At Prairie du Sac and Sauk City the hydroelectric dam built in 1914 holds back the natural flow of the Wisconsin River and creates Lake Wisconsin. Below that point, the river breaks from man-made barriers and winds its way uninhibited for 93 miles to the Mississippi. The natural beauty of islands, sandbars, woods, and bluffs gives an impression of unspoiled nature to the uncritical eye, and for the history-minded calls up thoughts of Marquette and Joliet. Remarkably free from commercial and residential use, the river attracts an estimated 400,000 people a year who find it a recreational paradise. In recent years, environmental and conservation groups and the Department of Natural Resources have studied ways this natural beauty can be retained and passed along for the enjoyment of future generations. Their concerns are well justified. As Harold C. Jordahl, Jr. pointed out in the spring of 1988:
The subtle slow changes taking place in the lower Wisconsin River Valley are hardly visible, day to day. The inevitable slow but continuous process of nibbling away is changing forever the intrinsic health, economic vitality and great aesthetic beauty of the valley; another billboard, a stone quarry, a highway cut into a cliff, a home on productive agricultural land, strip development outward along the highway corridors from the small villages, debris used as riprap on a eroding bank, a hunting shack on a scenic riverbend.
For a time, ways of conserving the lower Wisconsin centered on creating a state forest, an idea abandoned in favor of calling the project a scenic riverway, more descriptive of its objectives. Following the DNRís presentation of a detailed environmental impact statement in July 1987 many meetings with lower Wisconsin River residents, and much testimony, on November 17, 1988, the Natural Resources Board unanimously approved a master plan to preserve the 93-mile stretch of river - "the last free-flowing stretch of major river in the Midwest."
Like most conservation plans requiring legislative approval, it is a compromise. It tries to strike a balance between some River Valley residents fearful of "government interference", and others concerned primarily about conserving the riverís natural beauty who feel that the plan should assign a stronger role to the Department of Natural Resources. It calls for protection of 77,000 acres along the river either by purchase or through application of "scenic performance standards". Included is the area where the Battle of Wisconsin Heights took place in July of 1832, and 250 acres downstream from Prairie du Sac where wintering eagles feed on Wisconsin River fish in the free-flowing water at the Prairie du Sac dam. The plan may undergo revision in the legislative process.
The most scenic drive through the lower Wisconsin River Valley is State Highway 60 from Prairie du Sac and Sauk City to Bridgeport. It follows the north bank of the river.