The Baraboo River in south-central Wisconsin is the longest restored free-flowing river in America, with hopes to become nationally designated as such. Since the last of the dams were removed in the early 2000s, the river is on its way to becoming a premier water recreation destination—and a rousing model for multi-community and multi-jurisdictional collaboration.
The story of the Baraboo River Corridor Project has been moving swiftly through Juneau and Sauk counties in Wisconsin, winning the favor of nearly every community the waterway touches. It has also been transforming this once sleepy part of the state into a burgeoning eco-tourism destination.
It all began with a Phase I River Corridor Plan in the spring of 2016. The plan focused on the stretch of the river between Baraboo and North Freedom to improve water quality and enhance recreational use. It targeted the creation of canoe and kayak launches, fishing piers, ADA-accessible landings, shoreline protection and fish habitat development. Travelers and water recreation enthusiasts began to take notice, and the municipalities noticed an uptick in visitor traffic. One of the first recommendations of the plan to be implemented was a fundraising group—the Friends of the Baraboo River—established to promote the river corridor and ensure the financial realization of the corridor’s potential.
After completion of the Phase I Plan, a market study of the area was completed in 2018. MSA’s study looked at both the economic development and tourism potential of the river corridor, as well as environmental and accessibility needs within the beautiful natural amenities the region already offered. The key discovery was that the Baraboo River needed additional support to realize its potential as a premier water recreation destination. It needed planning to sustain and protect its ecological health but also presented an opportunity to connect more communities, and people, along its path.
The market study identified a burgeoning potential for population and tourism growth within the area, and a means to restore—and grow—residential, economic and job opportunities. MSA discovered that nearly 20 million people were living in urban centers within 225 miles of the Baraboo River corridor. This untapped population needed only to be aware of all the opportunities the corridor had to offer.
With the success of Phase I, communities up river began to take notice, and the City of Reedsburg reached out to MSA to begin development of Phase II. This phase adds the support of Rock Springs, Reedsburg, LaValle, Wonewoc, Hillsboro, Union Center and Elroy, along with Juneau and Sauk counties. The plan focused on the Phase II corridor section and each community specifically, all with strong catalytic potential to enhance recreational opportunities. It also provided detailed recommendations related to marketing, public/private partnerships, funding, land and development, and best practices for stormwater management and improving water quality.
With Phases I and II complete, the Friends of the Baraboo River recently held a meeting with all of the communities involved to discuss next steps they can take together to implement the River Corridor Plan and come up with a plan to unify efforts. The Friends of the Baraboo River has also taken up many different initiatives aimed at making the Baraboo River Corridor a recreation destination. Some of these initiatives have included: hosting river-related events and races, organizing river clearing opportunities, purchasing equipment for clearing, fundraising, and general promotion of the river corridor.
To date, individual communities have completed recommendations such as installing ADA-accessible canoe and kayak launches and completing much-needed shoreline stabilization work. With assistance from MSA funding experts, approximately $1.2 million in grant funding has been secured for $2.3 million of projects recommended in the Baraboo River Corridor plans.
The Friends of the Baraboo River also anticipate submitting an application seeking the designation of the river as a National Water Trail through the National Park Service. So far, the NPS has been supportive of the project and eager to help it move closer to this designation. If it earns the designation, the 120-mile river would officially become the longest restored free-flowing river National Water Trail in the country.