California and Wisconsin: Two States, Two Striking Environmental Legacies

There is a small County park near my house in central Wisconsin where I sometimes saunter: John Muir Park. The wet sedge meadow there is the first piece of wilderness that Muir tried to preserve, prompting many Wisconsinites to consider Muir’s Wisconsin as the beginning of the National Park idea. He wrote of the area “…if I never see it again, the beauty of its lilies and orchids is pressed into my mind that I shall enjoy looking back at them, even across seas and perhaps after I am dead”. This speaks to an idea that has been on my mind recently of the continuation of things after they seem gone.

BJS John Muir Park 2018But first a word about sauntering…

“People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that beautiful word saunter? Back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.” – John Muir

John Muir (1838-1914) is a most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. He moved from Scotland to Wisconsin as a child and was educated at UW-Madison before moving to California, where he helped establish Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. Muir praised the natural world in poetic, spiritual terms with affection for humanity’s earth connection. I don’t think it is simply coincidence that he lived in WI and CA, two states with deeply held land ethics.

Wisconsin holds a place of high honor in conservation circles. John Muir was in good company with the likes of Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day.

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which passed in thanks to the vision and efforts of Governor Nelson and his legislative aide, Fred Madison, UW-Madison professor of soil science. In 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act officially became law, with Wisconsin’s St. Croix River near Nelson’s hometown included in the eight rivers named in the original act. Since that day, more than 12,000 miles of wild and scenic water in 40 states have been protected.

Another UW-Madison professor, Aldo Leopold, helped to create the first designated wilderness area in the country, in New Mexico, and is considered by many to be the father of the United States’ wilderness system. His book, The Sand County Almanac, is one of the most respected books about the environment ever published, inspiring us to see the natural world “as a community to which we belong”, long known by the original inhabitants of our country, but coming more slowly to the latecomers among us. It describes his years planting thousands of pine trees and restoring prairies on a worn-out farm along the Wisconsin River. Documenting the ensuing changes in the flora and fauna further informed and inspired Leopold. I recommend the chapter “The Good Oak” as a great place to get acquainted. Twenty minutes you won’t regret.

COMM LorenClark BlueOak BJS 2018Perhaps because of its environmental leadership, Wisconsin has been under attack by decidedly anti-environmental influences, helping elect a big-money, pro-corporation administration that has been “leading” since 2011. Key environmental regulations that have long distinguished WI as a conservation leader are being undermined by donations and policies supporting big business. Mining regulations have been relaxed as well as rules preventing building on wetlands. Ranks of scientists at the State have been reduced and the role of science in policy making has been greatly diminished. Family farms are being swallowed by industrial agriculture, and the water table is being drawn down by high-capacity wells serving inhumane CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Wisconsin is under siege.

Yet I am reminded of a mother plant in my garden, with a crowd of seedlings under the skirt of leaves, and plants sprouting at the margins as the mother root decays.

  • Our neighboring states of Minnesota and Iowa are now bearers of forward-thinking environmental laws and ethics, such as Minnesota’s “Next Generation Energy Act of 2007” aimed at reducing greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050, and Iowa’s wind-generated electricity, which could reach 40 percent by 2020.
  • In 2008 The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact became state and federal law, detailing how the states will work together to protect the mighty Great Lakes basin. There is also a non-binding international agreement with Canada protecting the Great Lakes.
  • And while not a close neighbor, California is a giant among us, long honored as an environmental leader in the United States, which has also led the nation as well as the world in ground-breaking environmental solutions that provide economic benefits. Time and again, California’s policy leadership has spurred other states, the nation, and other countries to take similar action, most recently perhaps as a global leader in the fight against climate change.

So I am deeply grateful for the leadership and progress in California, and other states, and disheartened by the regression I see in my dear Wisconsin. But I see the impacts that environmental leadership maintains, as the rank-and-file at the WI Department of Natural Resources continue to protect the waters and land and wildlife as best as they are able with their compromised mission, and with the emergence of Alt-National-Parks in response to siege at the national level. I see California as well as our closer neighbors taking the reins as we fall back and regroup here, resting, strategizing as we saunter, and taking strength that the good work continues, until we are again able to take our place at the front lines.

Placer Blue Oak courtesy Loren Clark