Founded in 2000, DALC is a nonprofit land trust organization centered in Dodgeville, WI. Over forty such land trusts are scattered throughout the state, Filipiak explains, but at the time there was a “donut hole” in southwest Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Driftless Area landowners were seeking to preserve beloved landscapes with steep, forested hills and valleys, rock outcrops, and spring-fed trout streams.
The Driftless Area Land Conservancy serves both the land and the people of the unglaciated Southwest Wisconsin. DALC counsels landowners through the conservation easement process to protect designated private properties from development, manages habitat on its own preserves, and connects people to the land by providing access to nature and through volunteer restoration efforts. DALC also works with agricultural landowners to help them protect waterways.
For Filipiak, the Driftless Area is not just about the landscape. “The culture here is defined by our geology,” she says. “We know why we have rock outcrops here and groundwater seeps there. We have smaller farm fields and more grazing with our hills. And there is a Driftless community here who connect to nature through the arts.”
One such artist, Roland Sardeson, helped DALC secure one of its nature preserves when he donated his 12-acre wooded site near Mineral Point upon his death in 2016. Sardeson was a potter, stone mason, and beloved community theatre actor. “Everyone knew Roland,” Filipiak says, which may be why the Mineral Point community has been so helpful in building trails, an informational kiosk, and a parking area at what is now called the Sardeson Preserve.
The Sardeson Preserve offers a one-mile wooded hiking loop among 30-foot sandstone bluffs, tumbled boulders, through a stream-bottom valley, and across a dry-bed creek bed that occasionally gifts arrowheads to passersby. “If I were someone who lived here before development, this is where I would have hung out,” Filipiak muses.
My wife Dianne and I first visited the Sardeson Preserve in April 2023. I was quickly drawn to the sandstone bluffs. The surface of the yellow, tan, and green-streaked sandstone undulates in whorls and waves reminiscent of the primordial seashores in which it was formed. Brush your hand against the stone and you are immediately wearing remnants of this ancient sandy beach. Wind and water have continued sculpting its pottered texture.
Though it was a spring day, winter hadn’t yet released its hold on the forest floor, so the tumbled boulders were in easy view. Large and scattered on one slope, the boulders are plentiful though smaller across the valley. There they were stacked and layered as if waiting to be redeployed, and in fact some past landowner had built a handsome stone fence—dry-stacked, Irish-style—to mark the edge of the property.
Winter-melt had caused some mild flooding in the valley floor on this April day, and Spring Peeper frogs ratcheted their wet delight as we hiked.
I returned by myself in late May. In the stream bottom, just beyond the preserve, lowing cattle had replaced the Spring Peepers now that the bottomland had dried up and spring grasses were thriving. Ferns, mayapples, prairie grasses, and (yes) poison ivy had softened the tumbled boulders. Hillsides were lush with Dame’s Rocket, an invasive yet striking forest flower that had turned the woods into a sea of purple and white.
The Sardeson Preserve is one of three properties owned by the Driftless Conservancy. But much of its work also involves collaborating with private landowners. One such privately owned property with a conservation easement overseen by the DALC is the Weaver Road trail segment of what will eventually become the Driftless Trail.
Located seven miles north of Dodgeville, the one-mile hiking trail begins along the perimeter of Seven Seeds Organic Farm and then dips down into a wooded valley. Three “Leopold benches”—a simple wooden bench design made popular by the famed conservationist Aldo Leopold who lived not far from here—announce the pathway into the forest.
The trail glides along a hogback ridge, a landform in which a narrow spine of hard bedrock straddles above steep downward slopes on either side. At the end of the ridge, the trail switchbacks down into a valley of 90-year-old oaks and walnuts. This isn’t virgin timber. It was likely once cleared for pasture, but long-ago abandoned, its native trees are returning to glory. The return trail is more overgrown, its canopy having been decimated by a 2014 tornado. But that simply means to wear long pants and walk the trail often to better establish the path!
For now, the trail loops back to its beginning, with about a 250-foot drop from trailhead to valley floor. Eventually it will become part of the 50-mile Driftless Trail that DALC is helping to piece together. Although it is a thirty-year vision, when completed, the Driftless Trail will take hikers across private and public lands passing through Governor Dodge State Park, Taliesin (Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural studio and school) and Tower Hill State Park near Spring Green. The trail will provide a wildlife corridor from Military Ridge (an existing trail originating in Dodgeville) to the Wisconsin River.
Privately-owned trail segments will be negotiated only with willing landowners. “Many landowners enjoy sharing the natural wonders of their lands,” says Filipiak, and DALC will work with them to create permanent easements for the Driftless Trail.
Many such landowners are area farmers. Having previously worked for both the Nature Conservancy and the American Farmland Trust, Filipiak is convinced that “agriculture and conservation need to, and can, work together, not be fighting each other.”
After all, the goal of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy is to serve people, not just the land, Filipiak insists. “We’re not protecting land from people; we’re protecting land for people.”
-- June 2023