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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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OPINION

On the trail of Henry Reuss
Late congressman paved the way for Ice Age Trail

This weekend, Reuss (right) will join Gaylord Nelson as a member of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.
This weekend, Reuss (right) will join Gaylord Nelson as a member of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.
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I'm always amazed at the looks I get when people hear I often write about the Ice Age Trail. They do that blank stare/unknowing nod combo that we all do when conversation treads onto unfamiliar ground that we realize we probably ought to be familiar with.

I shake people out of their funk by saying, 'It's our version of the Appalachian Trail!' Usually that does the trick.

Then I add that it's a 1,000-mile footpath that strings through the state, marking the furthest extent of the most recent glacier ' the terminal moraine or the hilly mixture of rock and dirt that's left when glacier stops and recedes. This tends to pique their interest. Then I say it's about two-thirds done and that every year volunteers are bringing the project closer to its eventual completion.

Depending on how interested they look, I may take my audience through the trail's sometimes mind-boggling history. I'll explain that Congress established it decades ago but has since blocked its progress, with rules that prevent private landowners from selling their land. I'll note the early environmentalists and elected officials who pushed hard to get this mammoth project off the ground.

But the story is sorely incomplete without mention of the late, great Wisconsin congressman, Henry Reuss. A Democrat who rose to become one of the state's most influential and respected politicians, Reuss served 13 terms in Congress, from 1955 to 1983.

In addition to very progressive federal action with regard to the environment, Reuss helped develop, along with Hubert Humphrey, the idea for the Peace Corps. His legacy also includes standing up to Joe McCarthy, vocally criticizing the Vietnam War, and inveighing against Ronald Reagan's economic agenda, which he believed favored wealthy Americans.

Yet around these parts and in the hearts of hikers, it's the trail for which Reuss is most remembered.

'Henry was most responsible for garnering the National Scenic Trail designation in Congress for the Ice Age Trail,' recounts Andrew Hanson, trailway director of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation. 'He's the one who did the arm-twisting of other congressmen to gain their votes.'

While gone (he died in 2002, at age 89), Reuss has not been forgotten. This weekend, on the occasion of Earth Day, Reuss will be inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, alongside other great friends of the environment from the state, including Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Gaylord Nelson.

Those of us who care about the Ice Age Trail know the kind of effort it took to push it forward, work that continues today. The trail exemplifies Wisconsin as a place that values its outdoor spaces so tenaciously that people use up entire vacations to join volunteer crews blazing foot after foot of trail. In time, it will be a nationally renowned place to hike and learn about the past, while preserving the future.

But none of it would have happened without the push from this environmental defender. As Hansen puts it, 'Conservation and outdoor recreation in Wisconsin owe a debt to Henry Reuss.'

This weekend, some of that debt will be paid in the form of much-deserved recognition.

Henry Reuss will be inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame this Saturday, April 21, at Sentry Theater in Stevens Point, along with Guido Rahr, Conservation Commission chair, and Russell W. Peterson, former chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The ceremony is free and open to the public. Doors open at 9 am, with the event starting at 10.

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