6 notable conservationists with Wisconsin roots
Meet six guardians of the green who dedicated their lives to protecting the state's landscape
It seems everybody is “Earth-friendly” these days, so the challenge becomes one of separating hype from history, folklore from fact. Wisconsin has long expressed its commitment to the land and its creatures; “sense of place” means “sense of purpose,” responsibility as well as recreation.
The state’s history of dedication to protecting its lands is long and rich. The nation’s first fish hatchery opened on Fish Hatchery Road in Madison, and it has been open since 1887. Within 35 years, 100 million fish were being raised in Wisconsin at a dozen fish hatcheries across the state. Charles Van Hise, University of Wisconsin president from 1903 to 1918, wrote the nation’s first textbook on natural resource conservation: "The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States" (1910). UW–Stevens Point houses the nation’s largest undergraduate program for natural resource and environmental management and was also the first to introduce a conservation education major, in 1946.
More recently, Wisconsin became the first state to set statewide standards for ecotourism. The state tourism department partners with the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative to present Travel Green Wisconsin, a certification program that recognizes organizations – festivals to resorts – for a commitment to reducing their environmental impact. Since 2007, hundreds of businesses and events have qualified for certification.
There are many “green giants” with Badger roots. Here we take a look at the accomplishments of six notable Wisconsinites.
Aldo Leopold (1887–1948)
His family’s simple weekend retreat, a rebuilt chicken coop, earned National Historic Landmark status in 2009. His last manuscript, "A Sand County Almanac," remains a bible of environmental observation and theology.
A lifetime of dirt-in-nails research and writings about links between people and other subsets of nature – from soil to four-legged mammals – makes Leopold “the father of wildlife management.” He published the first textbook on this topic, filled the nation’s first academic leadership post in game management and personally restored the ecological strength of nutrient-depleted farmland near Baraboo. Still standing are the thousands of pine trees that his family planted, some of which, fittingly, were used to build the Legacy Center that opened in 2007.
Nina Leopold Bradley (1917–2011)
All of Aldo Leopold’s five children devoted much of their lives and careers to environmental conservation, but it was Nina who chose to return to the Baraboo homestead and advance her father’s work after decades of wildlife research, including studying Nene geese in Hawaii and waterbuck antelope in Botswana. The geographer and her geologist husband, Charles Bradley, were married at the Leopold Shack in 1971 and five years later moved back from Montana to assume her father’s role as researcher, watchdog and nurturer of the area. Because of her leadership, the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center (located about 15 miles northeast of Baraboo) exists, and, more important, the future of the Leopold Memorial Reserve seems secure because of academic fellowships and other initiatives that have grown from the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
John Muir (1838–1914)
A virgin stand of California redwoods is named after him. So is a glacier in Alaska and a 211-mile hiking trail in the Sierra Nevada. Not bad for a man born in Scotland and raised on a Wisconsin farm near Portage.
The inquisitive explorer was an excellent match for the natural world, and he learned much while on foot. In 1867, Muir walked 1,000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, purely to study whatever he encountered in the wilderness. His aim was to see Amazon rainforests, which wouldn’t happen until 1911.
What the Sierra Club’s first president documented in journals turned into passionate pleas for preservation, which eventually influenced President Theodore Roosevelt to establish national parks, forests and monuments. For his work, Muir is known as the father of the national parks system.
Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005)
Earth Day celebrates its 45th birthday on April 22 this year because this U.S. senator championed the notion that the environment deserves political attention. He positioned the first Earth Day as a grassroots protest over environmental degradation, a public way to express concern about what was happening to the land, waterways and air.
Much of what followed earned the era its reputation as the Environmental Decade. Nelson, raised in Clear Lake, helped push through the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. He also helped create a network of national hiking trails and paved the way for the Apostle Islands’ establishment as a national lakeshore.
Logan “Jack” Vilas (1891–1976)
The world experiences less devastation from forest fires today because of this pilot’s suggestion that smoke and flames were most easily pinpointed during overhead surveillance. He became the world’s first flying fire warden in 1915 and received only “thank yous” for his almost-daily work in and beyond the Boulder Junction area.
Two years earlier, Vilas was the first to complete a flight across Lake Michigan, an exercise in bravery because he had no flight instruments – or compass – to guide him. This feat earned him attention from the New York Times, which reported the 58-mile flight took 94 minutes.
Hilary “Sparky” Waukau (1922–95)
Few people have defended their homeland with more fervor than this American Indian leader, whose Menominee Nation is known for seven generations of sustainable forestry work and in 1994 named its forestry center after the tribal elder. The Keshena native’s unfaltering resolve and federal-level testimonies protected pristine parts of northern Wisconsin from the scars of mining, structural development and nuclear waste dumping.
Even physical frailty did not thwart this dogged conservationist, who encouraged environmental coalitions. He was in a wheelchair for his final protest, two weeks before his death, a procession that took him and others up Spirit Mountain to oppose a sulfide mine proposal near the Crandon and Wolf River headwaters. “We were put on Earth to promote harmony,” he believed.
Mary Bergin’s father, William Bergin Jr., was inducted into the Sheboygan County Conservation Hall of Fame before he died in 1998. Today the family’s pheasant-friendly farmland, near the Sheboygan County Marsh, is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Updated: April 20, 2015
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