An Interview with Jeff Hastings on TU’s Driftless Area Restoration Success and Challenges

By Jim Schmiedeskamp

Published June 2019 

Jeff Hastings is one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on coldwater steam restoration and upland watershed management. He has been the Project Manager for TUDARE (Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort) for over 10 years and prior to that worked for Wisconsin county land and water conservation departments for over 25 years.  Originally from Winslow in northwest Illinois, Jeff currently makes his home outside of Westby, Wisconsin on a small Christmas tree farm.

Jeff spoke at the Oak Brook (Chicago) TU Chapter meeting in March on the historical human-induced flood plain sendiment build-up in the Driftless Area, planning and construction of current stream restoration projects, the many benefits of habitat improvement and what projects TUDARE is working on now. He also shared an update on the damage to many Wisconsin Driftless Area streams as a result of the heavy rains in August 2018 and subsequent changes to some stream restoration practices.

Here’s an interview with Jeff as a follow up to presentation including the potential for Illinois Driftless Area streams supporting trout.

OBTU:  How do you describe/define the Driftless Area and its unique conservation challenges?JEFF:  The Driftless Area is a challenging place to do conservation work regardless if it is road construction, growing crops or doing stream restoration.  We are blessed with over 5,000 miles of coldwater, spring-fed streams, but we are dealing with stream banks up to 10 feet high with a high erodibility.  These soils were washed off the ridgetops between 1850 to 1930s.  These banks are unstable and with each rainfall event and spring thaw, they deposit tons and tons of sediment into our streams.  In some streams as much as 80% of the sediment reaching the stream comes directly off the eroding banks.  All said, we are living in an awesome part of the Midwest, with some of the highest biodiversity in plants and animals like nowhere else.

The four-state region (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois) that makes up the Driftless Area has over 600 streams covering over 4,500 miles.  To date, our partners have improved over 650 miles. Although we take on project management of individual streams, our primary responsibility is to act as a catalyst and accelerate stream projects throughout the four-state area.

OBTU:  What is TUDARE, how is it funded and how is it organized?
JEFF:   TUDARE has three Trout Unlimited employees: Duke Welter, Paul Krahn and myself. Duke Welter handles most of our outreach and long-range planning with organizations and environmental policy concerns; Paul Krahn is our Stream Restoration Specialist and works on all aspects of a restoration project.  He prioritizes working with county field offices (both federal and county staff) to help them build capacity to do stream restoration projects on their own. My role is to work on all aspects of project management.  I also spend a great deal of time writing and managing federal and state grants.  We rely on funding from TU chapters, foundations and other miscellaneous grants to fund our staffing.  We receive no direct funding from the national Trout Unlimited office for our salary, travel and miscellaneous expenses.

OBTU:  Where is TUDARE’s work currently focused?  How does it compare across the four states?
JEFF:   The need to do stream projects in each state varies widely, and sometimes even within the states.  For example, in Minnesota we are working with the Minnesota TU Council to develop projects through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment.  To date we have secured 10 awards totaling over $20 million dollars just for coldwater stream restoration projects.  This program has been so successful for getting projects off the ground that we will likely be hiring a full-time position to deal just with this program.  However, very few county field offices get involved with stream projects.  In Wisconsin, we use Farm Bill dollars (federal conservation dollars) as the foundation for most of our projects.  We have been working with TU chapters as well as county, federal and even state habitat crews to use these dollars for 50-75% of the cost of the project, and then raise the rest of the expenses through TU chapters, trout stamps, etc.  We are fortunate in Wisconsin to have so many county and federal employees available in the county field offices to help deliver the technical assistance needed to use these dollars.  In Minnesota, we typically must use private consultants at $50,000 to $75,000 per mile of improved stream.  We have been discussing getting our own licensed engineer on staff to help with this workload, be more cost-efficient, and more responsive to our needs.  In Illinois, we have few if any coldwater streams, but there are areas where we think brown trout would survive.  We are currently working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to improve a couple of streams and hopefully introduce some wild brown trout from Wisconsin.  Iowa is a mixed bag, with some county field offices having the technical expertise, and others not.  Several Iowa county field offices have utilized close to $1 million of our latest Regional Conservation Partnership Program award to fund twelve projects.

OBTU:  What are some examples of current projects TUDARE is working on now including costs? How have projects changed since you first started at TUDARE 10 years ago?
JEFF:  Two things come to mind when I think of how we do projects now versus 10 years ago.  We are trying to use more wood (e.g. dead or cut trees) in our projects, when the wood is available.  Banks can be stabilized with wood tied deeply into the bank, and we try to use the wood that is on-site when possible. Rock still rules when it comes to availability and stabilizing most of our high-gradient streams.  However, for the past 10 years we have had major flooding events that exceeded the designs of our projects.  We have several streams with narrow valleys and stream gradients exceeding one percent which are going to be more and more challenging to work on.  Other conservation practices are equally challenged with these high rainfall events as dams and  waterways are not designed to take these high-volume events of 8 to 15 inches in a 24-hour period.  We devoted our last Driftless Area Symposium and a paper “Driftless Symposium Proceedings” to working with Driftless Area streams with a changing climate.

OBTU:  How does the project selection process work and who does the planning and actual stream restoration project work?
JEFF:  For the most part TUDARE does not typically select projects because we do not hold the majority of the funding.  However, TUDARE is part of a National Fish Habitat Partnership that does solicit for brook trout projects.  Through this fish habitat partnership, we are able to fund two to five projects each year and contribute in the range of $40,000 each.  We also work with the Minnesota TU Council and administer Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment dollars that fund three to six projects a year. These projects are solicited through proposals from Minnesota chapters working off a list provided by the state’s DNR fisheries staff.  Most projects are completed by county field office staff working with private landowners utilizing Farm Bill dollars.  For example, in Iowa 12 projects were awarded contracts in the last round of Regional Conservation Partnership Program funds (part of the $9.2M TUDARE was awarded) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to do stream bank stabilization with habitat included for fish and wildlife.  Farm Bill dollars typical cover 50 to 75% of the costs with the landowner paying the rest, or a conservation group/TU chapter paying the landowner’s share.  We have encouraged TU chapters to work with local field offices on projects that have perpetual easements.

OBTU:  How much does it cost to improve a typical section of a stream?
JEFF:   This varies greatly depending on several factors such as: 1) where in the watershed the work is happening; 2) are there tall banks versus low banks; and 3) is it small water versus large. Typically you can expect the range to be anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 per mile.

OBTU:  How does funding for stream improvement projects generally work including NRCS grants and how TU chapter contributions fit in?
JEFF:  I touched on this briefly already, but historically TU chapters used to work hard through fund raisers to develop projects in the $5,000 to $10,000 range and were only able to do an eroding bank or two.  When I used to work for Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department, I would have landowners identify projects to stabilize their streambanks.  When I conveyed to a landowner the cost would be in the range of $45,000 to $65,000 (with their share around $16,000 and the Farm Bill program dollars covering the remaining), they would tell me the cost was too high.  Working in Vernon County with so much good water and a lot of easements, I would tell the landowner if you give Vernon County an easement (for $50), I would fund their share of the project costs.  Blackhawk, Coulee and other TU chapters and conservation organizations would often contribute $3,000 to $6,000 and soon I would have the landowner’s share.  Monroe County has secured over 80 perpetual county easements this way.  I don’t think it is realistic for a TU chapter to do all aspects of a restoration project, but by partnering with a county field office they can get very involved with contributing both time and money.  The local county field office will help you secure the Farm Bill dollars, design and provide oversight of construction, permits, etc.

The Driftless Area utilizes the lion share of the state’s Farm Bill allocation, so stream restoration projects are always competing against other conservation projects (waterways, dams, cover crops, etc.) for limited dollars.  So for the past several years, I have pursued designated dollars for stream bank stabilization and habitat.

Wisconsin recently totaled up the number of contracts for coldwater projects from 2004 through 2018 with the number of contracts totaling over 200 worth approximately $5 million.  The Regional Conservation Partnership Program award covered over 50 contracts in the first year!  In the next two years we will see the number of projects jumping to an all-time high as county field offices develop projects for this next round of RCPP dollars.  In the first sign-up, Wisconsin executed contracts for 32 projects; Iowa 12 projects; and Minnesota several miles of projects.  Illinois is waiting until 2020 to implement.

OBTU:  With the record-breaking rainfalls of 15-18 inches last summer in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area over a couple of days, how badly did the flooding harm restoration project work completed over the past few years?  How about damage to older projects?
JEFF:  I used to say I knew of a handful of streams where the typical restoration work we do would suffer damage after each major rainfall event—for example Upper Reads Creek in Vernon County and Big Spring Branch in Iowa County.  However, the 15-plus inches we received last Fall opened the door for a number of streams.  Both old and some new work in Wisconsin was pretty much blown out.  The fact is no one builds for these kinds of events.  Much of the work up in the Timber Coulee tributaries was stable for over 30 years.  It wasn’t just stream projects that suffered major damage.  NRCS lost several large flood control dams (a first in the nation); barns were washed off foundations; and every conservation practice suffered.  We recently toured these project sites with USGS, NRCS, DNR, TU, and private consultants and came to the opinion that in some of these high-gradient streams ( >1%/100’) with narrow valleys, we need to come back with a different approach such as reshaping the banks, getting the water back to the appropriate width, adding some additional habitat (no LUNKERS), and understand realistically the next big rainfall event may be coming soon.  The bottom line is to try and spend as few dollars as possible to stabilize the banks, narrow the stream and replace lost habitat.

I forgot to mention that there is a point in the watershed where everything including traditional work holds up fine.  The Weister Creek project and Timber Coulee main stem are projects that look fine.  No one wants to walk away from these great streams that are so volatile, but we do need to come back with a different approach. We are currently working with USGS to come up with some sort of model or formula to try and predict where these high-risk areas are.

OBTU:  Do you have any historical information documenting the impact of climate change on average annual rainfall and water temperatures?
JEFF:  The Driftless Master Plan (for Wisconsin) has several great sections on predictions and is available at:

OBTU:  How well did Weister Creek survive last year’s heavy rainfall?
JEFF:   I have checked out  Weister and it looks great.

OBTU:  Has the flooding changed the kind and/or priorities of TUDARE projects over the next year or two?
JEFF:  I wouldn’t say the flooding has changed our priorities, but I would say it has changed our approach in that we will review each stream/watershed differently.

OBTU:  Do we know the impact of this massive flooding on both aquatic insect and trout populations in Driftless Area streams?
JEFF:   Research from both Minnesota and Wisconsin shows that the fish populations are stable for the adult fish as they seem to find cover and ride out the storms.  The fry are the most susceptible to being lost, and major flood events can wipe out a whole age class.

OBTU:  Are building and installing LUNKER structures still the most effective stream restoration improvement tactics for Driftless Area streams?
JEFF:   Providing overhead cover still seems to be the most impactful factor, but this can be also be done with deep pools using a practice called a vortex weir which consists of placing large “cover rock”/boulders, root wads, and in many small streams tall overhanging grass.  We still utilize LUNKERs in a lot of our projects, but probably fewer per mile than we used to.

OBTU:  How much of your time is spent seeking financial support for TUDARE projects and where has most of the money been coming from?
JEFF:   I spend over half of my time pursuing grants and managing them after we receive them.  I’ve had my most success with Farm Bill grants, achieving approximately $20 million, with the last two Regional Conservation Partnership Program awards of $2.9 and $9.2 million.  But the Driftless Area Landscape Conservation Initiative also delivered over 25 miles.  The other major success has been the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment in Minnesota, where TUDARE upfronts the dollars that I help administer.  So far, we have received 10 rounds of funding and John Lenczewski, (Minnesota TU Executive Director), is applying for round 11 this week.  Each round of funding has been around $2 million…what a program!  The rest of the funding that supports TUDARE and its staff comes from TU Chapter dollars, Fish and Wildlife Service, foundations, private companies and donations.

OBTU:  TUDARE introduced a riparian habitat guide in 2007 that provides detailed information about the habitat needs of a wide variety of Driftless Area non-game fish, amphibian, invertebrate, reptile, bird, and mammal species. The guide describes specific habitat features and provides associated designs that can be integrated into upland, riparian, wetland and in-stream projects where appropriate.  Weister Creek in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area—which OBTU has helped sponsor with financial grants over the last several years—has incorporated many of these riparian habit guidelines. Did you create this guide or have input into it?  How successful has the riparian habitat approach been since its introduction 10 years ago?
JEFF:  The Nongame Habitat guide started back when I was working for the county and I was designing a stream restoration project for a landowner (Tom Lukens) on the West Fork of the Kickapoo and he asked me what we could do for the nongame species (turtles, snakes, birds, etc.). I didn’t know, so I asked Bob Hay, former Wisconsin DNR state herpetologist.  He was great and came to Vernon County and walked with several other folks I had assembled to see what we could do.  The ideas started to flow so we brainstormed and came up with our first habitat guide in 2007.  The primary purpose of the guide was to encourage folks doing stream restoration to consider what other critters might be using their project site and develop some additional habitat for them.  After the guide was published, we developed several workshops throughout the Driftless Area and invited county, federal and state organizations and others to visit a project site where we were incorporating nongame habitat, receive a free handbook and discuss what they might incorporate into their next project.  I am very pleased at the response from folks doing stream work and how they have including habitat considerations in their project planning.  Private consultants, DNR Fish Habitat Crews, county field offices and TU chapters have added hundreds of nongame features to their projects.  The guide has also helped me secure several federal and state grants and develop new partnerships with other conservation organizations.   One of the best things we did with the guide was to put all the designs and features—over 20—in an USDA format so that all of the practices are eligible for Farm Bill dollars.  We revisited the guide in 2016 adding additional features, text and a Habitat Features Decision Matrix that give conservation organizations an idea on where and when to utilize various habitat features.

OBTU:  How does habitat improvement affect the resilience of fish populations?
JEFF:   There are literally hundreds of ways stream restoration projects in the Driftless Area are helping our fish be more resilient to climate change, high rain events, less rain, and warmer temperatures.  I could devote several articles to this alone, but the highlights are…the cover helps them find areas of lower disturbance during flooding events; the overhead cover (deep pools, LUNKERs) provides protection from predators; bank stabilization improves water quality which leads to more successful hatches, strong macroinvertebrate populations, cooler temperatures, more oxygen; new seedlings provide pollinator habitat, more insects in general, and less invasive plants. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is a self-sustaining population of fish!

OBTU:  The Driftless Area spans a four-state region consisting of Southwest Wisconsin, Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa and Northwest Illinois.  Are there actually coldwater streams holding fishable trout populations in Illinois?  Are any of these streams the focus for current restoration work by Illinois TU chapters or could become a candidate for projects?          JEFF:   Born and raised in the Driftless region of northwest Illinois has driven me to try to get more projects in this area.  The challenge for an Illinois coldwater fishery is a lack of suitable habitat, no easements, little state land, lack of technical expertise and a state agency with little staff with low priorities on trout.  A recent Regional Conservation Partnership Program award provides a little more than $1M for stream restoration projects in this three-county area.  The managers at Lake-Le-Aqua-Na, just outside of Lena, Illinois (where I went to High School), is interested in doing a trout habitat project on the tributary coming into the lake.  I have met with them twice and walked the stream…it looks great, and my thinking is brown trout.  However, Illinois looks at brown trout as an invasive species competing with their native fishery.  I thought the regional fish biologist was on board for introducing brown trout in streams that did not have threatened and endangered species, but the state biologist is back peddling…but has not totally out ruled it.  I have already spoken with Wisconsin DNR Fisheries and they would be glad to collaborate with Illinois on introducing some wild brown trout.

We did a small project at Apple River Canyon State Park in northwest Illinois that probably could use some more work, and I have been talking with several landowners above Lake Carroll who have shown some interest.  I also continue to work with the Illinois chapters/members in looking for streams with potential.

Jeff Hastings, Project Manager for Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Effort
Jeff Hastings, Project Manager for Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Effort
The Driftless Area encompasses a four-state region.
The Driftless Area encompasses a four-state region.
Driftless Area human induced floodplain sediment
2018 Driftless Area flood waters reach destructive heights
2018 Driftless Area flood damage and stream erosion caused by the Jersey Valley Dam breach