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Preserving Wisconsin, one parcel at a time
The Nature Conservancy turns 50, with mostly positive reviews

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Hugh Iltis, now 84, remembers that starting a Wisconsin chapter of the Nature Conservancy was surprisingly difficult. When first approached in the mid-1950s, the embryonic national chapter, strife-ridden and overwhelmed, "discouraged it as much as they could." But in 1960, Iltis and Gene Roark tried again, and the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin was born.

Roark was then a UW-Madison graduate and dedicated conservationist who later directed the state Department of Natural Resources' Bureau of Tourism. Iltis was a newly hired UW professor of botany. As chapter plans moved forward, they were joined by Dr. Joseph Hickey, a UW professor who would help push through Wisconsin's ban on DDT in the late 1960s.

Why a Nature Conservancy chapter?

While other groups were fighting for new environmental laws and educating the public, the Nature Conservancy was actively buying properties to save imperiled habitats. It also employed an emerging legal contract, the "conservation easement," which allows landowners to retain title while letting the Conservancy purchase the right to keep it undeveloped. The trio of Madison conservationists thought Wisconsin needed to take the same approach to preserving our unique lands and ecosystems.

Today, as its begins its 50th anniversary year, the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin has five state offices, 35 employees, an operating budget of about $4 million, and 20,000 members. The group, headquartered in Madison, owns 25,000 acres of Wisconsin land and has helped conserve another 120,000 acres.

"The Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin is all about protecting ecologically important lands and habitats, for wildlife and people," says Mary Jean Huston, the group's director since 1999. "We're probably best known for land acquisition. But we also have important programs that address freshwater, climate change, invasive species, and the Great Lakes."

Among its other achievements, the Nature Conservancy was a major political force behind the Stewardship Fund, a state program that provides millions of dollars in matching grants to help purchase conservation lands.

"They do have a strong influence in the state from a political standpoint," says George Meyer, former DNR secretary and current executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. "They have very broad-based support, including some influential members who are very well connected to both political parties."

One key to the Nature Conservancy's success is the alliances it forms with other groups.

"Over the last 20 years, I've seen a big increase in collaboration across the state on issues of mutual interest to conservation, environmental and sportsmen's groups," says Karen Etter Hale, executive secretary of the Madison Audubon Society. "The Nature Conservancy's done a really good job working with others, and I think they're very well respected in the state because of that."

The group benefits from its substantial list of people committed to preserving the state's natural heritage. "We have members who donate anywhere from $25 to $10,000 a year," says Huston. "Individual donors are what make [the group] work."

In December 2007, two of those donors dropped the equivalent of $12.5 million in the Nature Conservancy's lap, when the estate of the late Newell and Ann Meyer gave the group 374 acres near Eagle, along with cash and other assets. Today, the land, located at the headwaters of the northern branch of the Mukwonago River, is called the Newell and Ann Meyer Nature Preserve, an ecologically diverse system that provides nesting habitat for sandhill cranes.

One of the Conservancy's first acquisitions was in the ecologically sensitive Baraboo Hills. Today, it owns nearly 9,000 acres throughout this area. It also owns the 1,000-acre Spring Green Prairie, a unique bit of Midwestern desert complete with prickly pear cactus, lizards and various dry grasses, located just off state Highway 23 near Spring Green.

But the group's biggest coup came in 2006, when it sewed up the 64,600-acre Wild Rivers Legacy Forest, which protects more than 70 miles of rivers and streams flowing into Green Bay. Players include the federal government, the Wisconsin DNR, International Paper and other groups to preserve more than 101 square miles of Florence, Forest and Marinette counties.

"We negotiated the agreement," Huston explains. "We brought together the parties, found a timber partner with a sustainable forestry focus. Then, with our lawyers, we put together the legal nuts and bolts of the easement instrument."

The land was purchased from International Paper, which was divesting itself of timber properties. A conservation easement held by the state ensures that the forest is managed sustainably and kept open to public recreation.

Most of the money for the $86.7 million deal came from the state and federal government. But the Nature Conservancy ponied up about $3 million of its own money, for interest, fees and other costs.

The Nature Conservancy is not by nature a controversial group. But there are of course conflicts among various user groups, like the ones that arise over trapping and hunting.

Meyer, of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, accuses the Nature Conservancy of "improperly restricting hunting on some lands they've purchased" using Stewardship funds. "They also have very strict policies against trapping, even though it's an important wildlife management tool." When asked which Nature Conservancy lands have restrictions in place, all Meyer will say is "several properties."

Huston is surprised at the criticism. She says deer hunting is allowed on more than 90% of all Nature Conservancy lands; turkey and pheasant hunting are also common. A Stewardship grant requirement necessitating trapping, where feasible, went into effect in 2007. Since then, trapping has been allowed on three Nature Conservancy properties purchased with Stewardship grants.

Recently, an issue over property taxes arose in Sauk County, where the Nature Conservancy currently owns more than 9,000 acres. Ever since it purchased its first Sauk County lands in 1960, the group has paid property taxes there. Under state law, the nonprofit group has no obligation to pay such taxes, but did so anyway, Huston says, to be a good community partner.

But in 2009, with donations down thanks to the poor economy, the Nature Conservancy decided to go the tax-exempt route on most of its Sauk County lands. The group will still pay about $180,000, so local school districts won't be hurt under state funding formulas. But that's considerably less than the $366,000 in taxes it was slated to pay.

That shortfall isn't appreciated by some local officials.  The township of Baraboo, for example, is looking into billing the Nature Conservancy if it has to respond to an emergency medical or rescue situation on the group's lands.

But in the main, the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin draws high praise. Signe Holtz, the former director of the DNR's Endangered Resources Bureau, credits the group with protecting Chiwaukee Prairie in southeastern Wisconsin, home to "more than 400 species of plants and animals," some rare. If not for the Nature Conservancy, Holtz says, "that site would've been lost."

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