Archived entries for Working Lands Conservation

And the Winners Are…

Congratulations to the winners of the 2013 Land Conservation Leadership Awards! We received a very competitive slate of nominations this year and the results are finally in.  Please join us in recognizing these inspiring leaders:

  • Land Trust of the Year – The Prairie Enthusiasts (with a special nod to Rich Henderson for his inspiring commitment and contributions to the organization) have ensured the perpetuation and recovery of nearly 4,000 acres of native prairie, oak savanna and other associated ecosystems of the Upper Midwest through protection, restoration, management and education. TPE employs a strong grassroots approach throughout multiple states, working openly & cooperatively with private landowners and other private and public conservation groups, to carry out its mission.
  • Policy Maker of the Year – Dick Steffes served WI’s Department of Natural Resources’ Real Estate program in various capacities for 39 years. His leadership and influence helped to preserve over 834,502 acres throughout Wisconsin, secure public recreational access, and ensure best management of the state’s forest resources. His achievements include some of the largest conservation purchases in Wisconsin’s history.
  • Rod Nilsestuen Award for Working Lands Preservation – Dan Lemke, Plum Creek’s Senior Land Asset Manager, has played a key role in the permanent protection of more than 60,000 acres of Wisconsin timberland.  As working forests, these acres continue to produce sustainable forest products for the state’s timber industry and provide permanent public access and land protection for critical bird habitat.
  • Rod Nilsestuen Award for Working Lands Preservation – Tom Lyon has been dedicated to farmland protection for over 25 years.  His many achievements include a successful partnership with the namesake of this award, Rod Nilsestuen, to establish the Working Lands Initiative and Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE) program, which have resulted in the protection of thousands of acres of working lands, helping to reduce the trend of rapid farmland losses throughout the state.
  • Conservationists of the Year – Dale Buser & Andrew Struck, were essential in the creation of the Ozaukee Fish Passage Program, which safe_imagereconnects existing, high quality fish and wildlife habitat throughout the Milwaukee River Watershed and drainage to Lake Michigan and supports public efforts to re-establish and encourage self-sustaining native populations of threatened, special-concern and game fish.
  • Harold “Bud” Jordahl Lifetime Achievement Award – Howard & Nancy Mead have been an active and abiding presence in Wisconsin’s conservation community for more than 50 years.  In addition to educating the public about the richness of Wisconsin’s resources and heritage through their ‘Wisconsin Trails’ magazine, they have been instrumental in founding, as well as committed contributors to, key conservation organizations and efforts throughout the state.

Please join us as we honor these deserving conservation leaders at our 11th annual Land Conservation Leadership Awards Celebration from 5:30 to 8:30 on Thursday, September 26th at the Monona Terrace in Madison.

Family and fireflies: preserving land in La Crosse County

The donation of a recent conservation agreement between Sue Strehl and Mississippi Valley Conservancy comes from a longing to protect the land that made Sue who she is today.

Sue and her dog at the farm.

Sue and her dog at the farm.

On a 100-acre farm plot in the Town of Shelby, fond memories of family and fireflies were formed for Sue Strehl. This farm has been in Sue’s family for 99 years and was established in 1914 when Sue’s grandparents, the Neidercorns, purchased the first 60 acres. The farm was used for a dairy operation, growing potatoes, and for a short time, growing tobacco.

Sue has many fond memories of the land; in an interview she recalled one night where she took off exploring, “I had hiked to the back 40 one evening [and] I was standing there as it got dark, just enjoying the sounds of nature. As the last traces of the sun’s glow disappeared from the sky, the valley in front of me filled with more fireflies than I had ever seen. I was awestruck.”

Because the land has been with her family for nearly a century Sue says she wants to protect it so that the “future owners of the land… get the same joy from the property as my family has experienced.”

The rolling hills of the Strehl Farm.

The rolling hills of the Strehl Farm.

Mississippi Valley Conservancy is overjoyed that they will be able to help Sue and her family protect this beautiful land from development and mining while still allowing the property to stay under the private ownership of Sue’s Family.

Reflecting on the conservation agreement, Tim Jacobson, the Conservancy’s executive director, said “Caring for the farm in this lasting way is the true embodiment of the ‘land ethic’ that Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote about.”

Conserving Local Farms, Food, and Our Heritage


Jim Welsh and Caleb Pourchot of Natural Heritage Land Trust with Dorothy and John Priske.

“We wanted to be proactive and take responsibility for this land.”

That was the sentiment expressed by John and Dorothy Priske, farmers who have lived on, and farmed, their land1 in Columbia County for nearly 30 years. To accomplish their goals of conservation, the Priskes worked with their local land trust, the Natural Heritage Land Trust, which provides conservation assistance in Dane County and the surrounding region.

But even just a few years ago, the Priskes, as well as 15 other farmers in Wisconsin would not have been able to conserve their farm like this because there wasn’t a state farmland protection program.

Working lands working for their communities


Farms like the Priske’s have been protected across Wisconsin with support from their local land trust and Wisconsin’s farmland protection program – a program
fought for by Gathering Waters Conservancy and our partners.

As with other farmland protection programs across the country, Wisconsin’s Purchase of Conservation Easements (PACE) program allows farmers to receive funding for conserving their land while still retaining ownership and management decisions. The land continues to stay on the tax rolls as well, and farmers are free to sell, bequeath, lease, and transfer the land, subject to the conservation agreement.

In addition to the PACE program, funding for this project was also provided by the USDA Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, The Conservation Fund, and the members of Natural Heritage Land Trust. PACE-funded land protection projects are intended to be anchors in areas that have been designated locally for farmland protection.

The Priskes are one such anchor, known throughout the community for their commitment to farming and sustainability.

Community anchors preserving local foods

Jim quoteAccording to Caleb Pourchot, Natural Heritage Land Trust’s conservation specialist, “Continuous improvement in the health of their land is a passion for the Priskes. Each new conservation practice they incorporate on the farm led them to another.

“After restoring wetlands, controlling runoff from the farm, leaving some pastures ungrazed to benefit nesting grassland birds, and installing a 50-kilowatt wind turbine that powers the entire farm, deciding to work with the local land trust to place a conservation easement on the farm to protect it in perpetuity was a logical next step.”

Farmland and our farming economy are central to many Wisconsin communities. Gathering Waters Conservancy, working with land trusts, the business community, agricultural organizations and farmers, and countless individuals, continues to work to enhance and grow the state’s farmland protection program.

During a challenging State budget cycle, your financial support of and participation in trainings, advocacy work, and educational programs will be very important in the coming year as we work to breathe new life into this farm-friendly program that serves Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage and economy. Together, one farm at a time, we’re bringing local food and our farm economy closer to long-term sustainability.

1John and Dorothy Priske own and operate Fountain Prairie Farms, a 277-acre grass-based farm in Columbia County where they raise Scottish Highland cattle. Known throughout the region for their quality meat, the Priskes are fixtures at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and also sell their meats to local restaurants. For a complete listing of restaurants where their beef is served, please visit

Post-Election Rundown

With the November elections behind us, we’re now focused on the upcoming state budget process here in Wisconsin and several important issues in Congress.  We will continue our non-partisan approach to our public policy work, reaching out and connecting land trusts with elected officials across the political spectrum.

One notable take-away from the recent elections is that conservation continues to be a high priority for citizens across the country, with 46 of 57 conservation-related ballot measures passing nationwide (an 81 percent success rate).  Through these measures, communities across the country approved more than $2 billion in conservation funding.

At the state level, we’ve been preparing for the next state budget process, which will formally begin with the release of the Governor’s Executive Budget proposal in January.  According to the Wisconsin Department of Administration, the state begins the 2013 fiscal year with a $342.1million surplus which is the largest opening balance since fiscal year 2000-01.

We are focused on our two top priorities – the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and the statewide Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) Program.  The Stewardship Program is authorized at $60 million annually through 2020, and we will be working with the Governor’s office, the Department of Natural Resources, and leadership in the Legislature to maintain this funding and to ensure that the program operates efficiently, and with the utmost transparency and accountability.  The Stewardship Program continues to be strongly supported by the public and provides direct support to the state’s tourism and forestry sectors, while enhancing the quality of life in communities throughout the state.

The statewide PACE program remains on the books but is currently unfunded and we are partnering with the American Farmland Trust and a broad Friends of Farmland Protection coalition to advocate for the program and identify possible sources for future funding.  Early this year, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection released a PACE Evaluation Report, which provides a good basis for stream-lining and improving the program.

On the federal front, we are currently in a 45-day sprint to renew the enhanced tax incentive for the donation of easements and to pass the Farm Bill before Congress adjourns.  We’ve been working with partners like the Nature Conservancy, the Land Trust Alliance, and land trusts throughout the Great Lakes region to move these important conservation priorities forward.  Learn more.

As the negotiations on the “fiscal cliff” begin to ramp up, we’ve also been hearing that Congress may be looking to cap charitable deductions.  This issue is much larger than land trusts and would impact the broader nonprofit community nationwide, but it could have a very real impact on our work.  Learn more.

Please contact your elected officials to tell them how important these issues are for your organization and your community.  Here is contact information for state officials and for Wisconsin members of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.

Stay tuned to the Conservation Policy section of our website for further updates.

Partnering for Progress: Celebrating Our Rural Communities

In 2009, Gathering Waters Conservancy was approached by Karl Klessig, a farmer and conservationist from Manitowac County, who wanted to host a fundraising event to support and celebrate Wisconsin’s working lands and rural heritage.  He asked, “Would Gathering Waters Conservancy consider being a partner in the event?”  At the time, we were working hard to see Wisconsin’s Working Lands Initiative passed into law (which it was that year), so it didn’t take us long to accept.

That year, Partnering for Progress was born, and has been growing ever since.  Partnering for Progress is a collaboration between Gathering Waters Conservancy, the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership, and the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.  Together we conserve Wisconsin’s working lands, support beginning and continuing farmers, and sustain vibrant, rural communities to improve rural life in Wisconsin.

That fall, Karl and his family hosted the first ever Partnering for Progress Barn Dance at their farm, the Saxon Homestead Farm – a beautiful fifth-generation, grass-based, family dairy farm.  The enthusiasm from the inaugural event was so invigorating we decided to make it an annual celebration and build on the momentum to promote the importance of Wisconsin’s working lands and rural communities. In just three years we’ve raised nearly $50,000 to support the partnership’s mission!  In the future, we hope to expand the event statewide.

Liz Klessig joins in with the band during the 1st Annual Partnering for Progress Barn Dance.

This year, the barn dance will be held on Saturday, September 22nd and has been expanded to include a traditional, under-the-tent Chautauqua.  The Chautauqua conversation with feature Will Allen from Growing Power – an organization inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.

Back in 2009 when we accepted Karl’s offer we had no way of knowing what this partnership would become.  Thank you, Karl, for your vision!  And thank you to everyone who has supported the partnership’s mission.

We’re committed to continuing our work to advocate for the conservation of Wisconsin’s working lands.  If you support this work, please join us for the 4th Annual Partnering for Progress Chautauqua and Barn Dance!  You can read more about the event on Gathering Waters Conservancy’s website, and tickets can be purchased at   

2012 Conservationist of the Year

This year, we have shared many inspiring land conservation stories from across Wisconsin.  From the largest conservation easement ever donated to a Wisconsin land trust to the patchwork of innovative partnerships protecting and restoring the natural areas in urban Milwaukee, each of these stories highlights the fact that effective and sustainable land conservation is not a one size fits all business.  Each project requires leadership to engage relevant partners, employ various methodologies, navigate unforeseen hurdles, think strategically, and remain flexible.

This year, we are honored to present Ellen Kwiatkowski with the Conservationist of the Year award for the innumerable contributions she has made to Wisconsin conservation through the embodiment of these leadership skills.  Ellen is someone who wears many hats in the conservation community.  Prior to moving to Wisconsin, Ellen worked with The Nature Conservancy for 10 years, most recently as the Director of Conservation Programs for their Delaware Chapter.  Today, Ellen resides in Bayfield where she and her husband manage an organic blueberry farm that has been protected through the Town of Bayfield’s Farmland Preservation Program.

In her professional life, Ellen has been a valuable advocate for the preservation of Wisconsin’s working lands and serves on the Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE) Council, the advisory body to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection on the newly created land protection program.Ellen also currently serves as a Director on Gathering Waters Conservancy’s board, as well as Chair of Wisconsin’s Land Trust Council – an advisory body comprised of land trust leaders that counsels GWC on the needs, challenges, and preferences of the Wisconsin land trust community. 

And last but certainly not least, Ellen is the Executive Director of Bayfield Regional Conservancy (BRC).  During her time at BRC the organization has protected over 1,000 acres of land in northern Wisconsin and was awarded accreditation by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission – a distinction that recognizes land trusts that meet national standards for excellence, uphold the public trust, and ensure that conservation efforts are permanent.

This year, under Ellen’s leadership, BRC made history when they worked with the Red Cliff Chippewa in northern Wisconsin to permanently protect the nation’s first Tribal National Park.  Stretching over ¼ mile along Lake Superior’s shoreline on the Red Cliff Reservation, Frog Bay Tribal National Park includes pristine sandy beaches bordered by primordial boreal forest identified to be of Global Significance by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and provides views of the Apostle Islands Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Area.

GWC board members Tia Nelson and Ellen Kwiatkowski tour Frog Bay Tribal National Park with Congressman Duffy and Chad Abel with the Red Cliff Tribe.

Wisconsin and its citizens are lucky to have such a talented and committed force for conservation.  Not only is Ellen making a lasting difference on Wisconsin’s landscape, but she’s also setting an incredible example for other current and future conservation leaders.  Thank you, Ellen, for all you do to protect the special places in Wisconsin!

Please join us on October 4 at the Monona Terrace in Madison when we recognize Ellen and the other winners of Gathering Waters Conservancy’s Land Conservation Leadership Awards.

2012 Rod Nilsestuen Award for Working Lands Preservation

I’m sure that most readers of this blog fully recognize that Wisconsin’s conservation community is full of talented and deeply committed professionals who toil quietly behind the scenes.  While true in many quarters, perhaps it is acutely apparent among the civil servants in our field.

For this, among many other reasons, it is Gathering Waters Conservancy’s distinct pleasure to recognize and celebrate one of the many relatively unknown Wisconsin DNR employees who make a great contribution to protecting the places that make Wisconsin special every day.   The 2012 winner of the Rod Nilsestuen Award for Working Lands Preservation is Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Area Wildlife Supervisor Dale Katsma.

Working out of Plymouth, Dale has spent the last decade quietly and successfully pioneering working lands preservation in the North Branch Milwaukee River Wildlife and Farming Heritage Program in Ozaukee, Washington, and Sheboygan counties. His patient and persistent efforts to build relationships and trust between the DNR, landowners, and conservation groups have played a pivotal role in the protection of 1,887 acres of farmland and 684 acres of wildlife habitat & natural areas.

Dale’s recognition of the critical role that farmland plays in our local economies, cultures, and habitats provides a blueprint for success that ought to be replicated elsewhere in Wisconsin.  We cherish our agricultural heritage and our priceless natural areas and know that they are not mutually exclusive…Dale’s work aptly exemplifies this attitude.

Please join us on October 4 at the Monona Terrace in Madison when we recognize Dale and the other winners of Gathering Waters Conservancy’s Land Conservation Leadership Awards.

And the winners are…

It’s our pleasure to announce the 2012 Land Conservation Leadership Award winners.  Thanks to the nominators and the Awards Selection Committee, the winners demonstrate the diversity of conservation success and effort across Wisconsin and inspire us all to continue protecting the places that make Wisconsin special.  Congratulations to all the winners:

Land Trust of the YearRiver Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee’s urban rivers land trust since 1994,  has increased public access to Milwaukee’s rivers and enhanced the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. Its partnerships throughout the community provide opportunities for immersion into the natural world, educate about conservation in an urban setting, and illustrate the synergy between land conservation and urban development.   

Policy Maker of the Year – John Koepke, a member of the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection board, as well as the Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Council, has championed efforts to promote and defend the Wisconsin Working Lands Initiative.  His committed actions and voice as a farmer from Oconomowoc have proved invaluable to farmland protection in Wisconsin.

Rod Nilsestuen Award for Working Lands Preservation – Dale Katsma, Department of Natural Resources Area Wildlife Supervisor in Plymouth, has spent the last decade quietly and successfully pioneering working lands preservation. His patient and persistent efforts to build relationships and trust between the DNR, landowners, and other conservation groups have played a pivotal role in the protection of 1,887 acres of farmland and 684 acres of wildlife habitat & natural areas in southeastern Wisconsin.

Conservationist of the Year – Ellen Kwiatkowski, the Executive Director of Bayfield Regional Conservancy, a valuable asset to the state’s PACE Council, chair of Wisconsin’s Land Trust Council, and co-owner of an easement-protected farm, has been an essential player in the permanent protection of over 1000 acres of land throughout northern Wisconsin and in successfully leading BRC through the national land trust accreditation process.

Harold “Bud” Jordahl Land Trust Pioneer AwardThe Ridges Sanctuary celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and was the first land trust in Wisconsin. Inspiring stewardship of natural areas through educational programs, outreach and research, The Ridges can undoubtedly be credited for positively impacting the history of land conservation throughout the state and laying groundwork for future conservation efforts throughout the Door Peninsula and beyond.

Please join us as we honor these deserving conservation leaders at our 10th annual Land Conservation Leadership Awards Celebration from 5:30 to 8:30 on Thursday, October 4th at the Monona Terrace in Madison.


Another Great Year for the Land Legacy Gathering!

Each year, the Land Legacy Gathering is our opportunity to honor the people who make it possible for us to continue Wisconsin’s incredible land legacy and help preserve the places that make Wisconsin special. This year was no different. For our 5th annual Gathering, we partnered with the River Revitalization Foundation and the Land Trust Alliance and met in Milwaukee to celebrate the fruits of what partnerships at the local, state, and national level can accomplish.

The 5th annual Gathering consisted of a tour of land that was conserved through great partnerships; the Beerline Trail and Wheelhouse property. A huge congratulations to the River Revitalization Foundation on this preserve! The hike began with a guided tour of the Wheelhouse Property, which was purchased and removed by the River Revitalization Foundation to make way for a park and to connect the Beerline Trail and the Oak Leaf Trail together.

Tour of the Wheelhouse Property

Hikers also witnessed the ribbon cutting of the newly completed Kiwanis Landing which provides improved access to the Milwaukee River.

Ribbon cutting at the Kiwanis Landing

For the last part of the afternoon, hikers were taken on a guided tour of the Beerline Trail. The tour provided scenic views of downtown as well as of the Milwaukee River.

Tour of the Beerline Trail

After the hike, attendees gathered at The Hamilton for the reception, where good, local, sustainable food was enjoyed thanks to Braise. Great speeches were also given by our sponsors and our partners this year. Thank you to everyone who braved the cold and came out to the 5th annual Gathering and helped us celebrate all of the wonderful conservation work happening in Wisconsin!

Reception speeches at The Hamilton

Why Gathering Waters?: My internship inspired my professional goals

“Why Gathering Waters” is a special blog series that tells the stories of our supporters and why they support Gathering Waters. Our first blog post of this series was written by Valerie Klessig, a former communications and outreach intern at Gathering Waters. Continue reading to learn what Gathering Waters means to Valerie.

My name is Valerie Klessig, and I am a UW-Madison senior majoring in journalism and Spanish and graduating this May. I was a communications and outreach intern at Gathering Waters in 2010. The experiences, knowledge and skills I acquired at Gathering Waters are invaluable and have helped shape the young woman I am today. Above all, my internship helped to reinforce in me the values of sustainability and land conservation that I grew up with, affirming my desire to pursue work that I love.

I am part of the sixth generation born on my family’s dairy farm in Cleveland, Wis., where I developed my love for the land and learned that milk, cheese and corn are not, in fact, made at the grocery store but rather come from a process much more complex and interesting. My grandfather, who had Aldo Leopold as a professor, instilled in his children and grandchildren the desire to be good stewards of the land. I am proud to be a part of this legacy, but I didn’t fully understand how I wanted to build upon that legacy until my time at Gathering Waters.

As a graduating senior, I was recently offered some career advice: consider what really makes me feel alive and pursue that. I can tell—just from my five hours a week in the Gathering Waters office and the occasional field trip with GWC staff—that their work truly makes them feel alive. They are such passionate advocates of rural Wisconsin and all her residents who care about the land. I have many dreams about the potential career paths I may travel down. Perhaps I’ll pursue a communications-related job within the agriculture industry or work in the nonprofit sector to enhance rural Wisconsin. Yet, my biggest dream is to do something that makes me feel alive, just like the Gathering Waters staff does working to protect Wisconsin.

Two adages that ring true to me come from two people whom I admire.  A good family friend once told me that our land is our petroleum, and not enough people carefully consider the fact that we are not making any more land! That could be what Franklin Delano Roosevelt had in mind when he said that “the history of every nation is eventually written by the way in which it cares for its soil.” I believe that land is our most valuable resource, so it is wonderful to know our state has progressive leaders like Gathering Waters and the rest of the land trust community. It is because of those conservation values and the inspiration I got during my internship that I so strongly support Gathering Waters.



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