Something breeds great conservationists in Wisconsin.
John Muir, famous for the Sierra’s, was born in Scotland and moved to Wisconsin as a young boy. He took his first course in botany at the University of Wisconsin. Aldo Leopold, author of the seminal, “A Sand County Almanac,” lived in Wisconsin and raised five prominent conservationists in the sand country. The founder of Earth Day, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, hailed from Wisconsin. I had the privilege of working for Mike Dombeck, the only person to ever lead the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. While at the Forest Service, we protected 58 million acres of wild and roadless national forests.
The 21 Trout Unlimited chapters in Wisconsin dedicate about 50 percent more time to the places they live, love, and fish than the average chapter. So, it’s worth reflecting on what makes a great volunteer as seen through the badger state.
Energy and passion go a long way
Heidi Oberstadt was at the forefront of the effort to diversify TU’s membership. She was our first national women’s coordinator and leads Wisconsin’s efforts to make the organization younger, and more friendly to women and people of color. She helped launch the STREAM girls program in the state. Her infectious enthusiasm has launched dozens of young conservationists.
Knowledge is power, and ‘no’ isn’t an acceptable answer
Duke Welter was the top volunteer leader in Wisconsin when Perrier, the bottled water company, proposed to build a 250,000 square foot facility atop the springs that comprised the Mecan River watershed—a state declared “natural area.” The state defines natural areas as “important as a reservoir of the state’s genetic or biological diversity.” After several years of tangling with Duke and the army of partners and volunteers he led, Perrier left the state—and they are unlikely to come back.
Bill led tour after tour of the spongy watershed. Reporters, elected leaders, business interests all toured the watershed with Bill. Even with the relaxed environmental laws, Bill and his coalition beat back the proposed iron ore mine.
The best volunteers are connectors and extenders
Steve Born, who was recently inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, was a professor at University of Wisconsin Madison. He helped pioneer the watershed movement across the state. Most important, he would teach his students about rivers, lakes, groundwater—any natural resource topic, and then they would go into the real world and turn that theory into statute, regulation, or other protective measures for land and water.
I mentioned Born to Steve Moyer, as both started with TU several decades ago. Moyer’s comment was “Born has had his hand in just about every positive conservation measure in the state over the past 30 years.”
Mentors make a difference
Mike Kuhr and Mike Burda rebranded Trout Unlimited’s Veterans Service Partnership to “Veterans on the Fly.” It is difficult to overstate the healing power of water. Nate Coward, a veteran, was having difficulty with his re-entry to civilian life until he went fishing with Mike Burda—himself a veteran of Vietnam. Nate later wrote, “Mike has restored my faith in the good of man. I hope that I will be able to show others the benefit of this program in healing, and giving back to others what has been given to me.”
For his part, Mike Kuhr says, “be a mentor when you can and then be inspired by the work of those around you. We are all in this together.”
The best volunteers pay it forward
Linn Beck, Wayne Parmley, and Kim McCarthy are three of the dozens of volunteers that host over 90 youth-focused events in Wisconsin affecting at least 2000 kids per year. They host a summer camp where kids learn about conservation and fishing and camaraderie. These kids may not know it, but they are the edifice upon everything we do is built.
Be men and women for others
Father Pedro Arrupe famously challenged the Catholic Church to turn toward social justice to better serve the poor, the sick, and the needy. TU volunteers such as Dan Wisniewski, who recently won a lifetime achievement award from the Wisconsin council, embody this message. His quiet work to protect tens of thousands of acres of public land, and to improve public access has enriched the lives of people who will fish and hunt long after he is gone.
Why volunteer? There are a few certainties about giving back to your communities. You will not get rich. You will likely not get famous. You will, however, help to build community in a fractured world. You will make the world a better place. And, when you look back and contemplate a life well-lived, what could possibly be more important?
Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited.