On the 50th Earth Day: The Places We Saved Became the Places We Needed

Don Behm, WI Green Fire, April 21, 2020

The Madison Audubon Society used funds from the state Stewardship Program to help purchase the Lake Mills Ledge Savanna in Jefferson County.
The Madison Audubon Society used funds from the state Stewardship Program to help purchase the Lake Mills Ledge Savanna in Jefferson County.

On this year’s Earth Day I will step out of at-home seclusion during the global pandemic and get outside for a few hours to stretch my legs and breathe deeply.

The state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has provided Wisconsin residents with outdoor places to go for fresh air and safe social distancing even though state parks and forests in southern Wisconsin have been closed due to over-crowding.

I might hike the Ice Age Trail at Polk Kames, a preserve of hardwood forests and wetlands wrapped around cone-shaped hills left by the last glacier.

Vehicles line parking lot at Polk Kames, north of Slinger, for public access to Ice Age Trail during COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cedar Lakes Conservation Foundation, a land trust, used Stewardship funds to acquire several properties that became that park north of Slinger. Boreal chorus frogs sang in April as families stopped to listen, more than willing to accept a few extra minutes of relief from the outbreak of COVID-19. Listen to the frog chorus on this video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxUo0bNAkNI&feature=youtu.be

April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and it will mark the 29th day since the lives of Wisconsin residents were upended with a “Safer at Home” order in response to the threat of the deadly disease caused by a new coronavirus.

Beginning March 25, Gov. Tony Evers urged us to stay at home as much as possible to slow the spread of the disease. Health officials reminded us to keep a safe social distance of six feet or more from non-family members encountered at stores or public places.

But so many of us packed into the most popular state-owned open spaces in southern Wisconsin that it was not possible to maintain a safe social distance and those places were closed.

In Washington County where I live, as in all other counties in southern Wisconsin, numerous municipal parks and trails remain open for use. Many of those recreational areas had been acquired or expanded in recent decades with the help of Stewardship Program dollars.

And land trusts active in the region, as well as other private conservation organizations, such as the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the Madison Audubon Society, used Stewardship dollars to preserve southern Wisconsin woodlands, prairies, grasslands and wetlands threatened with destruction.

Those places were saved, and they are open to the public now in an unforeseen time of need, because the Stewardship Program helped to finance the protection efforts.

A Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program sign greets visitors to the Lake Mills Ledge Savanna, part of the Madison Audubon Society’s Faville Grove Sanctuary in Jefferson County. Sandhill cranes trumpet from low prairies and wetlands along the Crawfish River there.

On this Earth Day, I commit to supporting the reauthorization of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

One of the lessons I will take away from living through the pandemic is this: the places we saved for their natural features and qualities became the places we needed for open space and relaxation in a global crisis.


Don Behm retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is on Wisconsin’s Green Fire’s Communication Team. Follow Don on Twitter @conserve



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