Thursday, March 8, 2012

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: the National Scientific Reserve

By Drew Hanson

The Ice Age Trail has the power to inspire. Volunteers give over 60,000 hours of their free time each year to the care and furtherment of the Trail and there are increasing numbers of people hiking it.

In spite of the Trail’s impressive legion of supporters, people often confuse it with something else. Designated by Congress in 1964, the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve was a compromise that failed to inspire. In his 1971 book Wisconsin Survival Handbook, Doug LaFollette called the National Scientific Reserve, “a haphazard classification with un-clear status.” It is not a people’s park. It is dull and not pedestrian. It is out of step with the vision and guidance of Ice Age Trail founding father Ray Zillmer.

What? How is that possible? Let’s take a peek at the history and geography of the Trail and Reserve. Click on a map for an enlarged view.

Ray Zillmer’s middle name was Theodore but it might as well have been Theodore Roosevelt. Born in Milwaukee, he earned advanced degrees from both Harvard and the University of Wisconsin. He led numerous treks in the Canadian Cariboo Range, was the first to summit some of its peaks, had several papers published on his adventures and had a mountain, a glacier and a creek there named after him. He held various leadership positions in the Izaak Walton League of Wisconsin. For decades he did weekly hikes along a belt of ridges in southeast Wisconsin called the Kettle Moraine. For thirty years he tirelessly advocated for a 100 mile long by 1-3 mile wide Kettle Moraine State Park. Then in the last few years of his life, he expanded the dream into a national park many hundreds of miles in length. Both his state and national park proposals featured a hiking trail at their heart.
Mount Zillmer and Zillmer Glacier

Zillmer was not the first to envision a public park along the Kettle Moraine. Calls for public acquisition of land in the Kettle Moraine began in the 1920s. The State of Wisconsin began acquiring land for conservation and recreation purposes in the Kettle Moraine in the 1930s. But land acquisition by the State moved slowly and it occurred in two separate units at opposite ends of the Kettle Moraine, instead of along the entire glacial belt.

In 1942 the Milwaukee Chapter of the Izaak Walton League adopted the report, The Wisconsin Glacial Moraines, which made a series of recommendations related to the protection of the Kettle Moraine. These included the need for the State to make the Kettle Moraine a land acquisition priority, acquire land along a continuous corridor instead of separate units, and create an end-to-end hiking trail through the park. The chairman of the committee that prepared the report was none other than Ray Zillmer. But instead of following these recommendations, and those of other advocates and surveys, the State continued to put most of its effort into acquiring cheaper land in far northern Wisconsin and at other scattered sites in a shotgun approach to conservation and outdoor recreation.

For another sixteen years, Zillmer continued to advocate for increased State attention for the 100-mile Kettle Moraine. But he slowly accepted that the State of Wisconsin would never embrace the Kettle Moraine project as a continuous corridor and he gradually realized that an even more visionary project was possible that would warrant national attention. (See my article about another Ice Age pioneer and this national attention.)

The first published map of Ray Zillmer’s national park idea was part of his 1958 national park proposal. It appeared in the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Lore magazine.
Zillmer's 1958 map

Zillmer’s proposal captured the attention of other conservation leaders, National Park Service officials and members of Congress. Wisconsin Congressman Henry Reuss even introduced federal legislation that would have designated an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin according to Zillmer’s proposal. But there were skeptics. In 1958 there were no national parks like the one Zillmer was proposing. Prior to the passage of the National Trails System Act of 1968 there was no precedent for a national park comprised of a narrow corridor hundreds of miles in length. But due to Wisconsin’s world-class glacial geology, there were aspects of the proposal that clearly satisfied National Park requirements of that era. The Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest, for instance, which is home to the original segment of the Ice Age Trail, was recommended by the National Park Service for inclusion in the National Park System as a National Monument—a move opposed by some conservationists in Wisconsin’s hunting lobby.

In his August 13, 1958 letter to Congressman Henry Reuss, Ray Zillmer wrote, “I note that the release from Washington by Leo J. Diederich, [National Park Service], suggests that ‘one or several sections’ of the 500 miles might be included, but not the entire piece. I realize that ‘present action’ by park officials might start on that basis. It is important, however, to keep our sights high and to keep the ‘whole plan – 500 miles’ always in mind as a goal to which the federal government or the state, or both, would aim, with the thought of completion as soon as possible. Therefore, if the [National] Park Service proposes to commit itself to only parts of the project, we should endeavor to secure a statement of policy favoring the whole, although not committing themselves to immediate development of the whole. The Park Service shies from the idea of administering a long strip. We should stress that most of the strip, long and narrow, should not be developed except by trees and access...”

Zillmer was basically saying, It’s OK if the National Park Service is interested in only certain segments of the overall National Park proposal as long as those federal segments are pieces of the entire continuous corridor that will someday become the Ice Age National Park. (Thanks to legislation that became law years later, in 1968, the National Park Service today administers several long, narrow strips of land such as the Appalachian Trail and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.)

Several months later, Zillmer affirmed the goal of a not-at-all-haphazard continuous corridor in his article, Wisconsin’s Proposed Ice Age National Park that appeared in the March, 1959 edition of Wisconsin Alumnus magazine. The map that appeared with the article was more realistic than the stylized 1958 map.
Zillmer's 1959 map

In his January 31, 1960 letter to “Members of the Citizens Committee”, Ray Zillmer wrote, “A great deal has been accomplished since your appointment. This letter covers the present status of the movement to establish an Ice Age National Park across the state… The program seems to be developing in the following directions: The state for the present will continue to develop the Devils Lake and Kettle Moraine areas and the federal government the Chequamegon [National] Forest. The United States may develop several areas… all being in terminal moraines. The state, counties, local governments, and the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation [which later became the Ice Age Trail Alliance] will develop the intervening areas so that in the end there will be a continuous 500 mile trail and parkway which will be combined so as to complete the Ice Age National Park…”

Less than a year later, Zillmer was dead. The general idea he championed had forward momentum but there was disagreement over the details. For roughly another ten years, instead of the continuous corridor and hiking trail being the central features of the effort, glacial geology carried the day. The federally administered segments that Zillmer recommended instead took on the shotgun approach as units scattered around Wisconsin. Today, almost half the units of the National Scientific Reserve are not on the route mapped by Zillmer or of today’s Ice Age Trail.

Had officials heeded the wisdom of Zillmer, the Northern Kettle Moraine would be a National Monument and/or units of the National Scientific Reserve would have been selected to be on the route of one of Zillmer’s maps. Conservation and recreation would have been better served. Even an article that appeared months after Zillmer’s death in Let’s See magazine titled A National Park in Wisconsin provides a map that could have been used as a blueprint for focusing efforts along a continuous corridor instead of a haphazard, shotgun approach. (The map below shows the current Ice Age Trail route in a black line, the units of the National Scientific Reserve with red dots and county boundaries in dashed lines.)

For instance, instead of selecting Mill Bluff as the place to tell the story of rocky crags that were once islands in extinct Glacial Lake Wisconsin, officials could have chosen the vastly more wild Quincy Bluff in Adams County (thus putting such a federal unit along the route of Zillmer’s maps and today’s Ice Age Trail). Perhaps instead of selecting Sheboygan Marsh and later Horicon Marsh as a unit of the National Scientific Reserve, officials could have adhered to Zillmer’s vision by choosing Bogus Swamp (and the outstanding nearby terminal moraine) in Langlade County.

As for including in the Ice Age National Park (and thereby connected by today’s Ice Age Trail) some part of one of the largest swarms of drumlins in the world that is present in southern Wisconsin, Zillmer left no guidance. He was focused on the terminal moraine as the defining landform of the proposed national park. Following his death, officials chose a 3,500-acre area near Campbellsport as a National Scientific Reserve unit. But to this day only 10 acres have been acquired for protection and the Ice Age Trail will not connect to it. Fortunately there is at least a small swarm of drumlins on the Ice Age Trail in Waupaca County.

It is also interesting to note that none of Zillmer’s known Ice Age National Park proposals extend north into Door County, where the Ice Age Trail today has its eastern terminus at Potawatomi State Park. That’s a topic I’ll explore in a future article on this blog.

The upshot? Ray Zillmer was a visionary, a man before his time. With greater adherence to his vision and guidance, the National Scientific Reserve would have better complemented and strengthened today’s Ice Age Trail. If officials would have listened to Ray Zillmer, perhaps Wisconsin would be home to an Ice Age National Park. More likely, though, if they had listened to Zillmer the Ice Age Trail would today be as complete and well-known as the Appalachian Trail.

Maybe it is just a case of coulda, woulda, shoulda or just meltwater down a glacier's crevasse. Either way, viva la Ice Age Trail!
Addendum: A second part of this article appeared a couple months later at


  1. Not so long ago, in re-telling the story of Ray Zillmer and his vision of a linear national park, I realized that despite the rejection of his vision's by the NPS as unworkable, we had been marching inextricably toward that objective and that the Ice Age Trail was indeed becoming that "linear national park" so long ago rejected. I don't know if Zillmer could have foreseen how people's relationship with their land would have changed in the ensuing half century, but the Ice Age Trail has evolved from a catalog of "handshake agreements" with rural landowners (mainly farmers) to a necklace of publicly-owned parcels. In one generation, rural land has gone from mostly available for casual rambling to "no trespassing", and the days of new "handshake agreements" has long since passed. Despite the significant cost of today's trail acquisitions, the bonus acquisition of full parcels of land rather than just a ribbon of trail is adding landscapes and broad corridors to the public conservation land inventory that likely never would have happened were it not for the IAT. Zillmer's vision is much closer to realization than he ever knew, not in the completion of the full length, but in the width of the conserved route.
    As to the reserve units discussed, it's worth noting that the existing units that are on the IAT have become focal points for public access to the trail, interpretation of the glacial story, model sections of the trail, and magnets for further public land acquisiton.
    Thanks for the fascinating article.

    1. Richard, I agree, the existing units of the Reserve that are on the route of the IAT are all that you describe. It's too bad those who originally designed the Reserve, and later those who chose Horicon Marsh, didn't have the foresight to select units that would create synergy with the IAT and become components of the future "linear national park".