(Editor’s Note: The following article was originally printed in February of this year by JBR web magazine, https://juliebergraymond.com, and is being reprinted here with permission by JBR web magazine. Since the original article was printed, demolition began Monday, June 6 at the former Luster Heights facility and is expected to be completed by June 26.)
The former Luster Heights prison camp in rural Harpers Ferry will become the headquarters of the McGregor District of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge by 2025. Preliminary plans called for replacing the buildings of the minimum-security prison, extending trails from the surrounding Yellow River Forest through the property and constructing an ADA-compatible river overlook as part of the overall project.
The McGregor District headquarters had been nestled into the foot of the bluffs between Marquette and McGregor, but the too-small site was subject to water leaks and falling rock. Most recently, the headquarters’ offices have been housed in a rented building south of the Cabela’s store in Prairie du Chien, WI. The Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the former prison camp site from the State of Iowa in March 2020 for $211,000.
The Luster Heights site is a good fit for the refuge offices because it is surrounded by Yellow River State Forest lands and the area has already been built on once, so the refuge won’t be disturbing virgin land, said the refuge’s new director, Kendra Pednault. “The Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t really want to be down in the floodplain, but they had been searching for a place that still had that connection to the river,” she said. “We don’t want to take out habitat to build new buildings, so here was a footprint that we could build in and not have to do that. It has other cool advantages in that the property around it is protected, so we know who our neighbors are going to be for a while. It’s a very similar land management, so that fits in well too. And then, it’s got an incredible view of the river and the lands that we manage.”
Facility buildings that remained on the site and were abandoned by the State of Iowa corrections system after Luster Heights was closed in 2017 have been vandalized and most will be torn down (a project that began this past week). The new refuge facility plan is being developed by the Minneapolis, MN firm Cushing Terrell, which does a wide range of architectural, design, historic preservation, and engineering work.
Bear Creek Archeology, of Cresco, was tasked with conducting a cultural resources study of the area. With what looks to be a mound on the property, Bear Creek’s study checked into the possibility of past inhabitants that would deem the area not already built upon be preserved or left undisturbed. With those results in hand, Cushing Terrell will proceed to create the final site plan.
Pednault said the refuge had hoped to get the archaeological information before this spring. “I’m not sure we’ll stay on the original timeline now, but maybe we’ll be able to put out a construction contract in late 2022, early 2023. And then there will be 18 months to construct. If we would start construction in summer of 2023, we would be done late 2024 or early 2025,” she said.
(Note: According to the most recent information provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, construction on the new office and maintenance facilities is expected to begin in the fall of 2023 or early 2024. For more information on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its people, visit www.fws.gov.)
Among the preliminary ideas for the property, Pednault said, are filling in a couple of the three sewage ponds that the prison camp used and restoring them to native savanna plants. The third pit may be turned into a wetland. Pednault said another idea “is to have a trail that goes around the pond out to the beautiful ADA-accessible overlook that we would construct.”
New buildings would include a visitor contact station, which will be open during the week and have a handful of exhibits. Restrooms would be available to the public, an amenity that Yellow River State Forest does not currently have. There will also be a shop facility and a cold storage building where the refuge might keep boats and heavy equipment.
Pednault said access to the State Forest trails would remain open during construction of the headquarters, although trail access is currently being adjusted during the demolition and rubble removal phase of the project. (Note: According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the current demolition project is expected to be completed by June 26. The demolition site and entrance road will be closed to public access until demolition is completed. Visitors to the surrounding Yellow River State Forest Luster Heights Unit are asked to enter the trail system from the west as a section of the north trail will be closed for three weeks to accommodate the construction traffic.)
In regard to the refuge plans, Allamakee County Supervisor Dan Byrnes said, “This sounds like a good use for the property. It will be another place for visitors and residents to enjoy what we have in Allamakee County.”
Alex Galema, a former employee of the prison camp and president of Friends of Pool 9, said the new headquarters, accessed via the gravel Luster Heights Road south of Harpers Ferry, “might be harder to find than where they are now, but it’ll be worth the trip up there.”
The refuge employs four people in addition to Pednault for the nearly 93,000 acres that it manages: an assistant director, a biologist, and administrative and maintenance workers. Seasonal employees are hired during field season, when the river is not frozen. A volunteer may staff the new visitor contact station.
In addition to the fish and wildlife refuge, the office also manages the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge - parcels of land in Iowa that have been protected for their algific talus slopes habitat. Cool air leaking from ice-filled caves provides the ideal micro-habitat for the Iowa Pleistocene Snail and Northern Monkshood plant, in particular.
Pednault has worked all over the country for the wildlife service, most recently in Virginia. But she’s no stranger to the Mississippi River, having worked as assistant manager in the refuge’s La Crosse district for eight years prior to her stint in Virginia.
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