Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ice Age National Park Justified:
National Significance

by Drew Hanson

In 1958, Ray Zillmer wrote, “[Wisconsin's] glacial moraines answer all the requirements for a national park.” He created two organizations, made a speaking tour and pressured officials to further his proposal. In response, Congressman Henry Reuss introduced bills in Congress to create an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin. But Zillmer died in 1960. Instead of becoming a national park, his proposal was bifurcated into a National Scenic Trail and a National Scientific Reserve. Six decades later, the concept of an Ice Age National Park still satisfies all the requirements for a national park.

The question of national significance is addressed in this first of a three-part series on how an Ice Age National Park would still meet the National Park Service’s criteria for a new national park.

Often called the father of America’s national parks, John Muir spent his boyhood in Wisconsin along today’s Ice Age Trail. In his biography he wrote, "This sudden plash into pure wildness — baptism in Nature's warm heart — how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. Here without knowing it we still were at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!"

Applying the geology he
The lake of John Muir's boyhood home
learned while a student at the University of Wisconsin, Muir was the first to recognize that the valleys of Yosemite were carved by glaciers. Wisconsin, it turns out, offers an ideal landscape to learn glacial geology. As such, geologists named the last 65,000 years of the ice age the Wisconsin Glaciation.

Alpine explorer Ray Zillmer also found inspiration in the glacially-formed landscapes of Wisconsin. Beginning in the 1930s, he pushed the State of Wisconsin to acquire a series of glacial ridges in eastern Wisconsin and create a long-distance hiking trail along them. In the 1950s, he expanded the effort into the proposed Ice Age National Park. It was Zillmer who first instilled a sense of appreciation for long-distance trails in Gaylord Nelson who later sponsored legislation to protect the Appalachian Trail and create the National Trails System.

The Ice Age Trail was established as a “National Scenic Trail” by an act of Congress in 1980 with overall administration assigned to the Secretary of the Interior. The Trail could still form the nucleus for an Ice Age National Park.

Natural Significance

The Ice Age Trail courses
Devils Lake
like a river between the Potawatomi lookout in eastern Wisconsin and the Dalles of the St. Croix in western Wisconsin. Its route approximates the roughly 15,000-year-old terminal moraine of the Laurentide ice sheet for the majority of its length and the Kettle Moraine interlobate belt along its eastern section.

Due in large part to the resources left by continental glaciation in Wisconsin, the period at the closing millennia of the ice age – between 75,000 and 10,000 years ago – is known by North American geologists as the Wisconsin Glaciation. During this period, a concentration of classic glacial landscape features were left in Wisconsin. This is why the proposed Ice Age National Park is entirely within the Badger State.

Some of the glacial features within the proposed Ice Age National Park are among the finest examples of their kind in the nation. Common features include moraines, eskers, drumlins, kames, kettles, ice-walled lake plains, tunnel channels, extinct glacial lakes and of course glacially transported boulders known as erratics. Other glacial features and geologic processes evidenced along the Trail include the catastrophic drainage of pro-glacial lakes, pre-glacial river diversions, multiple glacial advances, potholes carved into bedrock by glacial meltwater, parallel ice-marginal ridges, buried Pleistocene forests, and others. A portion of the proposed national park encompasses the unique unglaciated Driftless Area, providing an illustrative and unparalleled contrast to the effects of continental glaciation.

Other geologic features within the proposed park include bedrock outcrops of Precambrian lava flows and quartzite, 1.9-billion-year-old metamorphosed rhyollite, Cambrian sandstones, and Ordovician and Silurian dolomites. Some of this bedrock would be among the oldest rocks of the entire National Park System.

Hydrologic resources of an Ice Age National Park are outstanding and play a critical role in the lives of millions of people. Many of these resources owe their origin to continental glaciation. They include more than 150 lakes (including Lake Michigan, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world), countless smaller ponds and springs, many rivers and streams, productive groundwater resources and their recharge areas, and thousands of acres of various types of wetlands. The proposed park includes several nationally-significant trout streams.

oak savanna

Biological resources found along the Ice Age Trail that are of federal or global significance include Karner blue butterfly, Fassett’s locoweed, eastern wolf, Canada lynx, savanna, barrens and prairies. Most of the proposed park consists of carbon-storing forest areas. The largest roadless area is roughly 92 square miles.

With so much international dialog centered on climate change, an Ice Age National Park would provide an important baseline for understanding how climate can affect vast landscapes.

Cultural Significance

An Ice Age National Park would encompass an area with a rich cultural history. Places that were explored by and shaped the conservation ethic of John Muir and Aldo Leopold are woven into the route of the existing Ice Age Trail. The beauty of the landscape inspired eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School architecture. The deep traditions of fishing and hunting continue along segments of the Trail where residential areas do not preclude hunting.

Significant archeological resources within the proposed national park include effigy and conical mounds, ancient trails, petroforms, a pipestone quarry, an ancient mass-kill site of bison and a variety of stone tools. Countless sites showing human habitation and use have been found along the Ice Age Trail and undoubtedly others have yet to be found dating back at least 12,000 years. There is more evidence from Wisconsin than any other Upper Midwest state that prehistoric people killed and butchered mammals including the extinct woolly mammoth.

Historic resources within the proposed national park include the lands of John Muir’s boyhood, Aldo Leopold’s shack, the work of landscape architect Jens Jensen (who worked under President Theodore Roosevelt on national parks), five areas of 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps or structures, the underground railroad and Abraham Lincoln lodging at Milton House museum, early 19th century lead mining activities, late 19th century logging camps, an area burned by the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 (the largest and deadliest forest fire in U. S. history), and places to interpret the work of prominent early glacial geologists William Alden, Frederick Thwaites, Rollin Salisbury, Thomas Chamberlin and Louis Agassiz.

Several areas within the proposed national park contain extremely productive agricultural lands and historic farmsteads. Establishing the Ice Age National Park can provide the opportunity to not only protect farmland with conservation easements in order to keep it in production, but also to interpret these significant natural resources and the cultural resources embodied by the farms and people who work them. As some people like to say, “The family farm is America’s most endangered resource.”

prairie and savanna

Recreational Significance

Almost twenty million Americans live within a two-hour drive of the proposed Ice Age National Park and more than 1.25 million people use the Ice Age Trail year round. Hikers, business owners, and government partners agree that the Ice Age Trail is already a great benefit to the Upper Midwest tourism and recreation industries. Economic research shows that Trail users contribute approximately $113 million annually. It is safe to assume that an Ice Age National Park would be even more loved and heavily used.

Lands within a proposed Ice Age National Park also support hunting, fishing, swimming, scenic drives, snowmobiling, off-road biking and a host of other outdoor recreation activities.

Look at a map of the nation’s national parks. There is a largely empty space in the middle part of the country. The proposed Ice Age National Park would fill the northern part of this gap and provide tens of millions of Americans with a readily available national park experience.

Next in the Ice Age National Park Justified series will be a discussion of the park’s suitability.


  1. This is my first time hearing of this wonderful idea from the late 50's and I love it! Do you have a map or a resource to point to Zillmer's proposal?

    1. There are several online resources that describe parts of the story. Good places to start are:
      - http://www.iceagetrail.org/iata/history/
      - http://pedestrianview.blogspot.com/2012/03/coulda-woulda-shoulda-national.html (which shows Zillmer's 1958 and 1959 concept maps)
      - http://pedestrianview.blogspot.com/2012/05/more-on-national-scientific-reserve.html
      - http://pedestrianview.blogspot.com/2016/03/wisconsin-hiking-pioneers-zillmer.html (which has a bibliography to other resources on this topic)