When he talks about the lower Wisconsin River valley, Mark Cupp has the eloquence of a poet. The executive director of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board describes the 80,000-acre preserve - established along 92 undammed river miles between Prairie du Sac and the Wisconsin's confluence with the Mississippi - in language that conjures panoramic bluff-top vistas, sandbars shrouded in dawn mist, sacred effigy mounds and the majesty of raptors.
"When I'm out on the river paddling," he says, "and see an eagle fly overhead, it just fills my soul."
He will bring his love for the riverway to Canoecopia, the annual paddlesports expo at the Alliant Energy Center. He is scheduled to join anthropologist and archeologist Robert Salzer in a presentation on the riverway's value at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 7, and 11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 8.
Cupp hopes to impart a sense of the riverway's history during his Canoecopia presentation, along with the practicalities and rewards of exploring the lower Wisconsin, fundamentals of river safety and etiquette, "some points of interest that are accessible by canoe and kayak, and a sense of the cultural landscape."
He defines cultural landscape as "the land around us that becomes part of the fabric of our life," from sites like Ferry Bluff to the many effigy mounds that survive along the lower Wisconsin. "If you have manmade earthworks on the landscape that are still here 1,000 years after they were constructed," he observes, "it's a portal to take you back to the time when people were building these massive earthworks."
Cupp traces his affection for the river to childhood. He grew up in Richland Center. His family paid frequent visits to the lower Wisconsin. Back then, he never imagined there would be such a thing as the riverway preserve, or that he would enjoy the good fortune to land the job of executive director for its board.
Established by the state in 1989, after years of contentious planning and negotiation, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway remains a work in progress. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has so far acquired about 47,000 acres of almost 80,000 designated for the riverway, Cupp says. Between 550 and 600 landowners account for the remaining acreage. "The long-term objective is for the state of Wisconsin, through the Department of Natural Resources, to acquire the entire 80,000 acres from willing sellers," he adds.
The board administers a code of standards that strive to protect and preserve the natural character of the river and its valley by controlling land use. The standards don't bar development in the riverway outright, but are aimed at preserving scenic integrity within its boundaries. The board has jurisdiction over permits for timber harvests, construction and modification of structures and other changes that affect the riverway's esthetic value.
The continued success of the riverway hinges on the board's ability to engage riverway landowners in stewardship. Perhaps it is inevitable that suspicion or resentment will linger among some landowners who view riverway performance standards as a trespass on their property rights, but Cupp says 95% of landowners have been supportive of the riverway concept. "After almost two decades," he says, people have adapted to the new regulatory structure and "recognize that this is part of living in the valley."
There are the occasional frustrations, Cupp allows. A few years ago, the budget-driven siting of a lighted 250-foot Sauk County communications tower outside the riverway boundaries, but within view from the river, proved immune to his most earnest and eloquent testimony on behalf of the riverway board.
But for every frustration, there are rewards. The River Alliance of Wisconsin bestowed its River Champion award on him in 1999, and two years ago on the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, an alliance of passionate riverway volunteers and advocates.
Cupp says the riverway board's continued existence is all the more gratifying because "a lot of people didn't think we'd be here for very long." Cupp himself had given the board a two-year commitment to serve as executive director. Now it is 18 years later, and "I can't imagine doing anything else."
Part of his devotion for the riverway stems from an appreciation for how vulnerable the landscape is. "When you look at the growth and urban sprawl throughout population centers in the Midwest," he says, "you see how much land is vanishing. When you have a place as precious as the lower Wisconsin River valley and have the opportunity to preserve that, it instills a sense of awe."
In 1673, Marquette described the Wisconsin River as "very broad with a sandy bottom forming many shallows," flanked by "fertile lands diversified by woods, prairies and hills." Marquette's river is the pristine baseline Cupp aspires to preserve in the lower Wisconsin riverway.
"I believe the real value of this project is going to be realized 50, 75, 100 years from now," he says, "by people out on the river seeing the things we see and the things Marquette and Joliet saw, and saying, 'Boy, I'm glad somebody had the foresight.'"