Wisconsin and land stewardship go together like groundwater and wetlands. Whether it’s the likes of Aldo Leopold and Increase Lapham for their enduring impacts on Wisconsin ecology or the prolific degree of wildlife- and habitat-focused organizations dedicated to environmental causes, we’ve all encountered at least one aspect of our state’s commitment to the natural world.

Naturally, there’s a lot of overlap between the efforts of persons and organizations in preservation and education, and the nonprofit carrying what might be the largest umbrella in the state is the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. Shelly Torkelson, communications director, says, “We’re basically the only nonprofit that covers all conservation in Wisconsin, and only in Wisconsin. We have projects all over the state, and we don’t specifically work on just wetlands or birds.”

Photograph by Andrew Badje

The Foundation was formed in 1986 to help fund severely compromised DNR projects resulting from budget cuts. Over the decades, they evolved and now support other nonprofits and initiatives in addition to their work with the state. They also have a wealth of grant programs aimed to educate and support environmental education and exploration.

“We have grants that fund access to outdoor recreation in general,” says Shelly. “We recently gave a grant to the BIPOC Birding Club, for example. We have an entire grant program just for teachers to help them get their classrooms outdoors. We also fund habitat restoration and help specific species, like Monarch butterflies. … A few years ago, we had a really good summer for Monarchs, and I saw a Monarch every single day. I called it my daily Monarch. I want every year to be like that.”

Aside from providing funding, the Foundation partners with other organizations in a variety of capacities. One of the largest ongoing endeavors is at Rush Creek State Natural Area. Along with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, and the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, “We’re involved in the first climate adaptation project for a grassland/prairie. … They’re trying all these different methods to see what works best to prepare a prairie for climate change.” This includes figuring out which seed mixes work best as temperatures and weather patterns shift as well as how frequently prescribed burnings should take place.

Every piece of Foundation work connects to their broader mission statement: “to protect state’s lands, waters, and wildlife by providing funding, leading partnerships, and connecting all people to nature.” And connecting all people to nature might be the most impressive aspect of their work.

Photograph by Ben Albert

Every year, the Foundation embarks on over 260 field trips, including boat rides, train rides, biking trips, kayaking excursions, and foraging and tracking trips. “Our field trips go everywhere from Devil’s Lake, which is one of the more popular places to recreate outdoors in the state, to a couple spots you can’t go to any other way. There’s a lot of unique experiences or just new takes on familiar experiences, like a Devil’s Lake paddle at twilight.”

And if you’re concerned about how strenuous a trip might be, the Foundation’s website, wisconservation.org, indicates each trip’s activity level by color. Twenty field trips are even accessible by standard wheelchairs. Many more can be attended by those with limited mobility thanks to the Foundation’s partnership with Access Ability Wisconsin (AAW). “[AAW’s] mission is all about getting people outdoors who have mobility challenges. They have these really cool outdoor all-terrain wheelchairs that have tank-like tracks that can go places regular wheelchairs can’t. You can rent those for free and explore places you wouldn’t be able to in a regular wheelchair.”

On the other side of the coin, some fairly challenging field trips involve either traversing difficult terrain or longer hikes/paddles. Shelly shares one experience she was only able to have because of the experienced guide.

“Waubesa Wetlands is a state natural area, which means it’s open to the public. You can go and walk around, but you’re not going to know what you’re looking at unless you have an expert guide. It’ll be beautiful. You’ll enjoy seeing the oaks and the prairie, but it was great walking through it with Alex Wenthe, the field trip leader. … The best part was a spot you’d never know was there. There’s not a path. We bushwhacked to get to it. There’s a fen there. It feels like you’re walking on a sponge or a trampoline covered in flowers and plants you don’t see other places. All the plants that are uniquely suited for that habitat. That’s not part of a normal hike.”

Photograph Courtesy of MSCR (Madison Sports and Community Recreation)

Getting out in nature in Wisconsin inspires people in ways nothing else can. Shelly says, “It opens up a door in people’s minds, and it makes them realize how much they value these things that we have here in Wisconsin. How lucky we are.” Whether a lifetime naturalist or an infrequent trekker, anyone can be left speechless on a Foundation field trip.

Upcoming Field Trips

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology & Restoration Workshop

(Arlington): Average Difficulty
August 22, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
A wagon ride with hikes through Goose Pond Sanctuary, owned by Madison Audubon Society. You’ll learn about select plant species, rare species, the benefits of prescribed burns, invasive-species removal, wildlife usage, management challenges and techniques, and grant opportunities. Birdwatchers will also appreciate the wealth of opportunities to spot avian residents.

Explore the Waubesa Wetlands State Natural Area

(Fitchburg): Extreme Difficulty
September 8, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
A four-mile trek through a hidden wetland gem, just south of Madison. You’ll be exposed to ancient organic soils, a large bedrock valley and glacial formation giving rise to dry prairie, sedge meadow, and rare peat-accumulating calcareous fens. You might encounter unique waterbirds, including terns, loons, and osprey. Be forewarned, there are no bathrooms. Check out waubesafilm.com to see the beauty of the wetlands through the eyes of director Ben Albert, producer Moss Hegge, and drone operator Calen Albert.

John Muir’s Boyhood Haunts

(Montello): Average Difficulty
October 7, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
John Muir is among the greatest naturalists to call Wisconsin home. You’ll explore Muir Park State Natural Area and other haunts of the original Muir homestead. Enjoy Observatory Hill State Natural Area and visit Wee White Kirk, where John’s father preached and his family is buried.

Kyle Jacobson is a writer/editor who enjoys a long walk down a short trail.