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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

Camping is as popular now as it was decades ago. © DNR Photo.

Where memories are made

An 80-year-old parks plan saved places to relax.

Diane Schwartz


Camping is as popular now as it was decades ago.

© DNR Photo.
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"If it is right for the State of Wisconsin to spend a million and a quarter dollars on charitable and penal institutions, as it did in 1908... is it not wise and good to spend something on preventive measures which would make such institutions less necessary? Who questions nowadays that simple recreation in the open air amid beautiful natural surrounding contributes to physical and moral health, to a saner and happier life?"
– John Nolen, 1909

Our State Parks system remains a lasting, visible, popular contribution born out of Wisconsin's Progressive Era of politics (1900-1925). That era was characterized by idealism and a pressing need to provide for the average citizen. Having witnessed the deforestation of northern Wisconsin, the depletion of mineral wealth in our southwestern region, and rapid urban development nationwide, Wisconsin leaders acted to preserve our most scenic landscapes for all people before private interests took control.

This foresight resulted in our first state park, Interstate, in 1900 at the Minnesota border at St. Croix Falls, and the appointment of the first parks board in 1907. The parks board hired noted Massachusetts landscape architect John Nolen to propose four locations for state parks and establish the justification for such a system. Fortunately for all of us, the Legislature liked Nolen's ideas and the park system was born.

John Nolen: The man with a plan for our state parks.

© State Historical Society of Wisconsin
John Nolen: The man with a plan for our state parks.© State Historical Society of Wisconsin

Today, Wisconsin State Parks open for public use include 44 state parks, four recreation areas, six southern forests, and 23 trails. Each year, more than 13 million people enjoy these lands.

Wisconsin State Parks remain at the forefront of the conservation/recreation movement in Wisconsin and the nation. Wisconsin State parks pioneered the first linear trail on an abandoned rail corridor, crated early partnerships with private business, pioneered programs in outdoor education, and created the nation's first cabin on public property exclusively for people with disabilities.

Our parks remain places of exquisite beauty where we relax and crate lifelong memories with family and friends. We can t hank the first parks board and John Nolen for laying the framework for these memories.

Stunning scenic beauty

When selecting the first parks and looking at future parks, Nolen's report clearly stated that the most important reason to choose a property was its stunning scenic beauty. It's no surprise that Nolen recommended Devil's Lake (1911), present day Peninsula (1910), Wyalusing (1917), and The Dells of the Wisconsin River as the first state parks. All became state parks except the Dells of the Wisconsin River because Nolen believed the dam being built at the Dells and other human intrusions would destroy the scenic values of the property (though recently, a State Natural Area was purchased and set aside at the Dells).

Building the State Parks System

Between 1934-1942, our state parks saw the benefits of planning and financial support. The Civilian Conservation Corps established camps in Copper Falls, Devil's Lake, Interstate, Nelson Dewey (present Wyalusing) Pattison, Peninsula, Perrot, and Rib Mountain. You can still see and enjoy many of the beautiful stone and wood buildings, trails and staircases, built by CCC crews.

Partnering with private business

Long before it was fashionable, Wisconsin State Parks formed partnerships with private interests. In 1949, Devil's Lake Concession Corporation took over concessions at the park and became the first such organization to partner with the state parks. There are 55 local friends groups with over 1,000 volunteers working on behalf of state parks. A Statewide Friends Group was established in 1996.

Innovating new recreation opportunities

In 1965, the 36-mile Elroy-Sparta State Bicycle Trail became one of the first trails established on an abandoned railroad bed in the nation. The Elroy-Sparta trail has served as model for countless trails across the country. Since then, Wisconsin has converted more than 600 miles of abandoned railroad grade into trails, creating economic opportunities for many rural communities and providing recreation for thousands of people.

Learning in the outdoors

Enjoying a guided nature hike or program at a state park has become a summertime tradition for many of us. In 1966, the first nature centers opened at Devil's Lake and Peninsula state parks, and the first permanent naturalist was hired at Devil's Lake State Park. In 1984, the award-winning Junior Ranger and Wisconsin Explorer program began. Today, over 65 properties offer interpretive services.

Providing access for everyone

Wisconsin State Parks provide healthy, outdoor opportunities for everyone. In 1991, Wisconsin State Parks, in partnership with the Telephone Pioneers of America, built a cabin at Mirror Lake State Park to allow people with disabilities to enjoy the outdoors. The cabin is the first of its kind in the state.

Diane Schwartz writes about parks history and nature interpretation for the Department of Natural Resources.