Sunday, April 9, 2017

Ringle Segment Groundbreaking

It was a pleasure to be in the woods with such a great group of people. Volunteers from all over Wisconsin assembled east of Wausau this weekend to have fun, work safely using hand tools and grit and be part of something much bigger than any of us. We put in two days on a Mobile Skills Crew project that will be a multi-year effort to build a premier six-mile segment of the Ringle Segment of the Ice Age Trail.

Volunteers first opened the Ringle Segment to the public over 40 years ago. That previous generation of volunteers used whatever they could to piece together a route. Old logging roads, what we today call troads, were often the best option. That old route served us well but it took quite a beating and missed many landforms needed to tell the unique story that can be woven into the Ice Age Trail.

Over the past fifteen years, the properties needed to make this segment of the IAT permanent have been purchased from willing landowners. Protection work is time consuming and not possible without the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), state Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, county governments and private donations. The Ringle Segment puzzle pieces are now in place.

Three years ago, Tim Malzhan and I began to explore this recently protected trailway with new eyes, with the hope of re-imagining and redesigning the Ringle Segment according to current trail layout, design, compliance and construction standards.

We designed a new route to take in many of the best landforms of the trailway, to tell a nationally significant natural history story and to be a sustainable recreation resource. It took hundreds of hours. The new route underwent archeological, water quality and endangered species review before any ground breaking could occur.

So when fifty or so of us gathered this weekend to finally break ground, we were standing on the shoulders of many people and over four decades of effort. But we are not finished. Oh no. We made better than expected progress but only scratched the surface. It will be a few more years before you will be able to hike all six miles and it will be worth the all the effort. I can assure you this is going to be an outstanding segment of Ice Age Trail to hike not just once. It's gonna be a great one!

If this sounds interesting to you, consider joining us to volunteer at future projects May 17-21, August 9-13 and in future years. To find out how, click on

Rock on!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Smoky Mtns Dispatch

By Drew Hanson

The stars aligned recently, giving me a rare opportunity to spend seven consecutive days hiking. Since there is a shortage of some kinds of hiking near my home, my chosen destination was Smoky Mountains National Park which boasts 800 miles of hiking trails plus three long-distance trails extending from the park.

Hike every day, I did. One was an eleven-mile trek to the top of Mt. LeConte and back. A couple days included out-and-back hikes on sections of the famed Appalachian Trail. Other days included loops or multiple shorter hikes in a single day.

It was an exhilarating trip, great for my physical and mental health. In the end, I could not help but wish I could do this more often, if even just on weekends. But life at home is too demanding for a regular 10-12-hour drive to the Smokies.

This led me to the question: Why does my home state of Wisconsin not offer this many hiking opportunities? Some will answer with something about how the Smokies have mountains and Wisconsin does not but that’s just Mountain Majesty Bias.

Yah, sure, the mountains are pretty. I visited this national park not because it has (small) mountains but because there are hundreds of miles of hiking trails within an hour's drive. One can hike the Smokies all day and then hike a different trail all the next day, and the next, and the next, literally for years and still hike different trails every weekend.

One day of my visit a trailhead parking lot was overflowing, easily 50 cars, used by people who want to hike and who, like me, were spending money in nearby towns. There are dozens of other trailhead parking lots in the park. It's a shame my home state did not make this kind of investment decades ago and that last year my governor vetoed $75k/year for the Ice Age Trail. The Smokies have so many miles of hiking trails because decades ago people made a choice and continue to make it so.

Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934. Most of the land to create the park was purchased by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, then donated to the National Park Service. Today, with its mountains that are but hills by western standards, Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2010, it had over 20 million visitors! It is the primary economic driver for many nearby communities. It is a success.

Where I currently live in southern Wisconsin, there are places to hike for an hour or two. What is severely lacking are places to hike most of a day for multiple days, hence the need to travel so far to have the experience I did. One reason for the shortfall is Wisconsin’s decades-long shotgun approach of creating scattered parks and wildlife areas across the state. Another reason is that hunting groups have too often treated a hiking trail as a threat. Another reason has to do with Mountain Majesty Bias.

Fortunately, time has not run out. Wisconsin can still fix this problem and have a balanced outdoor recreation portfolio. By investing in the Ice Age Trail, the way states in the east have for decades invested in their trails, the Badger State could still have many more multi-day hiking opportunities.

We can do this and you can help. Contact your elected officials and well-off friends. Tell them about the Ice Age Trail and that we should not have to travel to the Smokies to find sufficient hiking.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The IAT's Big Loop:
How Did That Happen?

by Drew Hanson

One of the common questions people ask about the Ice Age Trail is, "Why does it have a big loop in the middle?" Sometimes called the doughnut or inaccurately called the bifurcation, the big loop occupies a special chapter in the Ice Age Trail story.

Most of the general route of the Ice Age Trail is due to the plan of Ray Zillmer. He envisioned a long distance hiking trail following the interlobate ridges of the Kettle Moraine in eastern Wisconsin and the terminal moraine west to the border with Minnesota. Without Ray Zillmer, there would be no Ice Age Trail. But once Zillmer died in 1960, the Ice Age Trail almost died with him. More than 10 years passed before Congressman Henry Reuss stepped up to become the Trail’s greatest champion.

For the next three decades, Congressman Reuss was a major influence on most things Ice Age Trail. The full body of his Ice Age Trail accomplishments is far beyond the scope of this article. While the big loop is something he did not intend to create and something he at times worked against in favor of his preferred eastern leg, more than any single person we can thank Congressman Reuss for the existence of the big loop.

the Big Loop near the middle of the Ice Age Trail

During the years following Ray Zillmer’s untimely death, Ice Age Trail leaders increasingly realized that one of the weaknesses of Zillmer’s planned route was that it was not really possible to tell the story of continental glaciation if the Trail’s route adhered rigidly to the interlobate and terminal moraines, not to mention the fact that it would lack variety for anyone walking more than a short segment. Having the Ice Age Trail weave other types of landforms not found on a terminal moraine into the route would make for a better trail. Worth noting is the fact that neither leg of the big loop follows the terminal moraine.

One of Congressman Reuss’s many Ice Age Trail accomplishments was the book, On the Trail of the Ice Age, which he authored through three editions. Initially published in January, 1976 it was the first guidebook on the Ice Age Trail and it included the first set of maps and detailed description of the entire thousand mile route. In the doughnut area, the 1976 edition shows the Trail entirely as a single route of connecting roads between Sauk City and Coloma, passing through the city of Portage. The route skirts the edge of John Muir Park but remarkably misses the Baraboo Hills and Devils Lake Park entirely. The book gives no hint of the western route shown two years earlier on the official Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation brochure of 1974.

Ice Age Trail map from 1974

A major milestone in the history of the Ice Age Trail was the 1980 passage of the Ice Age Trail Act by Congress and signed by the President the same year. Although many people advocated for its designation as a National Scenic Trail, no one was more important to this effort than Congressman Reuss. The law even states that the Trail will be, “generally following the route described in ‘On the Trail of the Ice Age...’ by Henry S. Reuss, Member of Congress, dated 1980.” The route shown in the 1980 edition is the eastern leg — none of the western leg.

As required by the National Trails System Act, the National Park Service completed the Ice Age National Scenic Trail Comprehensive Plan for Management and Use in 1983. The route shown on maps in the plan roughly follows the eastern leg of the big loop but a note on one map states, “The Ice Age Trail Council is working on a rerouting of the trail from Devils Lake to Greenwood Wildlife Area. The rerouting would take the trail west into the Glacial Lake Wisconsin area...” (i.e., the western leg of what later became the big loop).

Also required by the National Trails System Act was appointment of an Advisory Council to assist the National Park Service “with respect to matters relating to the trail, including the selection of rights-of-way.” Appointed by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Advisory Council was comprised of a dozen members including former Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles, prominent citizens and active Ice Age Trail supporters. Given the conflicting ideas, the Advisory Council was not surprisingly asked to weigh in on the route through the doughnut area. In mid-1984 the Advisory Council approved the western route “to take the trail into the glacial Lake Wisconsin area” as the official route for the Ice Age Trail. But leaders from the city of Portage felt left out of the decision and Congressman Reuss remained unwilling to let go of his preferred route.

1976 map from On the Trail of the Ice Age

In a January 9, 1986 letter from Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (later renamed the Ice Age Trail Alliance) President John Zillmer (Ray’s son) to Congressman Henry Reuss, John Zillmer addressed the Congressman’s efforts. At the time, Congressman Reuss also sat on the board of directors of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation. Referring to the route through the city of Portage, John Zillmer wrote, “this route has repeatedly been rejected by the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation in spite of great pressure by you to approve it. As a matter of fact, you have been the only director to support this route. Your planned route was unanimously rejected by the Ice Age National Scenic Trail Advisory Council. It has been rejected by the Ice Age Trail Council. It has been rejected by the National Park Service. It has been rejected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources... You have contributed so very much to what progress has been made. Why in the world are you now undermining all that you have worked so hard to accomplish?”

There was a lot of back and forth during those years about whether to make either the eastern or western legs the official route of the Ice Age Trail and designate the other one a National Side/Connecting Trail.

an Ice Age Trail map from 1986*

At one point Congressman Reuss resigned in protest from the board of directors of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation only to rejoin a few months later. The issue remained a source of unrest. Some maps of this era showed the eastern route through Portage while others showed the western route into the Driftless Area and Glacial Lake Wisconsin, depending on who created the map.

At last, an official effort to put the questions to bed reached fruition in early 1987. Letters were exchanged between Congressman Bruce Vento, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, and William Penn Mott Jr., National Park Service Director, that outlined what Congressman Vento called “a reasonable solution” of making the two legs of the big loop both part of the official route of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Thus the big loop was born out of compromise.

Still, in the 1990 edition of On the Trail of the Ice Age, Congressman Reuss showed none of the western leg of the big loop on any maps but he did include a one-paragraph description of its general route.

In 1999 the Partnership for the National Trail System held its annual conference at Lake Tahoe. Afterward a few of us accepted an invitation from Congressman Reuss to meet at his retirement home in Belvedere, CA. He and his wife were generous and delightful hosts. The elderly statesman had a few Ice Age Trail business items he wanted to impress upon us. One of these was the big loop. As he had done with me once before during a telephone call, at his dining room table he asked that we remove the western leg of the big loop from all maps. Having not lost his powers of persuasion, he made a strong case. But one of my companions that day was a long-time Ice Age Trail board member who provided an equally compelling counter argument. The retired Congressman elegantly shifted the discussion to his next topic.

Questions about the big loop still arise from time to time. Aspiring Thousand Milers sometimes ask if one must hike both legs of the big loop to be considered a Thousand Miler. The answer is “no.” In this case, half a doughnut is sufficient.

To some, the big loop remains a quirk in the Ice Age Trail. Others embrace it as part of what makes the Trail unique and wonderful.


* 1986 map appeared in Wisconsin's Foundations: A Review of the State's Geology and Its Influence on Geography and Human Activity, by Gwen Schultz, University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

A version of this article first appeared in the Summer, 2016 edition of Mammoth Tales, a quarterly publication of the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Proposed Yellow River Hemlock Esker National Monument

As wild places around the country are bestowed the protection of national monument status, it is time this attention and safeguarding be given to deserving areas along the Ice Age Trail. One such special place is located in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, in Taylor County, Wisconsin.

The proposed Yellow River Hemlock Esker National Monument is a magical place, centered around the prominent Hemlock Esker. This esker was created during the Ice Age by a river flowing at the base of a vast continental ice sheet. Imagine how huge the glacier must have been to have a river flowing inside at its base that deposited a miles-long sinuous ridge, what geologists today call an esker. The eastern and southern flanks of the esker, drained by sections of the wild Yellow River and some of its tributaries, are also part of the proposed monument.

Natural communities within the proposed monument include extensive tracts of mature hemlock-hardwood forest, areas of rich maple-basswood forest, open meadow in the upper reaches of Sailor Creek, several stands of lowland conifer dominated by white cedar and black ash and several headwater, morainal stream segments canopied with long lived species. The hemlock-hardwood forest is the dominant forest type occurring on hummocky end moraine and esker topography. Common associates include yellow birch, sugar maple and red maple. White ash, red oak, white spruce and super-canopy white pine are also present. Northern white cedar is frequently found on slopes bordering wetlands and in some ground moraine areas. Frequent snags and coarse woody debris contribute to the old-growth structure. An open shrub layer is dominated by hazelnut and gooseberry. Ground flora includes sweet cicely, intermediate wood fern, common oak fern and rough-leaved rice grass. The lowland coniferous forest forms a closed canopy white cedar forest in some areas. Black ash, red maple, yellow birch, hemlock and balsam fir are common associates. The ground layer is lush and diverse featuring such species as cinnamon fern, sensitive fern, one-sided shin-leaf, dwarf red raspberry, bunchberry and bryophytes. The understory is dense and consists of mountain maple, speckled alder and common winterberry. Bog forests of tamarack and black spruce with red maple, paper birch, yellow birch and white pine are present. Northern sedge meadows are common along Sailor Creek, especially where beaver have flooded the hardwood swamps. Both the northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) and red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) are documented breeding birds. Common resident birds include winter wren, hermit thrush, red-eyed vireo, ovenbird, blackburnian warbler and black-throated green warbler.

As national monuments go, the proposed Yellow River Hemlock Esker National Monument would be a small one, only about 8,000 acres. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in significance. It includes most of the Ice Age Semi-Primitive Area, most of Lost Lake Esker State Natural Area and one of the wildest segments of the entire thousand-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Note that contour maps of this area are in error and omit most of Hemlock Esker.

The proposed monument is administered by the Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. National monument designation is needed to at last resolve long-term management issues. First, authorized and unauthorized motorized use is occurring within this geologically and recreationally unique area where the highest and best use is primitive, pedestrian recreational uses such as hiking, fishing, snowshoeing, birding and non-motorized hunting of non-predator species. Second, although timber harvest in parts of this area is currently limited, it should be permanently further restricted in the larger area encompassed by the proposed monument. This would allow additional old growth characteristics to develop that support wildlife species who depend on old growth conditions and enhance primitive, pedestrian recreation. Finally, existing modest protections for the Ice Age Trail and Semi-Primitive Area are temporary, based only on a management plan that is regularly re-written and open to interpretation. Negotiations over how this unique area needs to be managed should be put to rest instead of being re-hashed every decade or two. Local tourism would benefit by having such a unique and permanently protected national monument as more people would travel greater distances to experience such a wild and special place.

Some of the countless articles showing the economic benefits of national monuments are:

The proposed Yellow River Hemlock Esker National Monument would be good for the public, good for wildlife and good for the local economy.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Ice Age National Park Justified:
Feasibility and Status

By Drew Hanson

This final article in a three-part series addresses the National Park Service categories of feasibility and status for an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin.


An Ice Age National Park (IANP) would share traits with several existing units of the National Park System. Since these other National Park System units exist, so could an Ice Age National Park.
  • Like Shenandoah National Park, IANP would be a long, narrow corridor of land east of the mountain west.
  • Like Theodore Roosevelt National Park, IANP would be a national park with separate units of NPS-owned land.
  • Like Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, IANP would include cooperatively managed prairie land and a majority of land that is not owned by the federal government.
  • Like Big Thicket National Preserve, IANP would have many separate units of NPS-owned land.
  • Like Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, IANP would have trail segments that are not currently continuously off-road.
  • Like Appalachian National Scenic Trail, IANP would have a cooperative management structure that relies heavily on volunteers.
  • Like Cuyahoga Valley National Park, IANP would emphasize landscape restoration in an underserved part of the county.

There is strong support from volunteers, local governments and local members of Congress for the Ice Age Trail that would transfer to an Ice Age National Park. The roughly 80,000 hours volunteers annually give to promote, develop and maintain the Ice Age Trail regularly ranks in the top ten of all National Park Service areas. In 2016, a two-month national online poll led to the Ice Age Trail receiving more votes than any other trail in the United States.

Fewer parcels need to be acquired to complete an Ice Age National Park than were needed to complete the Appalachian Trail. Plus, an Ice Age National Park has able partners who have acquired a hundred miles of Ice Age Trail lands in the past 30 years. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, land acquisition for an Ice Age National Park could continue as a partnership park, with partners continuing their important acquisition work that should be augmented by the land acquisition and management expertise of the National Park Service.

The precedent of NPS-owned lands managed under a cooperative agreement by a non-profit organization exists with the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The same model can be easily duplicated for an Ice Age National Park, with the Ice Age Trail Alliance handling the on-the-ground management of most NPS lands.


The prospect of an Ice Age National Park has always been at odds with mountain majesty bias which is particularly acute in the National Park Service. This is one of the reasons Ray Zillmer’s Ice Age National Park proposals of 1958-1960 met opposition and a reason his proposal was bifurcated into a scattered National Scientific Reserve and narrow National Scenic Trail.

Planning for the National Scientific Reserve took 15 years. For the past 35 years, the National Park Service has made planning the Ice Age Trail its primary focus. This half-century of government deliberations, under the guise of planning, is without precedent. By comparison, planning for the Appalachian Trail took one-quarter of this time and, adjusted for inflation, at significantly less cost. Some units of the National Park System have had only two years of planning. Instead of waiting for nationally significant resources of an Ice Age National Park to be lost, it is time for NPS to transition to making resource protection and management its top priorities. In business terms, the resource, not the plan, needs to become the product.

Since 1979 the National Park Service has acquired over 2,500 parcels of land totaling roughly 111,500 acres along 620 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Since 2002, in a unique partnership arrangement with the U. S. Forest Service, the NPS has also acquired lands to help complete the Florida and Pacific Crest national scenic trails with the purchase of over 50 parcels totaling 5,000 acres from willing sellers.

In 2009, Congress and the President gave NPS the authority to become a full partner in land acquisition for the Ice Age Trail. With the enactment of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act the NPS was granted the legal go-ahead to acquire lands for the Ice Age Trail directly from willing sellers. Before significant resources are lost, NPS needs to shift its focus from planning to resource protection and management. NPS measures of success should include Trail-miles acquired per year.

One strategy that could be employed for areas that are still “unplanned” is for NPS to transition the existing Ice Age Trail planning process to the planning process used for portions of the North Country and Appalachian national scenic trails. Congress can also establish NPS acquisition boundaries.

Another transition strategy could be that some Ice Age Trail lands currently held by partner agencies/organizations be evaluated for transfer to the National Park Service. This may be particularly true for corridor lands in the Southeastern Wisconsin Till Plains ecoregion which is the most populated area with some segments located less than a two hour drive of Chicago. For example, perhaps portions of Quincy Bluff, Cross Plains, Kettle Moraine, Chippewa Moraine or land of John Muir’s boyhood would make good candidates.

Regardless of the transition, these articles should have made clear that an Ice Age National Park is as nationally significant as it was when first proposed by Ray Zillmer almost 60 years ago. It remains relevant, suitable and feasible today and meets the National Park Service’s own criteria for designation as a national park.

Until a new designation is made, there remains a great deal that can and will be accomplished.