Press Release

Creating the Upper Mississippi River Refuge in 1924 Kicked Off the Modern Conservation Movement


During 2024, conservation groups in the U.S. will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. In events, exhibits and publications during the year, the refuge will be recognized for its value as wildlife habitat and a resource for outdoor recreation while also acknowledging that the river faces a host of environmental challenges today.

Establishing the refuge in 1924 was a monumental achievement due almost wholly to the efforts of the Izaak Walton League of America. In response to plans to drain and fill wetland habitat from Lake Pepin, Minn. south to Rock Island, Ill., the League leveraged its 100,000 members to urge Congress, the White House and four states to protect these vital resources within a new national wildlife and fish refuge.

The campaign to protect the upper Mississippi didn’t just establish the largest wildlife refuge of its time, it created the template for the modern conservation movement that helped produce a wave of grassroots actions that would ultimately drive dozens of major conservation achievements in the decades that followed.

The Izaak Walton League was created in Chicago, January 1922, and many of its early chapters and members came from the Midwest. Describing the League’s work to save the Upper Mississippi wetlands, historian Stephen Fox wrote, “It was a phenomenon—the first conservation group with a mass membership…It brought new pressures on Congress through its sheer size and because it spoke for a different area of the country.”

In his book, The Great River, historian Phillip Scarpino called the League’s grassroots effort to save the Upper Mississippi in the 1920s, “the first modern environmental campaign.”

100 Years Later

Today, this refuge protects 240,000 acres of the Mississippi floodplain and wetlands along 261 miles of the river, from Wabasha, Minnesota, to Rock Island, Illinois.

The refuge continues to provide essential habitat for fish and wildlife species in the region including 57 mammals, 260 fish, 37 freshwater mussels and 45 amphibians and reptiles. The Upper Mississippi is a globally important flyway for more than 300 bird species and 40 percent of all North American waterfowl.

The bluffs, vistas and trails found in the refuge host about 3.7 million visits each year for hiking, boating, wildlife observations, fishing, hunting and other recreation, which support $125 million in outdoor recreation and tourism. The Upper Mississippi River also faces challenges and threats—including pollution, climate change and invasive species.

The Izaak Walton League is celebrating the centennial of the refuge with a number of partners:

  • Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge staff
  • Friends of Refuge Headwaters
  • Friends of Trempealeau Refuge
  • Friends of the Refuge Mississippi River Pools 7 & 8
  • Friends of Pool 9
  • Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge
  • Big River Magazine
  • Lake Onalaska Protection and Rehabilitation District
  • Izaak Walton League of America Minnesota Division
  • Izaak Walton League Wapasha Chapter, Wapasha, Minn.
  • Izaak Walton League Will Dilg Chapter, Winona, Minn.



LaCrosse, Wisc.  Feb. 22, 23, 2024

“A Visit from Will Dilg” and Scenes from Our Might Mississippi, A live performance featuring Steven Marking

The Pumphouse Regional Arts Center

February 22 1:30 PM, February 23 730 PM     

119 King Street, La Crosse, Wisc. 54601

Art exhibition: 100th Anniversary of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge, Front Gallery


Lansing, Iowa, March 8, 9, 2024

Friends of Pool 9 -  free refuge centennial celebration events:

March 8  Student Day

“A Visit from Will Dilg” plus Scenes from the film Our Mighty Mississippi by Steven Marking

8:30 - 10:30 am  For Grade 5-12 Students in De Soto, WI School District; 1- 3 pm  For Grade 5-12 Students in Eastern Allamakee, IA School District

March 9, Public Matinee plus Evening of Live Music

2 - 4 PM “A Visit from Will Dilg” + Scenes from Our Mighty Mississippi by Steven Marking.

7 PM - Close  Live music by Jon “Hawk” Stravers and Big Blue Sky

Location: TJ Hunters Banquet Hall, 377 Main Street, Lansing, Iowa 563-419-4991 


Winona, Minn., June 7-8, 2024

Refuge Centennial Film Festival

Izaak Walton League, Winona Chapter

Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League fights for clean air and water, healthy fish and wildlife habitat and conservation of our natural resources for future generations. The League plays a unique role in supporting community-based science and local conservation and has a long legacy of shaping sound national policy. See


Michael Reinemer, Communications Director,; 301-548-0150 ext. 220

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