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In the late 1800s, most of Wisconsin was still a vast forest wilderness and the prevailing attitude was that trees were an obstacle to immigration, farming and settlement. A few far-sighted citizens could sense how rapidly an unending hunger for timber was eating up our natural heritage. At the behest of these early nature lovers, the Legislature, in 1878, became one of the first governing bodies to establish parkland – The State Park – 58,000 acres in what is now Iron and Vilas counties. Unfortunately the state only owned 8-10 percent of the land inside the property boundaries, most of the taxpayers lived in southern Wisconsin and lumber barons who wanted those same lands were the greatest influence on Wisconsin government at that time. The first state park was lost by legislative action when the land was sold to the lumber companies in 1897.
A few years later, in 1899, Governor Edward Scofield appointed a commission to investigate park possibilities along the Dalles of the St. Croix River, where Polk County borders Minnesota. The Minnesotans designated their shore as parkland in 1895 and in 1900, Wisconsin did the same; the land on both sides of the St. Croix River became Interstate Park.
Since that day 100 years ago, Wisconsin's state park system has grown to include 93 state parks, forests, trails, and recreation areas, encompassing 139,000 acres. The natural scenic beauty of the state is preserved for future generations, while providing camping, picnicking, swimming, nature education, scores of trails and water recreation for more than 14 million annual visitors.
Famed landscape architect, John Nolen, was hired in 1907 by the newly created State Park Board to develop a plan for the state park system. Nolen's report, completed in 1909, recommended additional parks in four locations:
Nolen felt strongly that "simple recreation in the open air amid beautiful surroundings contributes to physical and moral health, to a saner and happier life." His report noted that "state parks are the only means of preserving, protecting and appropriately improving places of uncommon and characteristic beauty. These parks would make, as no other agency can, adequate and permanent provisions for wholesome outdoor recreation and pleasure."
Those benefits are as true today as they were when our first state park was born 100 years ago. State park properties are topographical, cultural, environmental, and economical treasures for everyone. Whether we benefit individually, from recreating in the scenic beauty, or economically as businesses in the surrounding communities adjoining these properties, there is no question that Wisconsin state parks make all our lives better. They are our natural legacy – now and for future generations to come.
Join our centennial celebration by attending any or all of the following statewide events during 2000:
Hartman Creek State Park in Waupaca will host a special Open House at the Hellestad Home, a restored Norwegian log cabin on the property.
The yarns will be spinning at Wildcat Mountain State Park on June 15 when they host evening campfire stories.
You can step back in time at Mauthe Lake in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest when they host a community festival on June 16.
In July a huge Smokey Bear hot air balloon is slated to tour several of the parks. Meet the real Ursus major up close and personal!
Old-fashioned toys will be on display and you can try your hand at old time games. Woodsmen and real history buffs will enjoy the French and Indian War encampment at Heritage Hill State Park in Green Bay on September 9 and 10, and the Buckskinner's Rendezvous at Tower Hill State Park near Spring Green on September 9.
To help plan your day trip, weekend outing or a longer vacation around these special events, visit a state park or DNR Service Center to pick up a special listing of centennial programs. You'll also find them at Parks, Forests, Recreation Areas and Trails. Or you can write Centennial Events, DNR Bureau of Parks and Recreation, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707, or contact the Department of Tourism at 1-800-WI-TRIPS.
Join us in celebrating the best of Wisconsin's last 100 years and the bright adventures to come in 2000 and beyond at Wisconsin state parks, trails and forests!
Deborah Proctor helps manage customer relations for DNR's Bureau of Parks and Recreation in Madison.