wishlists and match with individuals who post their resumes and desired land use.

Chris was taught up by fellow Cazenovian and evolving steward Doug Duren and Washington heritage livestock homesteader and media expert Lyndsey Braun to solve the deficit of private land access for sportsfolk. The Cooperative Overground will provide the tools, legal advice, technical information and communication network needed to start. Their larger purpose is to recognize the value of the land, propagate relationships between landowners and landseekers, and provide the skills necessary for repairing local ecological mistakes.

Chris’ family property in Cazenovia is one of his current forestwork projects.

Chris takes me on a hike of the family property he is working to restore, a gorgeous hilly stretch of oak, hickory and elm forest, where deer and turkey roam a fairyland of fern, jack-in-the-pulpit and mayapple and nibble on morels, oysters and forgotten fruits. At the same time, bush honeysuckle, boxelder and other species choke out native food sources for animals. “Land management can be an overwhelming task, due to lack of resources or equipment,” Chris explains. “I’d trade a weekend of honeysuckle popping for a week of hunting access.”

Pairing Leopoldian philosophy with modern tech, the cooperative will provide a digital registry where members can create virtual profiles. Landowners will be able to wishlist their projects (everything from general restoration assistance to skilled labor) and match with individuals who post their conservation resumes and desired land use. The organization’s primary model is the five-generation Duren Farm in southwestern Wisconsin, which has been a structural experiment for the past decade. By sharing what has worked, the cooperative hopes to take local success and seed it regionally. “The structure smooths the way for conservation efforts and creates an opportunity to take direct action for natural resource goals, as determined by those impacted immediately,” Chris says.

Those interested in learning more about this emerging organization can subscribe to the newsletter found at dougduren.com. Related upcoming events include the Hill and Valley Exploration Tour Sept. 18-21 and the Cazenovia Doe Derby Dec. 9-11 — a raffle-prize event in which the only way to gain a raffle ticket is by registering a doe. In addition, Chris encourages landowners and individuals to investigate local free and low-cost resources available through other existing organizations and initiatives, all being listed on www.dougduren.com/landmanagement.

Heather Harris is an aspiring every(wo)man, glowing mother and life-quirk enthusiast. Chris Ladika is an intensely literate Merle Haggard building a soul in the country.