Thursday, March 31, 2011

Protecting the Resources of the Ice Age Trail

By Drew Hanson

[A version of this essay appeared in the Summer 1999 edition of Pathways Across America.]

Near the end of the most recent Ice Age, a 120-mile long series of morainal ridges formed between two immense lobes of glacial ice in what is now southeast Wisconsin. Scattered along this belt, areas of distinct, crater-like depressions were left by melting blocks of ice. Geologists thus named this landform the Kettle Moraine. Scientific research that began here during the 1870s eventually led to the first map on the extent of continental glaciation in North America.
During the 1920s, increasing numbers of Milwaukeeans began to explore the Kettle Moraine for recreation and increased flooding along downstream sections of the Milwaukee River led conservationists to look for solutions. Proposals for public acquisition of the Kettle Moraine ensued.
Ray Zillmer, 1938
Ray Zillmer was one of the leaders in the effort to establish the Kettle Moraine State Forest. On three separate occasions he was the chairman of groups promoting the legislation. In 1937, the Kettle Moraine State Forest was established–consisting of separate, north and south purchase units. By 1956, however, the State of Wisconsin had acquired only half of the acreage for the two units. Zillmer and others thought this was not enough.
Ray Zillmer was an avid hiker, mountaineer, student of natural history and Harvard educated attorney. He wandered the wildlands of northern Minnesota, explored and mapped remote peaks in the Canadian Rockies, followed the development of the Appalachian Trail and studied Wisconsin’s contribution to the field of geology. Based on his vast experiences, he concluded that the Kettle Moraine State Forest, like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, could form the nucleus for a linear park that would be used “by millions more people than use the more remote national parks.” He was certain this concept warranted national attention.
In 1958, Ray Zillmer founded the Ice Age Trail Alliance (then called the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation) to begin efforts to establish a linear national park in Wisconsin that would encompass hundreds of miles of glacial moraines. In a letter dated August 28, 1958, Zillmer wrote to Daniel Tobin, Regional Director for the National Park Service (NPS) in Philadelphia, saying:
“I am intimately familiar with the moraines … of the existing Kettle Moraine State Forest, having covered almost literally every foot of the area many times in the last 40 years. …I found that my work in the Kettle Moraine Forest project was of unestimatable value in my reconnaissance.  In fact, I believe it is impossible to understand the [proposed national park] without a complete knowledge of what the state has accomplished.  It has established the practicality of a long narrow strip as far as outdoor recreation is concerned, and its great incidental value in soil and water control because it follows the watersheds.”
His efforts paid off. Later that year, Tobin accompanied Zillmer for several days of inspection along the glacial moraines. Zillmer was capturing the interest of the National Park Service, conservationists and political leaders. Bills were introduced in Congress to create an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin. In April, 1961, National Park Service geologist Robert Rose completed a Preliminary Geological Report on 1961 Field Study of Proposed Ice Age Area in Wisconsin. He concluded the report with:
“…through proper utilization of the high quality resources which occur in the State of Wisconsin, one of the greatest stories in the natural history of North America could be illustrated and adequately interpreted.  Here is an opportunity to develop a story using features intimately associated with the lives and livelihood of millions of people. …It seems that the National Park Service could not embark on an adventure more important and broader in vision than that of using some of the same features that yield up essential necessities of life in the form of food, minerals and fibre, to enrich the cultural lives of these same people and the thousands from elsewhere who will be attracted to this great unit of the National Park System when established, adequately developed and fully interpreted.  This could well rank among the greatest of the many significant adventures upon which the Service has embarked in the past or with which it may become intimately identified in the future.”
Unfortunately, just as creation of this new type of national park seemed to be gaining momentum, Ray Zillmer died. The vision of the Ice Age project being a linear park, like the glacial moraines it was to encompass, almost died with him.
Later in 1961, the National Park Service concluded that, while many of the unique glacial features of Wisconsin warranted national attention, a linear park hundreds of miles in length did not match any NPS model of that day. Instead three recommendations were made. First, the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest should be elevated to an NPS-administered National Monument and National Scientific Landmark status should be considered for two other state parks. Second, interpretive assistance should be provided to the State at other existing properties and waysides. Third, planning assistance should be provided to the Ice Age Trail Alliance for the development and marking of a trail along the moraines across Wisconsin.
Government officials then went back to the drawing board. What they came up with was the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve – an affiliated area of the National Park System composed of scattered units around Wisconsin. In 1964, the late Wisconsin Congressman Henry Reuss succeeded in ushering the National Scientific Reserve legislation through Congress and gaining the signature of the President.
The 1964 National Scientific Reserve law set in motion a number of planning, land acquisition and development activities for volunteers and government officials. These were most intensive through the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s. Meanwhile, other legislation made its way through Congress that more closely matched the concept Ray Zillmer had for the Ice Age project being a protected corridor with a hiking trail threading through it.
In his 1965 Natural Beauty speech, President Johnson stated, “We can and should have an abundance of trails in close to our cities. In the backcountry we need to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of our country.” The push to establish linear national parks was growing and in 1968 the National Trails Act and National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act became law. The Ice Age Trail was passed over while the initial baselines of the National Trails System became the Appalachian and Pacific Crest national scenic trails.
Twelve more years would pass before the Ice Age Trail finally became a component of the National Trails System. A comprehensive management plan was completed in 1983–twenty-two years after NPS first proposed assisting with trail planning. The plan stated, “The purchase of private lands should be minimal.” Instead it proposed having volunteers obtain “easily revocable” informal agreements with landowners to safeguard a trailway. Volunteers were expected to create a meaningful hiking trail across hundreds of privately owned parcels without securing permanent rights. Keeping the Trail open to the public became nearly impossible as some properties crossed by the Trail changed hands every year and new owners did not always have positive sentiments toward the public walking across their land. It was quickly realized that easily revocable handshake agreements would not suffice.
The Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA) had been involved with assisting the State with land acquisitions since 1958. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that IATA officially became a land trust. Between 1986 and 1999, IATA was directly involved with acquiring over 70 parcels for the Trail totaling almost 2000 acres. Nearly all of these properties constitute a narrow ribbon along the Trail. The acquisition of viewsheds and entire glacial features, with the exception of small features like kettle ponds, have been luxuries that IATA could rarely afford. Nonetheless, successes have been achieved. Notable among these are along the City of West Bend and in Dane County.
The State of Wisconsin, too, has had many important land acquisition successes along the Ice Age Trail. These include: expansion of Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest and Devils Lake State Park, establishment of the Chippewa Moraine National Scientific Reserve and creation of additional Kettle Moraine State Forest units at Pike Lake, Loew Lake and Lapham Peak. On the other hand, between 1965 and 1970, the State of Wisconsin reduced the acquisition boundary for the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest by 11,000 acres–lopping off a few miles of potentially protected corridor for the Ice Age Trail.
Other opportunities have been lost as well. The same qualities that add credence to the “scenic” in National Scenic Trail, also generate interest among the creators of sprawl-type developments. In some areas, attempts to secure a narrow trailway are competing against developers for the last remaining pieces of yet undeveloped landscape. Time is running out.
The unquestionable success of the National Trails System is the completion of the Appalachian Trail. But a national system of walkable trails is not to be found. Decades after President Johnson called for “copies” of this great footpath, only the Pacific Crest Trail comes close.
The protection of trail resources is a complicated endeavor. It requires the labor of diverse groups, from NPS officials and members of Congress to thousands of dedicated volunteers. The success of this endeavor is dependent upon members of these groups working together and within appropriate roles. The experience of the Ice Age Trail Alliance has shown that a non-profit land trust and trail development organization, even one that receives government assistance, cannot sufficiently protect hundreds of miles of national trail resources.
To copy the Appalachian Trail, we must copy part of the organizational structure that successfully completed it. The National Park Service must take a lead role in protecting trail resources through fee title acquisition and permanent easements. Without serious NPS attention to the protection of nationally significant resources, much of the Ice Age Trail will likely forever remain just a line on a map.