Creating State Parks for Wisconsin

A month or more ago, I wrote a Monday Morning blogpost about a lovely late fall day in Peninsula State Park, and I knew then I’d be writing again about that wonderful Wisconsin resource before long. I wanted to share some of the facts and figures about this park – Wisconsinites’ favorite place to camp – and some of its history.

Thousands of words can be found online celebrating the Door Peninsula, and in particular the peninsula-shaped park which balloons out to the west and north from the larger peninsula. I think the very best description of the area, the one that is the most fun to read, was written more than a century ago by John Nolen, landscape architect and city planner from the East. Nolen’s description is in his 1909 report, State Parks for Wisconsin, published by Wisconsin’s first State Park Board. (The quotes that follow here are from an online facsimile of that report, at The Wisconsin Historical Society’s “Turning Points in Wisconsin HIstory; I quote from Section IV, pp 32-3.)

Looking at Peninsula State Park to the north; from the water. In Door County, WI, Sept. 5, 2015. On Lake Michigan: Near Peninsula State Park, Door County, WI, Septe

Looking at Peninsula State Park to the north; from the water. In Door County, WI, Sept. 5, 2015.

Nolen could hardly contain himself as he recommended this site: “. . the finely situated peninsula between Ephraim and Fish Creek. . . including some 3,000 acres, more than eight miles of shoreline with a number of deep water harbors . . .” as a future state park for Wisconsin.

“Would it not be worthwhile for Wisconsin to have such a park?”

Nolen said this site was “wild and as yet unspoiled;” that with nearly every step new vistas opened, alternating between woodland, cliff, land, and water. He also said this: “Reminding one constantly of the coast of Maine, the shore is a never-ending delight. It sweeps from point to point, here a beach of fine sand, there of gravel, then, in contrast, precipitous limestone bluffs. . . the purest of air laden with the fragrance of balsam and pine, with unexcelled facilities for sailing, boating, fishing . . .”

At the Eagle Panorama in Peninsula State Park. (Photo taken in November, 2015)

At the Eagle Panorama in Peninsula State Park. (Photo taken in November, 2015)

This was a place, he continued, that “might easily become a famous pleasure resort of the highest order,” comparing it to Mackinac Island State Park in Michigan, which, he asserted, was “not one whit more attractive than the proposed Door County park might easily be.” He further noted that the Michigan park contained only 1,000 acres, yet was valued at two million dollars and was visited annually by 200,000 persons. “Would it not be worthwhile for Wisconsin to have a state park with such a record and to secure such a tangible return?”

As we know, the Wisconsin lawmakers of the day said “yes!” The rest, as they say, “is history.” Today a million visitors a year enjoy the use of the same deep harbors that Nolen talked of. They enjoy those same vistas he hoped the state would protect. In other words, John Nolen’s proposal for creating that state park, has worked out perfectly for us, the citizens of the future he envisioned.

John Nolen’s Good Idea

In addition to fishing, boating, and sailing, as Nolen suggested we might do, we also go hiking and birding in the park, and kayak off its shore line. Many have family traditions involving an annual ride on the Sunset Bike Trail (“Whatever you do, don’t miss the sunset,” advises the Travel Wisconsin website.) And we fill its five campgrounds: Weborg Point, Welker’s Point, Tennison Bay, and Nicolet Bay South and North.

Other things we might do there? Work on our game at the park’s 18-hole golf course. Enjoy performances under the stars by the professional actors of the Northern Sky Theater; or revisit the past at the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse and Museum. Until recently, a large percentage of visitors – on at least one of their park visits – climbed it’s 75 foot observation tower, (now closed; see more information about this below the tower picture). In the winter the park is a top destination for cross-country skiing within the state; sledding and snowshoeing are other options.

The observation tower at Peninsula State Park: closed in May 2015 because of disrepair. Hopes are high for its repair or speedy replacement. (Photo taken in November 2015)

The observation tower at Peninsula State Park: closed in May 2015 because of disrepair. There seems to be  strong sentiment for its speedy repair or replacement. (Photo taken in November 2015)

It All Started with Madison’s Park and Pleasure Drive Association

Here is just a little more history about “noted landscape architect John Nolen.” Who was he? What brought this city planner from Massachusetts to our north woods in the early 20th century?

In 1908 the leaders of Madison’s Park and Pleasure Drive Association (the forerunner of today’s City of Madison Parks Division) contacted Nolan for help with their vision for improvements in their city. Nolan would eventually become known as “the eminent city planner.” But this was early in his career, and his most notable commissions were all in the future. Nolan had recently graduated from Harvard’s new School of Landscape Architecture (in 1905), where he studied with Frederick Law Olmsted. Nolan had returned to school for this opportunity, having earlier earned a degree the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

An information board on the Eagle Terrace includes a picture of John Nolen and the story of the origins of this park. (Photo taken in November 2015)

An information board on the Eagle Terrace includes a picture of John Nolen (on the right) and the story of the origins of this park, and some of its history that followed. (Photo taken in November 2015)

With the help of the Madison civic visionaries who had recruited him, Nolen received at least 3 commissions in the state, including one to draw up a plan for Madison as a Model City. According to this 2011 article in Madison Magazine, this Nolen plan has been “pretty much followed for the last 100 years.”

He also received a commission from the University of Wisconsin, and from the State of Wisconsin – the one which resulted in Nolen’s recommendation for a state park system. Among the four new parks that Nolen suggested, three were established by 1917. Peninsula State Park was established in 1909 , the same year Nolen’s State Parks for Wisconsin was published.

Devil’s Lake State Park was established in 1911. Wyalusing State Park was established in 1917 (originally as Nelson Dewey State Park and renamed in 1937, after a second park was established in honor of Dewey, Wisconsin’s first governor).

Looking across at Horsehoe Island, from the top of the bluff on the Eagle Panorama. (Photo, November 2015)

Looking across at Horsehoe Island, from the top of the bluff on the Eagle Panorama. (Photo, November 2015)

Walking through Leopold’s Vision

The headline above is from the blog Walking through Sonoma County . . . mostly; more about that in a minute.

I’ve always wanted to write about Aldo Leopold, as a genuine Wisconsin conservation hero, but have felt intimidated by the task. How do you write about someone whose legacy is a mile wide, and deep too, throughout America, not just Wisconsin? Someone whose already been the subject, surely, of hundreds of thousands of written words?

Aldo Leopold (Photo courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Aldo Leopold (Photo courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Then I discovered a “walking blog,” kept by California walker and blogger Lynn Millar, whose travels brought her to Wisconsin last summer for a couple of walks, one of them at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. So today I’m re-blogging her post about it. [That means this post you’re reading will transition into the beginning of Lynn’s post – “Walking Through Leopold’s Vision.” If you click on “view original post,” you’ll be transported directly to her blog, for the rest of it.]

But first, I’d like to share just a few highlights from Leopold’s deep, wide legacy to bolster the claims I’ve made above.

Learning about Leopold’s Legacy

In 1924 the Gila Wilderness in northern New Mexico became the first designated wilderness area on the planet. This happened, according to, because of the vision and persistence of Leopold, then a relatively young man working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwest.

In 1935 The Wilderness Society was established, Aldo Leopold among the founders. By that time he was already working in Wisconsin, where in 1933 he had published the first textbook in the field of wildlife management. That same year, the University of Wisconsin had created the nation’s first chair in game management for its new teacher, Professor Aldo Leopold.

A California Walker Blogs about the Legacy

There’s a lot more, but that’s enough for now. Here’s a word about Lynn Millar’s blog.  Her title says it best:  she takes walks and writes about them. She makes the point that these are not ‘hikes,’ but short, flat ‘walks.’ Most of them are in Sonoma County; overwhelmingly they seem to be in California. I found some in Oregon, and this past summer she posted about walking in Chicago and southern Wisconsin.

If you’re a true walker, you’ll enjoy a look at this blog even if you never set foot on any of the particular paths described. Of course, if you’re in Wisconsin, wouldn’t you want to follow Lynn as she went — Walking Through Leopold’s Vision . . . ?        

 . . . . from Lynn Millar:

Walking in Sonoma County...mostly

On our way out of town and out of Wisconsin, we stopped at the Leopold Center in Baraboo. (Yes, that Leopold – to those of you who remember reading the Sand County Almanac back in the 70s.)

Leopold entrance

Aldo Leopold generated ideas in the 1920s-40s for what would become the environmental movement. While in Arizona and New Mexico working for the Forest Service in the 1920s, he began to think that man’s role is not just to dominate wildlife. (He has a wilderness area named after him in New Mexico – in the Gila National Forest)

In 1933, he accepted a professorship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This professorship in wildlife was one of the first.

While living in Madison with his family and teaching, he purchased 80 acres of logged out and overgrazed farmland. He proceeded to put his ideas in practice and restored the property that was in sand country along…

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In Search of Monarch Butterflies and Waystations

[This is another post in the series, Summer in Wisconsin: Woodlands, Wetlands, Monarchs, and Rocks.” What began as one of several items for a “roundup” of summer notes, has grown into five separate blogposts, published one at a time in this first and second week of August. You can access all the Summer in Wisconsin series by clicking on those words; they are listed among the categories at the end of each post.]

Is This a Better Year for Monarchs?

It’s the height of summer in Wisconsin, and this is the perfect time to look for Monarch butterflies. I plan to visit soon, two special Door County locations that may currently be hosting numerous butterflies (more about these later).

According to my own, completely unscientific survey, Monarchs seem more plentiful this summer – even in small parks and back yards, than in recent summers. My own observations seem to be bolstered anecdotally by others I’ve talked to as well.


Monarch feeding on the swamp milkweed at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. (USFWS photo by Tom Koerner)

Monarch feeding on the swamp milkweed at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. (USFWS photo by Tom Koerner)

However, Julie, the naturalist at the website,, cautioned me that when it comes to Monarchs, “the answers always tend to be complex and multifaceted.” And no wonder, when you consider with Monarchs, you are dealing with millions of individual butterflies – big numbers, yet this is a population commonly understood to be in decline.

From the NWF: The “Battle for the Butterflies”

The National Wildlife Foundation is a good source for stories about the plight of the Monarchs, and I found this one, “The Battle for the Butterflies,”  [ ]  from March 30th, this year, to be very helpful. A 2014-15 survey of their winter territory in Mexico, produced a count of over 56 million butterflies, “up 69% from the previous year’s survey, when the insects’ numbers fell to historic lows.”

While that’s welcome news, it is still a low count, according the scientists who study this. “The continent’s monarch population has declined more than 90% from its peak of nearly one billion butterflies in the mid-1990s,” this article states.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed; this phase in the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly is solely dependent on the Milkweed plant for life. (USFWS photo by Courtney Celley)

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed; this phase in the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly is solely dependent on the Milkweed plant for life. (USFWS photo by Courtney Celley)

There does seem to be a robust and growing response to this threat to the species. One important part of that response, I believe, includes efforts to cultivate Milkweed and the nectar plants required by the Monarch population. Efforts on the part of private citizens, wildlife management professionals, and various public entities have resulted in thousands of such plantings that have come to be known as Monarch Waystations. As of May 31st this year, Monarch Watch, [ ], a butterfly research program based at the University of Kansas, reports they have registered 10,584 Monarch Waystations.

Where to Look for Monarchs

Efforts to turn the meadow adjacent to the nature center at Peninsula State Park into a Monarch Waystation were described this past November, by Kathleen Harris, naturalist at the park. Providing suitable space for milkweed and other native plants, the meadow is a positive response for Monarchs, Harris wrote in the Peninsula Pulse  [ ], adding, “In addition to planting diverse native species, park staff and volunteers have also removed unwanted plants.”

A milkweed planting by Swallowtail Garden Seeds.

A milkweed planting by Swallowtail Garden Seeds  [ ]

In addition to visiting the meadow at the nature center, and hoping to photograph Monarchs, I also plan to visit Bayshore Blufflands Nature Preserve, a property of the Door County Land Trust. Early in July, the Land Trust posted on their Facebook page, that Bayshore Blufflands had become “a Monarch haven! Fields are filled with Milkweed and buds that are just beginning to bloom . . . You can clearly see where caterpillars have been munching on leaves . . .”

The public can visit Bayshore Blufflands preserve at any time. You can find it at 5454 Bayshore Drive, 10 miles north of Sturgeon Bay.