Audubon Takes Minnesota and Wisconsin Policy Makers on Tour of Upper Mississippi

Remaining river floodplain forests provide biodiversity, flood mitigation.
Minnesota and Wisconsin legislators and Audubon staff tour the floodplain forests of the Upper Mississippi River, May 2023. Photo: Lianne Milton

**This article was co-written by Audubon’s Lindsay J. Brice and Brian Vigue.**

Last week, Audubon and the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) took a cohort of Minnesota and Wisconsin legislators and staff on a boat tour to learn about critical habitat and floodplain forest loss along the Upper Mississippi River. In all, nine lawmakers and two congressional staff came along for the ride.

The day began with a visit to the Upper Mississippi River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center to learn about the history of the Mississippi River and critical floodplain forest habitat. LaCrosse, Wisc. Mayor Mitch Reynolds, Audubon’s Rob Schultz, NCEL’s Angela Yuan, and Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Refuge Manager Tim Miller welcomed policymakers to the area.

Audubon works closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Upper Mississippi River National Fish & Wildlife Refuge on reforestation projects. Over the past eight years, Audubon planted more than 100,000 trees and improved more than 2,200 acres of bottomland forest through this collaboration, supported in part by funding from Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund, as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature.

On the boat tour, Conservation Director Dr. Dale Gentry, alongside Policy Directors Lindsay J. Brice and Brian Vigue, facilitated an educational experience for attendees to learn about the opportunities and challenges of the Mississippi River’s floodplain forests, the birds and other wildlife that depends on them, and the importance of natural infrastructure and nature-based solutions on the river and in the watershed. Policymakers talked directly with Forest Ecologist  Jeff Butler, who leads tree planting on the river, and Kimberly Scott, who they are more accustomed to seeing at the Capitol. Attendees enjoyed seeing Bald Eagles, Prothonotary Warblers, Tree Swallows, Mallards, Double-crested cormorants, Warbling Vireos, Great Blue Herons, a massive beaver lodge, and other wildlife using this important floodplain forest habitat.

Attendees were also thrilled to meet Brice Prairie Conservation Association members—who serenaded us with a River Song as we landed at a floodplain forest planting site. Given they are a valuable partner to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this site provided yet another great example of partnership as we all work to address the loss of floodplain forest habitat at all levels of government.

As habitat and floodplain forests along the Mississippi River continue to decrease in quantity and quality, this degradation impacts biodiversity, water quality, soil erosion, and flooding. Legislators discussed state-level policy solutions, opportunities to learn from their colleagues across the border, and ways to leverage the recent federal funding opportunities to support natural infrastructure that also supports crucial habitat and local economies.

“This was a great opportunity for legislators to experience the importance of clean water, pollution reduction, and habitat protection firsthand,” said Dylan McDowell, Executive Director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. “It’s our hope that touring the river can serve as inspiration and give them firsthand knowledge for effective policymaking. We look forward to seeing new collaborations that are spurred from this event.”

There is no substitute for seeing our incredible natural landscapes up close to bring meaning to the areas we work to protect and restore. We are grateful to the lawmakers who took the time to join us to learn more about the important floodplain forest habitat and the birds of the Upper Mississippi River.

“Minnesotans have continually recommitted to investing in our environment between our Legacy Amendment and our ENRTF which Minnesota voters will have the opportunity to reauthorize next year,” said Minnesota Rep. Sydney Jordan. “Legislators are lucky to partner with our Wisconsin colleagues, the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Audubon Society to learn about natural infrastructure solutions to protect the Mississippi River and the people and wildlife that depend on it.”

“The Mississippi River Legislative Caucus under the NCEL umbrella provides very positive networking and learning opportunities,” stated Wisconsin Rep. Jill Billings. “Our boat trip on the Mississippi backwaters and main channel was an excellent firsthand learning experience on efforts to restore native species, foster natural habitat, create water calming initiatives and provide refuge on the national bird flyway. It’s not every day that legislators get to spend a beautiful day on the river with so many field experts!”

Healthy wetlands and floodplains are important natural infrastructure on the river and the watershed that store floodwaters, reduce flood peaks and provide habitat for birds and wildlife in the region. Working to secure a bright future for the birds and local communities has never been more important. We appreciate the lawmakers who joined us to learn more about our work to restore forest floodplain and wetland habitat because we know healthy birds mean healthy communities.

Audubon MN IA MO and Audubon Great Lakes thank the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators for their partnership, our USFWS hosts, the incredible volunteer U.S. Coast Guard Captain and USFWS volunteer Fritz Funk who piloted the boat, and all of the attendees who took time out of their busy day to learn more about this precious resource.