by Drew Hanson
During the 1940s-1950s, Ray Zillmer hounded Wisconsin governors and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR, which at that time was called the Conservation Department) to focus more resources on land acquisition of a corridor of land in the Kettle Moraine. The scenic belt of glacial ridges in southeast Wisconsin was recommended for purchase by the State in a 1934 plan. Zillmer held various leadership positions within the local and state chapters of the Izaak Walton League and was considered an authority on the subject and a persuasive advocate. We have Zillmer to thank for much of the progress on the Kettle Moraine State Forest during those early decades.
But Zillmer realized that completion of the Kettle Moraine conservation corridor (what we might today call a "greenway") was moving too slowly, thus making his broader goal of extending the greenway west along glacial moraines across Wisconsin more difficult. Furthermore, without the land base of a protected conservation corridor, his ultimate vision of a long-distance hiking trail would not be possible. He concluded that the State, for various institutional and political reasons, would not complete this conservation corridor on its own. So in 1958 he enlisted the National Park Service (NPS) and members of Congress to create a new Ice Age National Park.
Just two years later Zillmer died. His proposal was still in its infancy. In his absence the vision for the greenway and trail suffered from mission creep and progress sputtered. By 1980 the effort was back on track but today, over fifty years after Zillmer embarked upon the mission to create the Ice Age National Park, the NPS has acquired only one parcel for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Meanwhile the NPS has successfully acquired thousands of parcels for other national scenic trails around the country.
Since 1979 the NPS 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 almost 5,000 acres from willing sellers. All of this land acquisition work was carried out by the NPS National Trails Land Resources Program Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Their work has been outstanding. The expertise gained along these other national scenic trails is critical to successfully completing the Ice Age Trail.
Two years ago, Congress and the President gave NPS the authority to become a full partner in the land acquisition for the Ice Age Trail. With the enactment of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act the NPS now has the legal go-ahead to acquire lands for the Ice Age Trail directly from willing sellers. But during these past two years, NPS has done little to assign full-time NPS staff from the Martinsburg office to the Ice Age Trail to begin the task of acquiring parcels from willing sellers. Even the recently designated New England National Scenic Trail is beginning to benefit from land acquisition work by the NPS Martinsburg office.
In passing the law giving NPS this authority for the Ice Age Trail, did Congress and the President intend for NPS to not use the authority? I don’t think so.
About 500 miles of Ice Age Trail still need to be protected. To relocate unsafe connecting road-walk routes to off-road trail, to stay ahead of changing land uses and to allow the Trail to take its rightful place among the great national scenic trails, the federal partner needs to have an active role in the protection of the nationally significant resources that are found along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
The project is not daunting. Fewer miles and fewer parcels need to be purchased to complete the Ice Age Trail than were needed to complete the Appalachian Trail. Plus the Ice Age Trail has able partners, including the DNR, to hopefully continue to acquire other Trail lands. So to get started, NPS needs a Focus Area.
Please join me in calling on the National Park Service to begin a land acquisition program for the Ice Age Trail by contacting members of Congress and the National Park Service.