Protecting Wisconsin's Special Places

Gathering Waters Summer Saunter
Students taking a break during one of the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s Summer Saunter programs. The Ice Age Trail Alliance is one of Gathering Waters’ member land trusts. Photo courtesy of Brian Bednarek.

Wisconsin is filled with natural wonders — from winding rivers, spectacular bluffs, prairies filled with wildflowers, and stately forests to lakes, fertile farmland, and glacial drumlins. Across the state, local land trusts are working with communities and property owners to protect these treasures. And Gathering Waters is working to strengthen these land trusts and ensure their health and longevity.

A Mission That Evolved as the Movement Grew

Gathering Waters was founded in 1994 to help protect Wisconsin’s land and water, wildlife, and the Wisconsin way of life.

“Wisconsin is blessed with so many natural resources, and natural places are integral to the Wisconsin way of life,” says Gathering Waters’ Executive Director Mike Carlson. “Whether through tourism, outdoor recreation, forestry or agriculture, much of our state’s economy is tied to our natural resources. For many Wisconsin residents these things really define our state and our local communities.”

In the early years, its focus was on helping to form new land trusts — nonprofit organizations dedicated to permanently protecting land — across the state. As the number of land trusts in Wisconsin grew, Gathering Waters saw its mission shift from establishing new land trusts to supporting the existing network of groups and ensuring their health and longevity.

“Land trusts have a unique responsibility to protect land in perpetuity.” Carlson says.

“When a landowner gives property to a land trust, he or she intends that land to be protected forever. We work with the land trusts to give them the tools they need to be strong, sustainable organizations, so that they can uphold these obligations — as the landowners intended.”

Today, Gathering Waters’ mission has evolved with a focus on providing training and technical help to land trusts, advocating for public policies that support land and water protection, and promoting the work of land trusts and the value of conserving Wisconsin’s natural resources.

Gathering Support for a Greater Public Investment

Wisconsin has long recognized the importance of protecting the state’s natural places. In 1989, Wisconsin legislators created the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program to increase the public investment in preserving valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protecting water quality and fisheries, and expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation.

“The Stewardship Program has created highly successful public-private partnerships between the state, land trusts, and local communities,” Carlson shares. “So many places across the state, especially in Dane County, have benefited from its funding — places like the Ice Age Trail, Cherokee Marsh, the Pope Farm Conservancy, and Troy Gardens.” In Madison, Knowles-Nelson has provided $7.1 million for urban parks like McPike Park, wetland restoration, bike trails and more.

But this crucial source of funding is threatened. In the last state budget debate in 2019, despite wide-spread bipartisan support, the program was only reauthorized for two years. Gathering Waters has taken a lead in rallying support for the program’s renewal, creating a statewide network called Team Knowles-Nelson to encourage people across the state to lend their support.

Helping People Experience the Land

The best way to understand land trusts’ work is to go out and visit the land they’ve protected. To encourage us all to do this, Gathering Waters sponsors Wisconsin Land Trust Days throughout August and September, giving the public a chance to see what their local land trust is doing, up close.

Land Trust Days offer a wide variety of fun outdoor events for people with all different types of interests. In the past, these events have included:

• Building a segment of the scenic Ice Age Trail

• Prairie walks and conservation talks

• A Full Moon Happy Hour

• A paddle tour of Lake Katherine at the Yawkey Forest Reserve in the Northwoods

Protecting the Wisconsin Way of Life

MCF is proud to steward the Bolz Family Endowment Fund for Gathering Waters, and to help provide long-term support for the work it does with our state’s land trusts, and connecting people to the work they’re doing.

Gathering Waters is helping protect so much of what makes Wisconsin special — and ensuring it stays protected. Perhaps we can provide no greater gift to the future residents of our state than this.

You can find out more about Gathering Waters and its mission here

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