The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program expires this year if it is not renewed by the Wisconsin Legislature. One of reasons I support renewing the program for 10 years is this personal story that I first shared in 2013.
As a boy, I heard a story about a maple woods that was in the family long ago. The woods were handed down from one generation to the next until all the grandest old trees were cut down. The story ended with how the maple trees were turned into, of all things, bowling pins.
The story stuck with me, and in my mind, the woods slowly took on an enchanting quality.
I grew up in rural Marinette County, where my dad’s family has been since the Meyers arrived during the Civil War. Some of them survived the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871. The land where my parents built the home where I grew up was part of another family line — farmsteaded by my great-great-grandparents, the Kellers. Other family lines, like the Jaegers and Hansens, had farmsteads nearby.
Going through the Marinette public schools, quite a few other kids were what my grandparents called "shirt-tail relation." So when I left college at UW-Marinette to attend UW-Madison, I joked that I needed to leave town so I wouldn’t accidentally marry a cousin.
Years later, I was searching microfiche for old family stories in newspapers at the Wisconsin Historical Society Library in Madison. There I found a story from 1896 of my great-great-grandfather Jaeger, who was delivering milk when the horse pulling the wagon lost all composure at a railroad crossing. Jaeger was thrown to the ground, the wagon badly damaged and the horse injured so that it was shot on the spot. Not the sort of thing you see today, eh?
More satisfying, though, were the small news items that mentioned "Hansen Maple Grove," or just "Hansen Grove." It was noted as a meeting place for church and school groups to gather for picnics, and as the hometown in the obituaries for some family members. This was the maple woods of my family lore, and judging from the stories, it was a place that must have held special meaning for not only my ancestors but for their neighbors too. It made me proud.
Thrilled, I soon visited. But today it is a different place — nothing enchanting or grand about it. A private home stands in the middle. As a place for family and neighbors to gather, relax and recreate, Hansen Maple Grove is gone. It is like a ghost town — only a ghost woods. It would be easy to blame the landowner for the loss of that woods, but they probably had few options. We should assume they needed the money from the harvest of those big trees. They did what they needed to do and they had every right to do it.
As a place shared with the community, Hansen Maple Grove existed for about a half-century. It was a time, at least in northeast Wisconsin, before public parks and public picnic grounds. In the vastness of rural America in those days, neighbors let neighbors walk through each others’ woods.
Out of my combination of pride and sadness came a motivation to be a conservationist, to do my small part to help other places like Hansen Maple Grove be around for hundreds of years or more. In a world that is changing faster all the time, we need to be conservative about land and water by conserving special places for generations to come.
When my ancestors settled Wisconsin a century-and-a-half ago, the state was still dominated by nature. Today it is increasingly dominated by highways, power lines, subdivisions, mowed lawns and "No Trespassing" signs. Fortunately, today we have public parks and picnic areas, and several options to help save other special places.
Two of the more important of these options (sometimes we think of them as tools) are conservation easements and the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It is the most traditional tool for conserving private land and offers flexibility in crafting the terms. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs. An easement may apply to all or a portion of the property, and need not require public access.
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program was created by the Wisconsin Legislature in 1989 to preserve valuable natural places and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. It accomplishes these through the acquisition of land and easements, development of recreational facilities and restoration of habitat. The program will expire if the Wisconsin Legislature does not renew it soon.
If Hansen Maple Grove had existed during today's era of conservation easements and the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, there is no guarantee the landowner would choose to conserve the land instead of trading it for bowling pins. But one thing is certain: these tools give landowners options.
If you are a private landowner, options are good things.
Drew Hanson is a conservation and trails consultant who blogs at pedestrianview.blogspot.com.
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