Friday, August 4, 2017

MSC Lands Prestigious National Trail Awards

Let’s face it, Wisconsin has never been seen as a leader in hiking trails, until now. Thanks to a novel program called the Mobile Skills Crew (MSC), the Badger State has moved to the forefront of how to design and build a premier hiking trail. At the center of this newly earned prestige is Tim Malzhan, director of the MSC.

Each year since 2002, volunteers from throughout the upper Midwest gather at MSC events along the Ice Age Trail (IAT) where they are trained in advanced trail construction and crew leadership techniques. These volunteers, in turn, apply their knowledge and experience to smaller-scale, local trail building projects. The obvious result is more high-quality Ice Age Trail miles on the ground every year. Less pronounced are how these top-notch trail miles are part of a newly respected IAT brand and are the result of growing volunteerism for the Wisconsin outdoors.

One of eleven national scenic trails in the United States, the Ice Age Trail is a thousand-mile footpath entirely within Wisconsin. Envisioned in the late-1950s, the IAT spent decades in infancy and adolescence before finally beginning to take its place among the great long-distance hiking trails such as the Appalachian Trail in the east and Pacific Crest Trail in the west. This year, 2017, is proving to be a break-out year for the IAT and the MSC.

The first national award of the year came early this spring, when the United States Forest Service presented the MSC with its Honor Award for Volunteerism and Service. The award recognizes a collaborative effort spanning 2012 – 2016 to address infrastructure upgrades to popular segments of the IAT where it traverses the Medford district of the Chequamagon National Forest. Tim Malzhan was one of the individuals specifically recognized.

Malzhan during the design phase of an MSC project near Ringle
A remarkable amount of work in the Chequagmegon National Forest was completed, including replacement and construction of over 700 feet of elevated boardwalk, 67-foot and 20-foot clear span bridges and 4 miles of trail tread construction and trail signage upgrades. Extending these achievements into nearby areas, an impressive 1,110 volunteers contributed 23,087 hours toward improving the IAT.

A second national award of the year came to Malzhan alone. At its 23rd International Trails Symposium in May, the group American Trails presented Malzhan with its prestigious Outstanding Trail Leader Award. This award recognizes individuals who have made compelling and significant contributions to the trails movement in their home states.

Malzhan, who grew up near Poy Sippi, fell in love with the Ice Age Trail in 1991 while becoming just the third person to ever thru-hike the thousand-mile trail. He was hired to Ice Age Trail Alliance staff in 2000. After training with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, Malzhan created the highly successful MSC program to support the layout, design, construction and maintenance of the Ice Age Trail. The comprehensive approach has the benefit of boosting public awareness, support and volunteerism. As MSC has flourished under Malzhan’s leadership, the trails community around the country has noticed.

MSC volunteers constructing trail tread near Wood Lake
The third national award in this banner year was the George and Helen Hartzog Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service. Winning this coveted National Park Service (NPS) award was the MSC program.

One of the things that garners attention and sets MSC apart is its passion, enthusiasm and friendly sense of community. Since 2002, these attributes brought 13,408 volunteers to 146 projects and generated a staggering total of 265,351 volunteer hours toward making the Ice Age Trail a premier hiking trail.

Written by NPS staff, the glowing award nomination waxed:
“With each passing trail season, MSC continues to gain notoriety in communities throughout Wisconsin, establish new and lasting partnerships with local governments, businesses, schools and community groups, and connect more people of all backgrounds with the Ice Age Trail. MSC has earned, and enjoys, instantaneous recognition among numerous partner entities as a professional, dependable driving force of the Ice Age Trail, allowing each new success to sow the seeds of future partnering opportunities.

To watch an MSC project roll into action is akin to watching a national All-Hazard Team spring up at a wildfire or hurricane incident and become operational within a matter of hours. When MSC arrives at a project site, things happen with a well-practiced efficiency. Large event tents and shelters are erected, individual crew tents blossom, a 16-foot trailer specifically customized as a mobile kitchen unit begins prepping meals for hundreds, check-in occurs for arriving resources and safety briefings are held. By sunset of set-up day, the entire operation is ready for another multi-day flurry of well supervised work, mixed with the hallmark camaraderie always found among ‘old timers’ and new MSC'ers alike.”

Find out more about the Mobile Skills Crew on the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s website at http://www.iceagetrail.org/volunteer/mobile-skills-crew-program/ . Consider volunteering at a project or at least get out for a hike on a beautiful MSC-constructed trail segment.



Thursday, June 29, 2017

Forest Majesty

By Drew Hanson

Have you ever tried to explain majesty? It is no easy thing to put to words. It is a subjective thing that can inspire and motivate people. You know it when you see it. One example is mountain majesty. Another is a stand of big trees.

It seems a fair assumption that most people have felt a sense of wonder or awe when standing at the base of really big trees. It does not matter that the big trees of California are bigger than big trees elsewhere. It’s all relative. I have stood among giant sequoia and redwood but still have my sense of wonder and awe piqued when I stand beside mature white pine or bur oak. No matter how you define big, big trees are majestic. This is especially true where there are many of them in an old growth or virgin forest.

Call it forest majesty. Any place where trees are allowed to reach old age can offer forest majesty. But trees do not reach old age unless they have people who care about them a whole awful lot.

Wisconsin is one place that lost nearly all its virgin forest. People tend to think our original forests were all cleared by 1900. In fact, a surprising amount of uncut forest remained in America’s Dairyland well into the 1930s, including areas along today’s Ice Age Trail in Lincoln and Langlade counties. Click on the map below to better see where virgin forest remained in 1932.


So, in the 1930s, while the states of Tennessee and North Carolina were rushing to save some of their last stands of virgin forest to create Smoky Mountains National Park, Wisconsin was cutting hers down. The stands of big trees that remain in Wisconsin today are tiny remnants at places like Cathedral of Pines in Oconto County and Gerstberger Pines in Taylor County.

Today’s Wisconsinites who desire the inspiration of an old growth forest must travel to the Smokies or to Michigan’s Porkies or even California’s sequoias.

However, this is not just a story of loss. This is also a story of action. If we manage some of our lands properly, Wisconsin can regain some of its lost forest majesty. Future generations of Wisconsinites could be able to hike through old growth forest to marvel at enormous trees. We should make it a priority to ensure this happens along portions of the Ice Age Trail.

Some areas along the Trail are going to continue to see timber harvest. In some cases, it is necessary. But in order for more segments of the Ice Age Trail to be places of inspiration, places where people return again and again, where more local economies benefit from the Trail, more areas along it must become places of forest majesty. More miles of the Trail need to provide wonder and awe.

What is needed are for middle-age native forests along the Ice Age Trail to be given permanent protection. Places like the Ringle and Chequamegon segments would make good candidates. This will ensure that future generations can experience the inspirational grandeur of forest majesty.

It’s up to us. What are you going to do to help?



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 http://www.iceagetrail.org/volunteer/mobile-skills-crew-program/project-schedule/

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.