(From left to right): Brenna Jones (FWSP board member) Jan Primus (FWSP treasurer) Roger Putnam (FWSP President) and Waldo Peterson (FWSP board member).
Steering the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks
On a course for growth and great opportunities.
Individual "Friends" groups for Wisconsin state parks, trails, forests and other properties have been "wildly successful" in the last year, notes Roger Putnam, president of Friends of Wisconsin State Parks.
Friends of Wisconsin State Parks (FWSP) is a group of dedicated people from around the state who care about our beautiful Wisconsin state parks, forests, trails and recreation areas and are committed to their preservation.
FWSP represents the diverse interests of park and trail lovers of every description — hikers, those with special needs, campers, climbers, horse riders, canoers/kayakers, hunters, bikers, wildlife watchers and motorized vehicle users. Its members — more than 80 local Friends groups — are the critical component in keeping our state parks thriving, evolving, and in some cases, open.
As FWSP membership grows, so does the strength and vitality of our parks. FWSP is committed to growing and supporting its membership as they work to protect and support Wisconsin state parks.
FWSP is the nonprofit, statewide group that supports the work of local state parks and trails member Friends groups across the state. These individual groups conduct local fundraising activities for park and trail improvement, and organize volunteer work activities that include trail clearing, campsite development, naturalist funding, park functions, shelter enhancements, cleanup efforts and family–oriented events and programs.
Last year, Friends groups contributed 142,565 volunteer hours and $647,500 in fundraising and donations to Wisconsin state parks and trails.
A new era
FWSP is entering an unprecedented period of growth and opportunity. Park and trail use are at historic highs. FWSP fundraising activities in 2013 set new high water marks. The interest in FWSP activities is reaching new heights as FWSP has coordinated outreach efforts and planned statewide events. Legislative and regulatory issues increasingly garner their attention.
"Interest in state parks Friends groups has never been greater," Putnam says. "But at the same time weíre seeing a maturing in the membership of Friends groups and we know we need to reach out to younger and more diverse audiences."
The statewide organization started 17 years ago "as an effort to bring together the many motivated groups who cared deeply about their state parks," Putnam explains. "The Friends of Wisconsin State Parks has a lot of great board members with a lot of experience."
FWSP assists the individual Friends groups in fundraising efforts and in applying for grants, such as those available under the Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Program.
The Friends of Blue Mound State Park dedicated a new "Friends Shelter" at the park, which they donated after raising a half million dollars through their sponsoring of the annual "Horribly Hilly Hundreds" bicycle race.
The Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest has the best early cross–country skiing in southeastern Wisconsin, thanks to the new snowmaking equipment put to use through the Friends groupís donation of $200,000 and counting.
The seating for a new amphitheater is in place at Mirror Lake State Park thanks to the more than $80,000 the parkís Friends group raised for the project.
The statewide organization is a member of Community Shares of Wisconsin, which allows people to donate to FWSP through workplace giving campaigns. FWSP is Community Shares of Wisconsinís third–largest recipient, receiving more than $30,000 in 2012.
FWSP also runs a very popular annual photo contest, with the winning entries published in a calendar that is sold to raise additional funds to promote state parks, forests and trails. This year, for the first time, in addition to being available for purchase, the calendar will be included in the December issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.
FWSP conducts an annual "Gold Seal" award contest that allows people to vote for their favorite park or trail property in 10 "Best of" categories. The categories change every year. This year, for instance, people can vote for the property with the most challenging hiking trail, best view from a tower and best place to walk a dog, among other categories. The awards are presented at FWSPís annual meeting and banquet in October.
Despite these successful fundraising and publicity efforts, Putnam says the current board is looking for more sustained investments so it is able to expand the affinity grants it makes to individual Friends groups. Putnam says the board has set a goal of establishing an endowment fund of $1 million.
"We're hoping to attract more private and corporate funding," Putnam explains. "There is a tremendous interest in protecting areas and improving recreational opportunities in our park properties from the private sector that caters to outdoor recreation. Many of those companies are looking for ways to give back and we need to explore that."
Exploring those types of partnerships, Putnam adds, would also be a way the organization can broaden its appeal to a younger and more diverse audience.
"We need to get more young people interested in our parks and we need to reach out to more urban areas and to people who maybe havenít had as much access to parks," he says. "There are great opportunities within our urban areas for people to enjoy state park properties. Lakeshore State Park, Havenwoods State Forest and the Hank Aaron State Trail in Milwaukee are all readily accessible."
One of the reasons FWSP has focused its affinity grants on educational programs is to ensure the parks are able to reach out to and attract young people.
FWSP recently revamped its website to make it more user–friendly and is using QR codes, Facebook and Twitter, and is also looking at mobile apps that might attract younger people to learn more about the recreational opportunities at parks.
"There is a tremendous focus right now on fitness, specially in youth, where we are seeing alarming levels of obesity," Putnam notes. "Our parks and trails offer wonderful opportunities for young people to get active in the outdoors. We need to explore both public and private partnerships that will help attract young audiences to our parks and trails."
The FWSP board has also set a goal of being an even greater resource for the individual Friends groups. They intend to organize an annual summit of Friends groups where members can learn from other groups about their successful fundraising efforts, and about events and activities to improve and enhance the recreational opportunities at the properties they support.
"Our Friends groups have become vital resources for many of our state park properties," says Dan Schuller, director of the Wisconsin State Park System. "We would not be able to provide many of the programs we offer without the groups, and they also provide important volunteer work in maintaining and protecting our park properties."
For instance, each spring FWSP organizes Work*Play*Earth Day events, where Friends groups and volunteers spend the morning helping with park projects and spend the afternoon enjoying the fruits of their labor. Individual Friends groups often provide lunch or refreshments for volunteers.
"This year we had 23 state parks, forests and trails participating — even with the cold, wet spring," Schuller says. "Volunteers planted more than 500 trees, removed invasive species and planted native plants, built bird houses, repaired picnic tables and painted buildings."
Putnam says another goal of FWSP board members is to improve communication between the organization and DNR staff "so our Friends groups are an even greater asset to the park properties and we can focus our volunteer efforts in areas where they will be most useful."
The FWSP board is interested in looking for opportunities to expand and is discussing creating additional local Friends groups for more types of properties such as State Wildlife and Fisheries Areas and State Natural Areas where volunteer efforts are needed to remove invasive species or to improve or protect habitat. This could also help FWSP expand its membership and its representation.
"The Friends of Wisconsin State Parks is at a critical point of our evolution," Putnam says. "Weíve done well raising money, but we can do a much better job. We need to explore more private partnerships so we can expand the resources available to our Friends groups. We need to be more efficient and more dynamic so our statewide organization is a greater resource to individual Friends groups. We are proud of the work and success our Friends groups have achieved, and we need to build on those efforts so more of our groups are successful in making our state park properties the best they can be."
FWSP mission statement
Friends of Wisconsin State Parks is a public and private partnership organized to work in cooperation with local member Friends groups and other organizations to enhance, preserve, protect, restore and promote Wisconsin state parks, forests, trails and recreation areas.
Paul Holtan is a public affairs manager for the Department of Natural Resources.