Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Unwitting Ice Age Trail Pioneer

by Drew Hanson

[A version of this essay appeared in the Winter 2001 edition of Mammoth Tales.]

Have you ever been asked, “Since Ice Age glaciers were in many states why is the Ice Age National Scenic Trail only in Wisconsin?” I have.

Tongue in check, I sometimes answer, “Have you ever wondered why Rocky Mountain National Park is only in Colorado? Don’t the Rocky Mountains span thousands of miles and several states from Alaska to Mexico?”

I’m generally a little less sassy.

My typical response describes the world-class landscapes created by continental glaciation in Wisconsin and how the Ice Age Trail Alliance was founded here by the late Raymond Zillmer.  Another reason for the Wisconsin focus is the work of the late Wisconsin Congressman Henry Reuss who championed conservation legislation for Wisconsin between 1960 and 1980. The tens of thousands of people who have volunteered their time since 1958 to make the Ice Age Trail a reality also deserve a share of the credit.

Surprisingly, however, the Trail’s roots go back much farther. It was actually during the late 1800s that the seeds for a national park and trail to commemorate the Ice Age were sown: and they were sown in Wisconsin!

The life and extraordinary career of Thomas Chamberlin far exceeds the realm of the Ice Age Trail. He published more than 250 scholarly articles and books and received a multitude of awards for his work. One of his several biographers placed him alongside the world’s greatest thinkers, including Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Darwin. His most-significant work was in the field of geology, which provides another basis for making Wisconsin the home of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Thomas Chamberlin was born in 1843 on a farm at the crest of a glacial end moraine near Mattoon, Illinois. He attended Beloit College in southern Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. He served for two years as principal of Delavan High School, in southeast Wisconsin, and taught at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater for three. In 1870, he co-founded the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Returning to Beloit College in 1873, he began a nine-year term as professor of natural history. His primary focus became a thorough study of glaciated southeastern Wisconsin. This work resulted in the first scientific publication in the world on interlobate glaciation and the naming of the Kettle Moraine.

For most of his tenure at Beloit College, Chamberlin wore the second hat of Chief State Geologist. From this statewide position, he began to illustrate the anomalies of the unglaciated Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin. More importantly, he published the four large books titled Geology of Wisconsin. It surpassed in excellence and scope similar efforts of any other state geological survey.

His stock increased, Chamberlin became head of the Glacial Division of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). It was, likewise, a hat he would wear in addition to others. Seventeen years as Division head brought him recognition as the foremost authority on glacial geology in the United States.

In 1892, Chamberlin became the first chairperson of the Geology Department at the University of Chicago. Two years later, he completed the first-ever map of North America showing the extent of glaciation.
At the beginning of Chamberlin’s career, geologists believed there to have been one continental glaciation during the Ice Age. By the late 1870s, Chamberlin was the first to understand that there had been multiple glaciations–initially arguing that there had been two. Years later, using the best tools of his day, he determined there to have been at least four glaciations and named them for the states where their deposits were most easily recognized. Wisconsin was chosen as the namesake of the most recent continental glaciation.

(Since the 1960s, studies of deep ocean cores demonstrate that there have been perhaps 12 to 15 continental glaciations during the past 2 million years. The last period of the Ice Age, between 10,000 and 75,000 years ago, continues to be known as the Wisconsin Glaciation.)

Shortly before his death in 1928, the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW), which he once served as President, honored Thomas Chamberlin with a bronze plaque attached to a large erratic boulder. It was placed at the top of Observatory Hill–a drumlin on the UW campus– where it stands to this day. The plaque describes his service to the University and monumental accomplishments in the field of geology.

Thomas Chamberlin was the greatest American geologist of his generation. His brilliance lit so many paths of knowledge that he made an unwitting contribution to the Ice Age Trail. His recognition of the unique geology of Wisconsin and naming of a period of history for this place provides one of the compelling foundations of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Thousands of years ago, colossal glaciers had profound impacts on the planet. The landscapes of Wisconsin provided the ideal Ice Age canvas for continental glaciation to paint its most beautiful landscapes and intriguing sites for scientific research. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is today a place to preserve, commemorate and enjoy this masterpiece.


The History of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, S.W. Bailey, R.A. Paull, and L.H. Burckle, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin Systems, 1981.

“Chamberlin, Salisbury, and Collie”, Allan F. Schneider, in Geoscience Wisconsin, volume 18, “History of Wisconsin Geologists”, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, 2001.

“Wisconsin’s Glacial Landscapes”, David M. Mickelson, in Wisconsin Land and Life, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery, John Imbrie and Katherine Palmer Imbrie, Harvard University Press, 1979.

Protecting the Resources of the Ice Age Trail

By Drew Hanson

[A version of this essay appeared in the Summer 1999 edition of Pathways Across America.]

Near the end of the most recent Ice Age, a 120-mile long series of morainal ridges formed between two immense lobes of glacial ice in what is now southeast Wisconsin. Scattered along this belt, areas of distinct, crater-like depressions were left by melting blocks of ice. Geologists thus named this landform the Kettle Moraine. Scientific research that began here during the 1870s eventually led to the first map on the extent of continental glaciation in North America.
During the 1920s, increasing numbers of Milwaukeeans began to explore the Kettle Moraine for recreation and increased flooding along downstream sections of the Milwaukee River led conservationists to look for solutions. Proposals for public acquisition of the Kettle Moraine ensued.
Ray Zillmer, 1938
Ray Zillmer was one of the leaders in the effort to establish the Kettle Moraine State Forest. On three separate occasions he was the chairman of groups promoting the legislation. In 1937, the Kettle Moraine State Forest was established–consisting of separate, north and south purchase units. By 1956, however, the State of Wisconsin had acquired only half of the acreage for the two units. Zillmer and others thought this was not enough.
Ray Zillmer was an avid hiker, mountaineer, student of natural history and Harvard educated attorney. He wandered the wildlands of northern Minnesota, explored and mapped remote peaks in the Canadian Rockies, followed the development of the Appalachian Trail and studied Wisconsin’s contribution to the field of geology. Based on his vast experiences, he concluded that the Kettle Moraine State Forest, like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, could form the nucleus for a linear park that would be used “by millions more people than use the more remote national parks.” He was certain this concept warranted national attention.
In 1958, Ray Zillmer founded the Ice Age Trail Alliance (then called the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation) to begin efforts to establish a linear national park in Wisconsin that would encompass hundreds of miles of glacial moraines. In a letter dated August 28, 1958, Zillmer wrote to Daniel Tobin, Regional Director for the National Park Service (NPS) in Philadelphia, saying:
“I am intimately familiar with the moraines … of the existing Kettle Moraine State Forest, having covered almost literally every foot of the area many times in the last 40 years. …I found that my work in the Kettle Moraine Forest project was of unestimatable value in my reconnaissance.  In fact, I believe it is impossible to understand the [proposed national park] without a complete knowledge of what the state has accomplished.  It has established the practicality of a long narrow strip as far as outdoor recreation is concerned, and its great incidental value in soil and water control because it follows the watersheds.”
His efforts paid off. Later that year, Tobin accompanied Zillmer for several days of inspection along the glacial moraines. Zillmer was capturing the interest of the National Park Service, conservationists and political leaders. Bills were introduced in Congress to create an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin. In April, 1961, National Park Service geologist Robert Rose completed a Preliminary Geological Report on 1961 Field Study of Proposed Ice Age Area in Wisconsin. He concluded the report with:
“…through proper utilization of the high quality resources which occur in the State of Wisconsin, one of the greatest stories in the natural history of North America could be illustrated and adequately interpreted.  Here is an opportunity to develop a story using features intimately associated with the lives and livelihood of millions of people. …It seems that the National Park Service could not embark on an adventure more important and broader in vision than that of using some of the same features that yield up essential necessities of life in the form of food, minerals and fibre, to enrich the cultural lives of these same people and the thousands from elsewhere who will be attracted to this great unit of the National Park System when established, adequately developed and fully interpreted.  This could well rank among the greatest of the many significant adventures upon which the Service has embarked in the past or with which it may become intimately identified in the future.”
Unfortunately, just as creation of this new type of national park seemed to be gaining momentum, Ray Zillmer died. The vision of the Ice Age project being a linear park, like the glacial moraines it was to encompass, almost died with him.
Later in 1961, the National Park Service concluded that, while many of the unique glacial features of Wisconsin warranted national attention, a linear park hundreds of miles in length did not match any NPS model of that day. Instead three recommendations were made. First, the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest should be elevated to an NPS-administered National Monument and National Scientific Landmark status should be considered for two other state parks. Second, interpretive assistance should be provided to the State at other existing properties and waysides. Third, planning assistance should be provided to the Ice Age Trail Alliance for the development and marking of a trail along the moraines across Wisconsin.
Government officials then went back to the drawing board. What they came up with was the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve – an affiliated area of the National Park System composed of scattered units around Wisconsin. In 1964, the late Wisconsin Congressman Henry Reuss succeeded in ushering the National Scientific Reserve legislation through Congress and gaining the signature of the President.
The 1964 National Scientific Reserve law set in motion a number of planning, land acquisition and development activities for volunteers and government officials. These were most intensive through the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s. Meanwhile, other legislation made its way through Congress that more closely matched the concept Ray Zillmer had for the Ice Age project being a protected corridor with a hiking trail threading through it.
In his 1965 Natural Beauty speech, President Johnson stated, “We can and should have an abundance of trails in close to our cities. In the backcountry we need to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of our country.” The push to establish linear national parks was growing and in 1968 the National Trails Act and National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act became law. The Ice Age Trail was passed over while the initial baselines of the National Trails System became the Appalachian and Pacific Crest national scenic trails.
Twelve more years would pass before the Ice Age Trail finally became a component of the National Trails System. A comprehensive management plan was completed in 1983–twenty-two years after NPS first proposed assisting with trail planning. The plan stated, “The purchase of private lands should be minimal.” Instead it proposed having volunteers obtain “easily revocable” informal agreements with landowners to safeguard a trailway. Volunteers were expected to create a meaningful hiking trail across hundreds of privately owned parcels without securing permanent rights. Keeping the Trail open to the public became nearly impossible as some properties crossed by the Trail changed hands every year and new owners did not always have positive sentiments toward the public walking across their land. It was quickly realized that easily revocable handshake agreements would not suffice.
The Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA) had been involved with assisting the State with land acquisitions since 1958. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that IATA officially became a land trust. Between 1986 and 1999, IATA was directly involved with acquiring over 70 parcels for the Trail totaling almost 2000 acres. Nearly all of these properties constitute a narrow ribbon along the Trail. The acquisition of viewsheds and entire glacial features, with the exception of small features like kettle ponds, have been luxuries that IATA could rarely afford. Nonetheless, successes have been achieved. Notable among these are along the City of West Bend and in Dane County.
The State of Wisconsin, too, has had many important land acquisition successes along the Ice Age Trail. These include: expansion of Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest and Devils Lake State Park, establishment of the Chippewa Moraine National Scientific Reserve and creation of additional Kettle Moraine State Forest units at Pike Lake, Loew Lake and Lapham Peak. On the other hand, between 1965 and 1970, the State of Wisconsin reduced the acquisition boundary for the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest by 11,000 acres–lopping off a few miles of potentially protected corridor for the Ice Age Trail.
Other opportunities have been lost as well. The same qualities that add credence to the “scenic” in National Scenic Trail, also generate interest among the creators of sprawl-type developments. In some areas, attempts to secure a narrow trailway are competing against developers for the last remaining pieces of yet undeveloped landscape. Time is running out.
The unquestionable success of the National Trails System is the completion of the Appalachian Trail. But a national system of walkable trails is not to be found. Decades after President Johnson called for “copies” of this great footpath, only the Pacific Crest Trail comes close.
The protection of trail resources is a complicated endeavor. It requires the labor of diverse groups, from NPS officials and members of Congress to thousands of dedicated volunteers. The success of this endeavor is dependent upon members of these groups working together and within appropriate roles. The experience of the Ice Age Trail Alliance has shown that a non-profit land trust and trail development organization, even one that receives government assistance, cannot sufficiently protect hundreds of miles of national trail resources.
To copy the Appalachian Trail, we must copy part of the organizational structure that successfully completed it. The National Park Service must take a lead role in protecting trail resources through fee title acquisition and permanent easements. Without serious NPS attention to the protection of nationally significant resources, much of the Ice Age Trail will likely forever remain just a line on a map.

Footpaths are Conservation’s Missing Link

By Drew Hanson

[This essay comes from a presentation by the author at the 1999 conference Building on Leopold's Legacy: Conservation for a New Century, at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, WI.]

In his essay The Land Ethic, Aldo Leopold describes a necessary third step in the sequence of human ethical evolution. This step involves the development of “a land ethic [which] changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” However, in the fifty years since the publication of this essay in A Sand County Almanac, most people still view themselves as separate from nature, rather than as “members of a community of interdependent parts.” Herein lies a failing of the Conservation Movement.

Aldo Leopold
Man versus nature is a false dichotomy that ignores the many ways we are dependent on the natural world. Meanwhile humanity edges closer to exhausting the world’s air, land and water resources. One of the key arenas for raising the general understanding of humanity’s dependence on nature is outdoor recreation.

In Conservation Esthetic, Leopold writes: “The automobile has spread [the] once mild and local predicament [of outdoor recreation] to the outermost limits of good roads–it has made scarce in the hinterlands something once abundant on the back forty.  … Advertisements … confide to all … the whereabouts of new retreats, landscapes, hunting-grounds, and fishing-lakes just beyond those recently overrun. Bureaus build roads into new hinterlands, then buy more hinterlands to absorb the exodus accelerated by the roads.  … This is Outdoor Recreation, Latest Model.”

This passage could just as well have been written today. As a society we continue to create most of our new outdoor retreats far removed from the homes of the masses of people. Just as it was fifty or seventy years ago, one only need look at a map of public lands in Wisconsin to see that the vast majority of public open space is in the north. But with three-quarters of Wisconsin’s population living in the southern half of the State, how effective are these distant lands at connecting people with nature? The same holds for the United States with most of its public open spaces in the West or East while the great center of the country is home to relative fragments of public land.

Indeed, in Smokey Gold, Leopold wrote, “Here [in Adams county], come October, I sit in the solitude of my tamaracks and hear the hunters’ cars roaring up the highway, hell-bent for the crowded counties to the north.” The roar of cars continues today–exceeding anything Leopold prophesized. This is true of the Northwoods, as well as at our great national parks like Smokey Mountains, Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Traffic jams and ozone alerts now occur several times a year at Yosemite Valley, California as well as Door County, Wisconsin.

So how can we reshape our outdoor recreation model? We need a model that adds to America’s national parks, national forests and wilderness areas by borrowing a page from the human-scale connections prevalent in areas of Europe. We need a system of footpaths to connect people to native natural landscapes, to the agricultural lands that sustain them, and to other people.

Benton MacKaye
This idea has been around in the United States for quite some time. In 1921, Benton MacKaye proposed, “a series of recreational communities throughout the Appalachian chain of mountains from New England to Georgia, to be connected by a walking trail.  … Food and farm camps could be … combined with the community camps with the inclusion of surrounding farm lands (An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning).”

The late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, speaking on his championing of the National Trails System Act in 1968, stated, “Hiking trails provide the entire American family with perhaps the most economical, most varied form of outdoor recreation. This law gives us a much-needed opportunity to preserve and more widely enjoy many significant parts of our country’s natural heritage. The goal is to provide all of us, no matter where we live, with easy access to a wide variety of trails suited to our tastes and needs.”

As a young man, Leopold drew inspiration from his regular tramps into the hinterlands of Burlington, Iowa and Lawrenceville, New Jersey. These long walks, prior to the days when No Trespassing signs became prevalent, allowed him to study and connect with nature at a pedestrian pace. The youth of today, as well as their families, have far fewer such opportunities. The nearest hinterlands or nature preserves, for many, are not easily accessible.

From the mid-1930s through 1960, Milwaukee attorney Ray Zillmer explored the Kettle Moraine belt of southeast Wisconsin and argued tirelessly for the establishment of an Ice Age National Park to protect them and long-distance hiking trail to enjoy them. He regularly asserted that the population centers of Wisconsin and surrounding states were in need of appropriate recreation opportunities close to home. In the decades to come (i.e. today) he knew that without corridors of public land bisected by footpaths, the problem would become ever more acute.

Where public open space was not conveniently located near most people, Zillmer saw the problem in how people used their extra time. “Free time, which people have and which is increasing, should be used in a constructive way, so that they will do the thinking and not sponge-like receive the thinking of others, and so that they will use their body instead of watching other people use theirs (letter to Walter E. Scott, Wisconsin Conservation Department, March 2, 1956).” With foot trails bisecting corridors of public land close to home, people could hike, volunteer to build and maintain trails, or perform landscape restoration and maintenance. Zillmer was especially fond of the idea of bringing teenagers to the trail for work days. Here, “youth groups [could] help clear and build a trail, not only because of the amount of work accomplished…but as much for helping build character (letter to Guido Rahr, Wisconsin Conservation Commission, January 23, 1958).” It was akin to what Leopold called a “sense of husbandry (Conservation Esthetic).”

The conservation, recreation, education, economic and physical fitness goals for the footpaths of the National Trails System have yet to be realized. Among its components, due to its completeness as an off-road trail within a protected corridor, the Appalachian Trail is the closest to the grandeur imagined for these trails that only Congress can designate. The other National Scenic Trails in the System, including the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Ice Age trails–until our Nation makes a serious attempt to fully protect, complete and embrace them–offer only glimmers of their diverse potential.