Construction of new USFWS facility at Luster Heights slated for this summer

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This artist’s rendering shows the likely appearance of the new USFWS building at Luster Heights. Construction is slated to begin early this summer and take 18 to 24 months.

By Kelli Boylen, Freelance Writer


Luster Heights, located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River south of Harpers Ferry, was a minimum security prison camp from 1962 until the Iowa Department of Corrections closed the facility in 2017.


Soon, this land will have a new life as the McGregor District Headquarters of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.


The USFWS McGregor District office was located against the base of the bluff between McGregor and Marquette from the 1980s until 2015. The building was vacated due to mold issues resulting from water damage and frequent damage to vehicles from tumbling rocks. The USFWS staff has been housed in a leased building north of Prairie du Chien since and has been searching for a permanent location. 


Finding a good location hasn’t been easy, said Kendra Pednault, McGregor District Manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge.  They wanted to be on or near the lands and waters they are responsible for managing. They didn’t want to build in the floodplain, nor take away from land that was refuge habitat.


The Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the former prison camp site from the state of Iowa in March 2020 for $211,000.


Pednault said the USFWS purchased the 26 acres that was the correctional facility, and they will use eight acres for the new facilities. The remainder of the land will be restored to savanna. 


Currently, the USFWS still uses the shop at the old location between McGregor and Marquette, and stores equipment in warehouses in Lansing, Farmersburg and at the Genoa Fish Hatchery (which sits on USFWS land). The new location at Luster Heights will allow them to have most equipment in one central location, which will be easier logistically and more cost-effective, said Pednault. Once the building project is complete, they will excess the McGregor and Farmersburg locations. They will keep the Lansing location because of its proximity to the river. 


Pednault added that another advantage of the new location is that it is surrounded by the Luster Heights Unit of Yellow River State Forest. 


“It’s an excellent fit,” Pednault said, noting that the land management goals will be similar, and visitors to the USFWS visitor contact space and offices can enjoy what the state forest has to offer, and vice-versa. The new USFWS will have a public restroom open to the outside for visitors to use, as well as improved parking. 


The new 6,000-square-foot multi-purpose building will house the USFWS staff, which varies from four to 10 people, including summer seasonals. This facility will have a multi-purpose space available for educational activities, meetings, training and volunteer events. The small visitor contact area with displays will be similar to what they had at the McGregor location. 


There will be two other buildings constructed, including a 6,000-square-foot maintenance and storage facility and a 5,000-square-foot storage building. These new structures will provide the space necessary to secure, properly store and maintain the valuable equipment necessary for the Refuge to meet habitat and public use goals.


The buildings from the correctional facility were abandoned in 2017. By the time the USFWS assessed the buildings in 2022, there had been a lot of vandalism and water damage. The largest and newest building at the site was a large shop building. Pednault said they hoped to renovate that structure to their needs, but the building was not a good fit and would have required more changes than would have made sense economically. The new maintenance shop will be climate-controlled, have pull-through bays for equipment, a lift for maintaining vehicles and a well-designed and efficient work area. 


Pednault said Habitat for Humanity out of LaCrosse had staff and volunteers on-site to salvage materials before the buildings were razed. 


The correctional facility used three water retention ponds. Two of them have been dismantled and filled in and are being restored to savanna. The third will remain and be incorporated into the water-runoff management. A trail is planned around the pond. 


Other aspects of this construction project will include widening and paving the existing single-lane gravel road from the current Luster Heights parking lot to the new facilities to accommodate two-way traffic, construction of a 4,000-square-foot hard-surfaced parking area and grass overflow area, on-site gravity septic system, construction of trails to connect to off-site state forest trails and associated infrastructure (security fence, above-ground fuel tanks, etc.)


This site also allows for future expansion if needed, and they are considering a simple outdoor amphitheater that could be used for school groups or other public programs. 


The McGregor District office oversees 92,000 acres (Pools 9, 10 and 11) of the 240,000 acres of the Refuge (Pools 4 through 14) of the Mississippi River; they also oversee the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge, which consists of 15 parcels of land that are managed to protect rare and fragile ecosystems left from the last ice age, known as algific talus slopes. 


Pednault said bids for the project will be reviewed in the near future and it is hoped construction will begin in early summer. Once it starts, it is expected it will take 18 to 24 months to complete. 


Funding for this project is provided by the Great American Outdoors Act funds.

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