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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Friends raise funds for park projects. Friends of Harrington Beach State Park © 1997

August 1997

You've got to have friends

Friends groups create and enhance amenities at state parks, trails, forests, wildlife areas and recreation areas.

Lisa Gaumnitz

Friends raise funds for park projects. Friends of Harrington Beach State Park © 1997
A list of Friends groups

"Bad knees slow down Fran Grandlic, and glaucoma forced Jack Grandlic to retire from trucking, but the Sheboygan couple has cut and hauled 112 truckloads of wood annually to Kohler-Andrae State Park to raise money for the property.

School teacher Chuck Manske drives 2 hours from his Clintonville home, catches a ferry to Washington Island in Door County, boards another to Rock Island, and spends two days readying the rustic park for summer.

Henry Klapproth collected 1,250 signatures two years ago when he had heard that Mill Bluff State Park might be shut down. Now he rolls up more than $500 in annual phone charges advocating for new and improved services at the park.

These volunteers' stories are dramatic, but not rare. Individual citizens and loosely organized groups have always played a critical role in Wisconsin's park system by donating land, talking with lawmakers, and generously giving their time and money to help run and improve the properties.

Increasingly, however, volunteers are forming independent, nonprofit organizations called "friends groups" to maximize their clout and their results. Such groups sign formal agreements with the Department of Natural Resources and pledge to support a particular park, trail, forest, wildlife area or other property. In return, they gain access to facilities and equipment, and build a more direct connection to park supervisors and DNR managers in Madison.

State parks couldn't ask for better friends.

"Without friends groups, the parks wouldn't look as clean as they do, the interpretive programs wouldn't offer as much as they do, and the trails wouldn't be as nicely maintained," said David Weizenicker, who directs DNR's state parks and recreation programs. "Without friends, a lot of the little extras – the things people have come to expect – wouldn't be there."

What are friends for?

Friends groups and the events they host also are invaluable promoters of DNR properties. They publish brochures, run special events, and show their commitment to state parks, said Ron Nelson, who supervises four parks and three trails in west-central Wisconsin.

The groups provide direct links to local citizens and help the DNR win support for statewide policies and initiatives. "They've been our sounding boards," Nelson said. "What they say and support is pretty well accepted by the rest of the community. They're also conduits to legislative representatives in the area."

Last year, the 55 friends groups in Wisconsin provided the lion's share of 85,000 volunteer hours and $400,000 in cash donations to parks, trails, recreation areas and other DNR properties.

The groups' structure – and their tax-exempt status – can give properties the donations and the coordinated, concentrated volunteer help that's become increasingly critical in the last decade, Weizenicker said.

Since 1980, the Department of Natural Resources has added 13 more parks to the state system, bringing the total to 90. During the same time, the number of visitors to state parks climbed from 8.3 million to 10.1 annually. There's demand for public spaces to enjoy more and new recreational sports such as mountain biking and inline skating, while better protecting natural features, cultural remnants and traditional outdoor experiences, and interpretive programs.

At the same time, budgets to operate and maintain parks and other properties fell behind inflation as lawmakers judged education, crime and property tax relief as higher priorities. Even now, after years of attempts by state legislators to pump more operating dollars into the system, Wisconsin invests far less to maintain its parks than most other states – $2.38 per resident in 1994 to operate state properties compared to the nationwide average of $4.25 per capita.

Friends groups help keep the cool waters of a state park beach open. Robert Queen, © 1997
Friends groups help keep the cool waters of a state park beach open.

Robert Queen, © 1997

"Since 1981, the bottom has fallen out of the basket for operating state parks," Weizenicker said. "We've been scrambling for some lifelines to hang on to."

Friends groups first started weaving that safety net for the park system in 1949. Then, business people who worried that Devil's Lake State Park was becoming too commercialized formed a nonprofit board to run the concessions. To date, the board that has returned more than $1.2 million to the park to pay for projects like renovating a campground and buying and operating a shuttle tram and vehicles.

Others groups followed to provide specific services at parks. For example, the Kiwanis Club of Dodgeville arranged to run food and canoe rental concessions at Governor Dodge State; Peninsula Golf Associates runs the golf course at Peninsula State Park, a third group formed to operate the Olympic Skating Rink, then an outdoor rink the DNR owned adjoining State Fair Park in West Allis. The group spearheaded the drive for the indoor Pettit National Ice Center that replaced it.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a handful of new groups formed, mainly to enhance interpretative programs at particular properties. One exception, the Elroy-Sparta National Trail Inc. formed to support the state's and the nation's first rails-to-trails project and enhance community tourism along the bike trail.

Friends groups find their best friends are each other.

By the end of the 1980s, three developments spurred the creation of many new groups and prompted existing groups to broaden their mission, said David Hammer, chief of recreation management for DNR parks programs.

First, Dave Weizenicker came on board as parks director with a conviction to create partnerships with people to protect and enhance public lands, Hammer said.

Second, the parks system formed policies and formal relations with friends groups. These agreements guided new ways to organize, build memberships and raise funds that retained the groups' independence from the DNR.

"We cooperate with the agency, but we're not the DNR. When you join a friends group, you know the money stays at your park," says Lloyd Haupt, president of the Friends of Harrington Beach.

Third, the Legislature created two grant programs to match the funds friends groups raise locally for specific improvements. To date, the grant programs have matched more than $500,000 raised by volunteers.

This renewed focus on partnership-building culminated last summer when "Friends of Wisconsin State Parks," formed and elected officers, tapping Todd Montgomery, senior vice president of the Milwaukee-based investment bank Robert W. Baird & Co., as president. Montgomery had been a key player in operating the Olympic Ice Rink in the late 1970s and replacing it with the $12 million Pettit National Ice Center. Over the last 10-12 years, many local friends groups had expressed interest in learning from one another, Montgomery said. Groups want to coordinate education and outreach programs, and work more closely with the private sector, he said.

The statewide group will help individual friends groups be more successful in their home parks and properties, Montgomery continued. We will serve as a clearinghouse and share instructions for successful training, planning and events. We will also work to obtain group insurance to cover liability at events friends groups sponsor, he said.

[park scene] Well-marked trails are often the work of friends groups. Robert Queen, © 1997
Well-marked trails are often the work of friends groups.

Robert Queen, © 1997

But the statewide group's top goal is to protect and enhance all properties in the friends system. To that end, the group will build up an endowment from which investment income will be available to help complete projects.

Here, the group can count on the experience Montgomery and others have in raising large sums of money. Heritage Hill State Park in Green Bay provides such an example. The Heritage Hill Foundation has raised $4.7 million for an endowment for the park and is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to push that total to $6 million.

Income from the endowment, coupled with donations, concessions and rental of the property for weddings and other special events (which are managed by two other friends groups) has allowed Heritage Hill to operate on its own without any money from state park operations since the 1980s.

Lloyd Haupt, treasurer of the statewide group as well as president of the Harrington Beach friends group, sees advantages in both approaches. He is eager to bring his group low-cost liability insurance for their events. He knows of enjoyable park programs that were stopped when liability insurance costs swallowed up all the profits.

His members are eager to share their fundraising successes. Harrington Beach volunteers build and sell bluebird houses and kits. A trio of retirees spend their winters turning cedar logs into more than 500 bluebird houses that bring several thousand dollars into the group's coffers each year.

Do you know where your friends are?

Though the 55 friends groups share a common mission, their methods and interests vary widely. The groups range in size from a small core of supporters who are just getting started to the Friends of Crex Association which boasts 500 active members. The groups attract members from every walk of life: doctors, bankers, teachers, truck drivers, geologists, firefighters, and homemakers among them. One member of the Mill Bluff State Park Friends Group, a veterinarian by day and a nurse by night, still finds time to maintain the park's bluebird houses.

Some members live near the property, others, like Chuck Manske and fellow members of the Friends of Rock Island State Park, must travel several hours and journey by car, ferry and foot, to reach their park.

The distance and lack of electricity on Rock Island prompt long, challenging work weekends. The group focuses on big projects, such as building a welcome/information shelter on Washington Island to entice more visitors to take the ferry to Rock Island.

The Friends of the MacKenzie Environmental Center, Inc., are jacks-of-all trades, doing everything from daily clerical work to maintenance to food preparation. Environmental and conservation education is their bailiwick.

"If you educate them, you'll never have to pinch them," jokes Jim Chizek, retired DNR conservation warden and president of the group.

Friends groups devoted to trails perform services like building interpretive centers along the routes, renting bikes and keeping a network of sporting goods stores and other locations that agree to sell trail passes. For $12, the Great River State Trail Friends provide a shuttle service that drives bicyclists to the trailhead before returning their car to the trail end.

In many cases, friends groups serve as volunteer staff members. Such an arrangement allowed Harrington Beach State Park to extend its season into the winter, and this fall will allow Mill Bluff State Park to stay open on weekends through the fall color season.

In other cases, friends groups have provided the money to hire staff. The Friends of Rib Mountain State Park paid two teachers to develop a study guide so other teachers could use the park as an outdoor laboratory and field trip destination. The group also hired an Hmong interpreter for two summers to make the park more accessible to Hmong people living in the area.

The start of some beautiful friendships

Henry Klapproth came by his interest in Mill Bluff State Park in western Wisconsin the way many did – he has grown old along with the park.

On a drizzly May day, the retired Milwaukee Journal artist traveled 60 yards – and 60 years in time – as he slowly walked from the park entrance off Highway 16 to a trailhead that leads to the top of the 203-foot sandstone bluff.

"The WPA built stone steps up to the top of the bluff. There's 185 of them," Klapproth said. From the top, Mill Bluff provides panoramic views of the sandstone towers that dot the wooded valley. These one-time islands and reefs were carved and buffeted by waves 17,000 years ago when the valley was covered by glacial Lake Wisconsin.

Klapproth pointed out the site of a former log cabin where his family gathered for reunions and his father, a retired farmer, whiled away hours chewing the fat with the park manager. We visit the small lake where he and his friends used to swim.

The park's starring role in his childhood spurred Klapproth two years ago when it appeared Mill Bluff was a candidate for closure. Klapproth marshaled area residents, began a petition drive and faxed Gov. Thompson pages upon pages of signatures opposing the action.

Klapproth and a core group of area residents decided a friends group would be the best way to promote the park's unique features which have earned Mill Bluff recognition as one of Wisconsin's nine Ice Age National Scientific Reserves. Motorists still zip by the park on Interstate 90-94, oblivious they are cutting through a state park. "It's the best kept secret," he said. "We want the DNR and the public to view Mill Bluff as a destination, not a roadside wayside."

The friends group has successfully advocated for a new sign on the Interstate and an attractive new sign marking the park entrance from Highway 16. They've hosted an art fair for several years now to bring people to the park, and this fall will host a foliage festival.

They are also securing a matching grant to create a wheelchair-accessible trail around the base of Mill Bluff, and would like to convert an abandoned railroad line to a bike trail that would connect the park with the Omaha Trail.

"I firmly believe our friends groups raise the visibility of the parks, " said Dave Hammer. "They help us see each unique property from a different perspective."

Dr. William Scheckler and other members of the Newport Wilderness Society want the department to continue managing Newport Beach State Park as a semi-wilderness with only backpack camping.

"Part of helping the public enjoy this park is to keep it the way it is now," said Scheckler, a Madison resident and University of Wisconsin medical school professor. Newport's 2,400 acres are not developed like Peninsula and Potawotomi state parks, Scheckler said. "People appreciate variety."

Scheckler fell in love with the park's wilderness a quarter century ago, bought property and built a cabin next to the park. In the last decade, the group has lobbied to stop snowmobile trails and boat launch development at Newport. In addition to serving as watchdogs to safeguard the property's wild character, members enhanced interpretive displays. They also lead interpretive hikes about the natural and human history of this one-time logging village. Others developed brochures to identify the wildflowers and 175 bird species found in the park.

Downstate, Fran Grandlic and her husband Jack grew to love neighboring Kohler-Andrae State Park. Two sisters who are teachers, Doris Davey and Ruth Saemann, had tired of bringing their classes out to the park only to find the interpretive center closed. They volunteered to staff the center and recruited others. The Grandlics responded to their ad.

"We always enjoyed wildlife, nature and hiking in the woods," Fran Grandlic said.

The couple recently turned over their wood-chopping chores to a hired hand when the work became too much to handle. Fran keeps busy running tours at the interpretive center, attending to the organization's business and advocating for horse bridle paths. Jack built a wood platform for the tepee the friends group rents nightly for $25. He's working on benches to place along the trails.

Paul Dietrich, Scott Wippermann and Jack Travis support different parks for the same reasons. All wanted to preserve a favorite form of recreation. Now, all three see broader missions for the groups they lead.

"We try to make it nice for ourselves and the general public," said Dietrich, president of the Bong Field Trial Association, which formed to designate space where people could train hunting dogs and sled dogs all year long.

Wipperman wanted to ensure that trails remain open to mountain bikers in Governor Dodge State Park. He attended the initial meeting of the Friends of Governor Dodge State Park, stuck out the bylaws sessions, and now is group president. Already, they've secured matching funds to add a mountain bike rental station to the food and canoe concession the Kiwanis operates. The friends hope bike rentals will be a moneymaker by next summer and will help fund a handicap accessible trail, topographic maps that highlight scenic views, and a booklet of little-known facts about the park for hunters and other visitors.

Travis joined the Friends of Lapham Peak because the group was working to expand opportunities for skiing. His day job as a geology professor at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater didn't leave enough time for cross-country skiing on weekends at the Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The group had already raised money to light the trail for night skiing and improve two warming huts. They've since taken on other projects and raised $90,000 to build trails accessible to visitors with disabilities. The group plans to create a butterfly garden. Members also train teachers in surrounding schools so students can understand the geologic setting and soils in the area.

Travis sees the Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest as a valuable remnant of a landscape rapidly being transformed by development. He also views park activities as opportunities for youngsters.

"If we want to preserve this, local people are going to have to get more involved with the daily activity of the park. All the groups need members who will come out on work days, and help us pull off special events."

If you are interested in joining friends groups for DNR properties, call David Hammer at (608) 264-6034 to find contacts to local groups.