Earth Day at 50: Celebrating Dependence Day

Don Waller, WI Green Fire, May 13, 2020

Early in July, sometime in the mid-90s, I found myself driving North for a late start to the field season. We headed out early the next morning, visiting two forests before calling it a day. The drill was familiar— flag corners of the quadrats, then count the tree seedlings and saplings, recording substrate and any browse. In some, we’d find only a few lonely hemlock sprigs atop a stump or log, or we’d spot obscure little green columns that looked like a club moss— until they sprouted a tell-tale cedar side leaf. In others, a green carpet of baby maples would have us counting into the thousands. But it wasn’t only plants we saw that summer. A month later, lost on two-track near the UP, we turned around just in time to glimpse a big cat, with a tail the size of a baseball bat, disappear into the woods.

The Northwoods was warm that day as we headed back. “Camp” was a cozy well-appointed cedar cabin by Beaverdam Lake outside Mellen. Our host, Martin Hanson, was cantankerous, opinionated, and unfailingly generous. He greeted us as he led us to his guest house before sharply asking “OK, Mr. Biodiversity, if deer like yew so much, why does it grow all along the road here?”

We were grateful all over again when he invited us out on his pontoon boat for a drink. He was having friends over and we were welcome to join. We suddenly remembered it was the Fourth of July. “Give us a minute to change,” we said.

As we walked aboard, Martin introduced his guests. First was his boyhood friend, Butch Marita, outgoing boss for the Eastern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. I gulped, realizing that environmental groups I worked with had sued him in federal court. Next was Loraine Serrati, a State Representative from Spread Eagle. Then we met a man who had worked for Sen. Slade Gordon (R-Washington) before becoming a lobbyist for the timber industry. Next was David Obey, long-term Congressman for northern Wisconsin then chairing the House Ways and Means Committee. “Pleased to meet you,” I stammered, “and happy to have had two of your sons in my class.” Finally, Martin introduced another old friend, guest of honor Gaylord Nelson.  He kindly pretended to remember meeting me in D.C. years before.

Intimidated by this group, we listened mostly, growing concerned when the lobbyist started to bait Sen. Nelson by belittling environmental issues. Nelson absorbed all this for a while before turning to make a simple, eloquent, and devastating reply. But no ill will could persist that evening given the comradery, our beautiful setting, and plentiful drinks. Politicians made friends “across the aisle” in those days and friends they were, singing into the night in harmony as we stumbled back to our cabin.


Dr. Don Waller taught and studied ecology, evolution, and conservation biology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison from 1978 to 2019.


Martin Hanson (1927 – 2008) served as Chair of the state Democratic Party. He also worked with Gaylord Nelson to establish the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and helped with efforts to reintroduce elk to Wisconsin, earning himself a place in Wisconsin’s Conservation Hall of Fame.

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