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Ice Age Trail

Hikers walk the Ice Age Trail near Cross Plains in 2018.

The recently passed John Dingell Conservation, Management and Recreation Act is the biggest conservation achievement in a decade. Demonstrating that conservation has bipartisan support, the legislation passed the Senate by a vote of 92-8.

By far the most important part of the new law is permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This is great news for public lands, all who recreate on them, the plants and animals who call them home, the fresh water they provide and the local economies they support.

LWCF is funded not by taxes but by the federal leasing of offshore oil rights. So, while one public resource is being depleted another is being acquired.

Celebrate this important milestone. But for those of us in Wisconsin, at least, we need to turn our attention to ensuring the benefits of LWCF are shared more equitably in the future.

According to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, here is how some states have fared in the amount of LWCF dollars received since the fund was created in 1964:

• Michigan $334 million

• Minnesota $252 million

• Montana $602 million

• Ohio $339 million

• Pennsylvania $325 million

• South Carolina $298 million

• Washington $710 million

•Wisconsin $222 million

Left to their own biases, federal agency managers and the big national conservation organizations will continue to treat Wisconsin unfairly in the distribution of LWCF dollars. Unless Wisconsin conservationists and members of Congress raise their voices, the LWCF pie will continue to be carved so that the Badger State receives a smaller piece.

The easiest way for Wisconsin to get a more equitable share of the LWCF pie, and spread LWCF around the state, is for the National Park Service to create a focused land-acquisition program for the thousand-mile Ice Age Trail — one of only 11 official national scenic trails in the United States.

Volunteerism on the IAT is higher than at 95 percent of the units of the National Park System. For Fiscal Year 2018, over 2,000 volunteers contributed 81,999 volunteer hours to this one trail. Most trail-building on the IAT since 2001 has been carried out to the highest national standards by the award-winning Mobile Skills Crew.

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Think the IAT is just about hiking? Guess again. More acres of the Black Earth Creek watershed have become public land because of the Ice Age Trail than for any other primary purpose. These public lands now support fresh drinking water for residents of Cross Plains, Black Earth and Mazomanie. They support native habitat including prairie and savanna. They support education such as the IAT Summer Saunters program for kids. They support a renowned trout fishery. These kinds of benefits could be replicated along most of the Ice Age Trail if the land needed to eliminate gaps could be acquired from willing sellers.

This brings us back to LWCF.

Thanks to LWCF, since 1979 the NPS has acquired over 2,500 parcels of land along 620 miles of the Ice Age Trail’s big sister, the Appalachian Trail.

At Texas’ Big Thicket and Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley, the NPS has spent $115 million and $130 million, respectively, from LWCF on land acquisition. How much LWCF has gone into the Ice Age Trail? Twelve million. Are Big Thicket and Cuyahoga Valley 10 times more important than the Ice Age Trail? Nonsense. Closing the LWCF disparity in the years ahead could and should be used to eliminate gaps in the Ice Age Trail.

Consider joining me in pointing out to members of Congress, officials at the National Park Service, and leaders of conservation organizations that it is time for the Ice Age Trail to receive the LWCF attention it needs and deserves.

Drew Hanson is a conservation and trails consultant who blogs at pedestrianview.blogspot.com.

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