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Partnership with Mequon Nature Preserve to prevent development of Trinity Creek floodplain

The following post was written by Don Behm for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on January 8, 2018.


The last unprotected reach of Trinity Creek close to its headwater springs in Mequon will be relieved of a recurring burden of soil and agricultural pollutants now that it has been acquired by the Mequon Nature Preserve.

To ensure the 6.38-acre property west of busy Wauwatosa Road is not developed in the future, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has proposed paying $50,000 to the nature preserve to create a permanent conservation easement on the property deed that prohibits subdivision and building construction.

Not to stop there, the easement would require restoration of native grasses and trees on the land.

The easement would allow one change to the landscape. The Mequon Nature Preserve could shift the flow of the creek through the roadside property out of a straightened agricultural drainage ditch and into a more natural, meandering channel, said David Grusznski, Milwaukee program manager for The Conservation Fund.

MMSD proposed acquiring the easement for its Greenseams flood management program so the low-lying property would remain available to store floodwater and the conservation measures would improve the creek’s water quality, Grusznski said. The Conservation Fund administers Greenseams for MMSD.

Replacing the ditch is a top priority for the nature center, Mequon Nature Preserve Executive Director Kristin Gies said. A more natural stream channel would provide “more effective fish passage” upstream, she said.

“We’ve been dying to do this,” Gies said. She described the ditch as “a cork in the creek’s fish habitat.”

“It’s a challenge for fish to get through that ditch,” she said.

A few northern pike from the Milwaukee River have made it through the shallow ditch to spawn in upstream ponds and wetlands at the nature preserve. Groundwater bubbles to the surface in natural springs that flow into the ponds and form the headwaters of the creek.

More fish of all sizes would be able to reach the ponds and adjacent wetlands if they get rid of the ditch, Gies said.

Greenseams already has preserved streambank properties on both sides of the small parcel, Grusznski said.

MMSD owns an easement on 26 acres to the west that encompasses the ponds and wetlands near the preserve’s PieperPower Education Center.

In 2009, the district purchased 26 acres of Trinity Creek floodplain immediately east of Wauwatosa Road. A few years earlier, the district acquired an adjacent 40-acre parcel of floodplain farther east.

This easement will complete protection of the entire upstream end of Trinity Creek, from its headwaters downstream to within a stone’s throw of the Lilly Lane Nature Preserve off Baehr Road, Grusznski said.

The MMSD commission this month will act on the district staff’s request to purchase the easement for $50,000. The commission’s policy and finance committee will consider the proposal Monday.

Mequon Nature Preserve purchased the 6.38-acre parcel in late November from K&L Trust LLC, Gies said.

West Wisconsin, Bayfield land trusts to combine

The following post was published by The Country Today in Eau Claire, WI on January 2, 2018.


The boards of the West Wisconsin Land Trust in Menomonie and the Bayfield Regional Conservancy in Bayfield have agreed to form a new land trust to better continue their mission of land conservation. After nearly two years of discussion and planning, they will join to create a regional land trust serving all of western and northwestern Wisconsin.

Both land trusts have been serving parts of the new land trust’s 20-county service area, with Bayfield focusing primarily on the northwest region while West Wisconsin operates throughout the area.

“The boards agreed that combining the two organizations will not only eliminate duplication but will also create a more robust, sustainable conservation organization for the long term, we are very excited about the potential of this new venture,” said West Wisconsin board chairperson Peter Vaughan.

“Our organizations have been conserving land for nearly 30 years, but there remains so much more to be done. We look forward to combining forces for the betterment of the land and the people of our region for many decades to come,” said Kim Bro, Bayfield Regional Conservancy board president.

The new land trust will continue to maintain an office in Bayfield, with the administrative office located at West Wisconsin Land Trust’s current office in Menomonie. Launch of the new organization is set for spring of 2018.

Conservation agreement with Mississippi Valley Conservancy connects protected lands near Viroqua

The following post was written by Marc Wehrs for the La Crosse Tribune on December 30, 2017.

Mark Heberlein has planted hundreds of seedling trees, including red, bur and white oak, hawthorn and chestnut on land he and Kathleen Fitzgerald have placed in a conservation agreement with Mississippi Valley Conservancy.


VIROQUA — Mark Heberlein’s and Kathleen Fitzgerald’s 146-acre property near Viroqua consists of scenic wooded bluffland and native grasslands along a ¾-mile-long stretch of the South Fork Bad Axe River.

With a conservation agreement signed this week with Mississippi Valley Conservancy, their extensive conservation efforts will be protected in perpetuity for the health and well-being of current and future generations.

Depending on the season, a hike through their property might feature a sandhill crane grazing or a glimpse of a brilliantly colored indigo bunting and scarlet tanager.

According to Heberlein, “Sandhills are out there, nesting in our valley. It is amazing to think that historically their population was decimated and has now rebounded. We’ve created an island of habitat.”

“Sandhill numbers were down to an estimated 25 breeding pairs 80 years ago, and in our lifetime have rebounded up to over 5,000 pairs,” said Abbie Church, Conservancy conservation director.

Heberlein and Fitzgerald have restored remnant prairie with prescribed burning and invasive species control, improved the woodlands with timber stand improvement and tree plantings, and enhanced the South Fork Bad Axe River with stream bank stabilization projects and planting perennial native cover to filter and absorb runoff and floodwaters. The land includes multiple springs and seeps, all draining into the river, a valuable coldwater trout fishery.

“Their work to restore the diversity and resiliency to the land is a testament to their land ethic,” said Carol Abrahamzon, executive director of the Conservancy, “and we are honored to protect that work permanently.”

This land has been a labor of love over the past 17 years for Heberlein, who has planted hundreds of seedling trees, including red, bur, and white oak, hawthorn, and chestnut. Former croplands have been seeded to native prairie grassland, with a sea of big bluestem, switchgrass, yellow coneflower, bee balm and others providing food and cover for area wildlife, including pollinators.

Heberlein and Fitzgerald’s property is situated next to another 81 acres protected by the conservancy and just a mile away from 600-plus acres of private land protected by the conservancy and adjacent to 185-acres of DNR land. To the north is 487-acre Sidie Hollow Park.

Founded in 1997, Mississippi Valley Conservancy is a nationally accredited regional land trust that has permanently protected nearly 20,000 acres of scenic lands in southwestern Wisconsin by working with private landowners, businesses and local communities on voluntary conservation projects.

Two Families Give the Gift of Nature

Conservation easements protect rare fen in Walworth County.


The following post was written by our wonderful land trust member The Nature Conservancy.


East Troy, Wisconsin | December 27, 2017
When the Boeing and Emmerich families bought their land near East Troy in Walworth County, they didn’t know it was special. They loved the rolling hills, the big oak trees, the wildlife. In time, they realized they had purchased part of one of the most biologically rich wetlands in southeast Wisconsin, known as Pickerel Lake Fen.

This winter, the two families donated conservation easements on their land to The Nature Conservancy to protect it. Through the easements, they have given up their ability, and the ability of any future owners, to develop the land.

“When we bought our property,” said Signe Emmerich, “the views of the fen from the hilltop first attracted us. But soon we noticed the details—the wildlife and the seasonal prairie plants—and we knew we had something special. We wanted to make sure all of it was protected even after we are gone.”

“I’m relieved,” said Jack Boeing. “Now I don’t have to stay awake at night worrying that someday someone will build condos on this land we’ve come to love.”

Jack and Marcia Boeing donated a conservation easement on a little over 153 acres of land, which encompasses the entire east side of Pickerel Lake Fen. Approximately 75 acres is high ground where many new homes could have been built.

Gerry and Signe Emmerich updated their easement on 7.5 acres, which they had donated to the Conservancy in 1985, with an amended and restated easement that also protects an additional 15 acres, eliminating the potential to build three new residences on the property.

The Nature Conservancy established its Pickerel Lake Fen Preserve in December 1985, when the Emmerichs donated their first easement; they also donated another 12.8 acres outright at that time. A week later, their neighbors, Roy and Eleanor Muth donated 27 acres to the Conservancy. Since 1985, the Conservancy has protected a little over 381 acres in and around the fen and lake.

Pickerel Lake Fen is home to pitcher plants and other showy species like marsh blue violet and Joe-pye weed. Rare turtles use the site as do sandhill cranes and other wildlife. According to the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the fen is tied for first place with Ottawa Lake Fen as the most biologically diverse fen in southeast Wisconsin.

Individually, the Boeings and Emmerichs have spent at least 30 years restoring the prairie and oak savanna that once occurred on their land and across the Midwest. But restoring the fen required team work.

Non-native shrubs, including buckthorn and honeysuckle, rimmed the edges of the fen and were slowly advancing on the interior. Left unchecked, they threatened to outcompete the native vegetation and eventually take over completely.

“We needed to burn the entire fen to keep the invasive shrubs in check,” said Conservancy Land Management Director Hannah Spaul. “But eight other private landowners owned portions of it, so the challenge we faced was how to gain their support for burning the fen, which is right in their backyards.”

Gerry Emmerich began talking to his neighbors about burning the fen, and all of them, including the Boeings, granted the Conservancy permission to burn on their land. The first burn of the entire 190-acre fen took place in April 2004.

Jack Boeing, who watched that first burn from his home, commented, “It was a windy day, so I was a little nervous before the burn. But once they got started, I was very impressed with the professional way they carried it out. They really knew what they were doing.”

Since 2004, the Conservancy and their neighbors have burned the fen two more times.

“We’ve done a good job of keeping the shrubs from taking over the fen,” Spaul commented, “but this is an ongoing process. We look forward to continuing to work with our neighbors to carefully apply fire to the fen to keep it healthy.”

“All of the places we love in Wisconsin have been protected because people like the Emmerichs, Boeings and their neighbors chose to take action to safeguard them,” said Mary Jean Huston, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s work in Wisconsin. “At the holiday season, we can think of no greater gift to current and future generations.”

Green and growing: Local philanthropy helps Lake View Elementary expand its forest

The following post was written by Mike Ivey for Isthmus on December 21, 2017.


The pleasing sound of leaves crunching underfoot is a key piece of the curriculum these days at Lake View Elementary. Getting students interested in the outdoors is a natural fit at the northside school, considering it sits amid a native savannah where some of the gnarly white oaks have stood since the Civil War.

“I love giving tours of our woods,” says second grader Arash Aziz, who was born in Afghanistan and has found a new home in Madison with his parents and three siblings.

Now, thanks to a move by several local groups, the trees surrounding Lake View could well survive another 100 years.

Groundswell Conservancy — formerly the Natural Heritage Land Trust — will close Dec. 22 on a half-acre of private land adjacent to the school property that had been slated for development.

The parcel will be deeded over to the Madison school district for permanent inclusion in Lake View’s acclaimed school forest.

“It’s a pretty wild area back in there,” says Susie Hobart, outdoor education coordinator at Lake View. “Right now it’s so full of buckthorn and other invasives, it’s even hard for the deer to get through.”

Long-range plans call for clearing the area of non-native plants and restoring it to a more natural condition. Signs will direct visitors to the balance of the school forest.

But preserving the land for educational purposes may provide even greater benefits, considering so few of the 280 students who attend Lake View have easy access to green space. The school is one of the most diverse in the city and more than two-thirds of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“A lot of these kids are living in brick apartments surrounded by nothing but asphalt parking lots,” says Heidi Habeger, director of major and planned gifts at Madison-based Groundswell Conservancy. “This gives them a chance to explore and enjoy the outdoors.”

Since Lake View first established its outdoor classroom in 2011, the program has evolved into an active, nature-based educational model. The idea is to get both students and their family members thinking about becoming stewards of the land while also giving kids a “brain break” during the school day.

“We’re hoping they can take what they learn here to improve where they live both locally and globally and promote a healthy lifestyle,” says Hobart, a retired Lake View teacher now working on a volunteer basis after state support for outdoors education was trimmed two years ago.

With help from Community Groundworks, long active at Troy Gardens, and the Madison Community Foundation, school staff and local volunteers have built raised garden beds, added butterfly beds, created a rain garden and erected a shelter dubbed the “Pazillion” by former student Ulysses Kovach, who astutely remarked “you can do a pazillion things in it.”

Most recently first graders have begun to plant seeds to restore a prairie and fifth graders worked on an erosion prevention project near the school’s parking lot. Students can also volunteer to become “Eco Leaders” where they guide tours and act as citizen scientists by helping to collect data on birds, plants or animals.

On a recent morning, third-grader Saraii Slaton takes note of fungus growing out of a tree stump and says: “There is so much you can see if you just take the time to look closely.”

Central to the educational program are the three acres of woods that wrap around the back of the school. Designated as a school forest, the land features 24 species of trees including white and red oaks, ash, white mulberry, black cherry, crab apple and box elder.

When an adjacent parcel not owned by the school district was slated for new housing, however, officials grew concerned it would compromise the character of the existing woodlot. Hobart made a call to friends at Groundswell Conservancy who scrambled to come up with funds to purchase a key piece of high ground.

A $40,000 donation from the Nimick Forbesway Foundation was crucial to setting things in motion.

“Education and the environment are key to our mission,” says Vikki Enright, vice-chairwomen of the Nimick Forbesway Foundation. “This project is very exciting.”

Other major contributions included $20,000 from the Evjue Foundation, $10,000 each from the John C. Bock Foundation and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation plus $25,000 from the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Eventually a $140,000 deal was reached between Groundswell, Habitat for Humanity and developer Tom Keller to preserve the most densely wooded hilltop piece of land while splitting off another section along Tennyson Road for affordable housing.

“It was a difficult parcel to work with but I think everybody was pretty satisfied with the result,” says Keller.

Plans now call for using the newly acquired piece of land to establish a permanent access point to the Lake View school forest that can be used by both the school and adjacent neighborhood.

The area just to the east is being developed into a mix of multifamily housing, including assisted living units from Independent Living.

“When school is out we hope kids and families will come spend time here,” says Habeger of the Groundswell Conservancy. “It’s important we make this a part of the broader community.”

Newly Protected! 17 Acres Adjacent to Bay Shore Blufflands Nature Preserve

The following post was written by our wonderful land trust member Door County Land Trust.

Sturgeon Bay, WI – Visionary landowners Nancy Aten and Dan Collins recently completed the donation of a 17-acre conservation easement to the Door County Land Trust. The property, located near the 274-acre Bay Shore Blufflands Nature Preserve, adds to a complex of ecologically rich lands where several rare and threatened species have been identified. Waters from agricultural lands to the east are filtered through wetlands on the property before draining into the bay of Green Bay.

A conservation easement agreement with private landowners permanently limits the land uses and protects conservation values. Partnerships like this allow the Door County Land Trust to create corridors of land protection for the benefit of native plants and wildlife. “We are so pleased to partner with the Door County Land Trust in preserving and protecting these additional acres of wooded wetlands in Bay Shore Blufflands.” said Nancy Aten.

Door County Land Trust conservation easement program manager Drew Reinke said, “Our land protection work in the Bayshore Blufflands State Natural Area is a perfect example of implementing two land conservation programs for increased benefit. Through the 274-acres owned by the Door County Land Trust and open to the public as a nature preserve, and nearby conservation easement agreements on 137 acres of private lands, we conserve land in the most effective way.”

Part of the Niagara Escarpment complex, the property includes wetlands which were most likely never farmed or grazed, preserving the native plants found here. As such, it is the longest stretch of pristine escarpment remaining in Door County.  “It is especially timely to protect these wetlands with a conservation easement given the Wisconsin legislature’s contemplated bill that would remove all protections from wetlands just like these,” added Dan Collins. “The capacity of these wetlands to reduce flood damage along with their connected ecological benefits should be protected. Thankfully the Door County Land Trust is here to help.”

Door County Land Trust executive director Tom Clay said, “The connection between the health of the land and water, and the health of the people, plants and animals is undeniable. Future generations will thank us for protecting these ecological gems. Landowners like Dan and Nancy are a part of the solution to protecting our drinking water and the health of the land.” As the holders of the conservation easement agreement, the Door County Land Trust agrees to monitor the property annually to ensure that the terms of the agreement are adhered to by the private landowners. The conservation easement protects the property permanently and remains in effect for all present and future owners.

About the Door County Land Trust

The Door County Land Trust’s mission is “To protect Door County’s exceptional lands and waters…forever.” It is a nonprofit, community-based organization that conserves land via purchase, donation or conservation easement agreements. Founded in 1986, the Door County Land Trust has protected more than 8,000 acres from Washington Island through southern Door County.

Trail maps for 14 featured Door County Land Trust nature preserves may be found on our website, hiking map and trail map apps. These preserves are open year-round to the public at no charge for hiking, cross-country skiing, wildlife observation, hunting, and other low-impact, non-motorized recreational activities. For more information and to become a Land Trust member visit or call (920)746-1359.


A threat to perpetuity?

What your land trust should know if your conservation easements are reaching the 30-year mark



The following post was written by Mike Carlson, Executive Director of Gathering Waters.


Conservation easements last forever. At least that’s the intent. But is your land trust aware that there may be a threat to conservation easements embedded in state law? A section of state statute known as Wisconsin’s Marketable Title Act may make conservation easements vulnerable to attack after 30 years if certain proactive steps aren’t taken by easement holders. Fortunately, you can do something about it.

Here’s how the law works:

Wisconsin’s Marketable Title Act allows for something called a “bona fide purchaser defense.” Basically, if someone purchases a piece of property and isn’t put on notice of adverse claims, like deed restrictions, they can claim the “bona fide purchaser defense.” If the landowner prevails, they can eliminate restrictions on their land and they get their property free and clear.

So how might this impact conservation easements? There is no definitive case law in Wisconsin on this topic, but there is some concern that the statute may allow a “bona fide purchaser” to extinguish a conservation easement if they haven’t been put on notice otherwise. In Section 706.09(1)(k) of the Wisconsin Statutes, a conveyance of property can be free of adverse claims for “[a]ny interest of which no affirmative and express notice appears of record within 30 years.”

At least one Wisconsin Court of Appeals case (Turner v. Taylor from November 2003) has referenced conservation easements when interpreting this statute, but no court has ruled directly on whether this section applies to conservation easements.

Regardless of the case law, land trusts should consider erring on the side of caution by ensuring that their conservation easements are “of record” every 30 years.

Here’s what you can do:

Given this potential threat, the next question you’re probably asking is: what can my land trust do to ensure that our conservation easements are “of record?”  To be clear, it does not mean that the full conservation easement needs to be re-recorded every 30 years, but rather that some form of appropriate documentation referencing the easement needs to be filed with the register of deeds in order to have notice in the official record.

In Wisconsin, we are fortunate have a number of conservation-minded lawyers who have worked with land trusts to develop templates on this very topic. One attorney in particular, Bill O’Connor—also one of the founders of Gathering Waters—developed a “Template Notice of Preservation of Claims” document for Groundswell Conservancy (formerly Natural Heritage Land Trust), and has granted us permission to share it as part of this blog post. Other organizations like The Nature Conservancy have used a similar approach.

If you have questions about the template or the appropriate documentation for filing a notice of claim, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our staff, and consider being in touch with your organization’s legal counsel to determine your appropriate next steps.

It’s worth noting that this threat to conservation easements could eventually be solved legislatively, and Gathering Waters will be looking for an appropriate opportunity to fix this issue in state law. However, in the meantime, please consider when your conservation easements will hit the 30-year mark and consider taking appropriate steps (like setting up a system for periodic reminders) to protect these vital conservation tools.

100% FOR THE PLANET challenge

Fontana Sports and Patagonia are giving away $15,000 to local organizations, including Gathering Waters!

If you purchase Patagonia merchandise from Fontana Sports (in person or on their website) between Friday, November 17 – Sunday November 26, you can donate 100% of the sale to Gathering Waters. Get some holiday shopping done early, and support Gathering Waters at the same time! Thanks to Fontana Sports, and Patagonia for supporting Gathering Waters.

Geneva Lake Conservancy Receives Rohner Donation to Purchase Land for Children’s Fishing Park

The following post was written by our wonderful land trust member Geneva Lake Conservancy.


The Geneva Lake Conservancy recently purchased 5.1 acres in Williams Bay with a generous donation from the Jack Rohner family.

The vacant land will be used to create a children’s fishing park in honor of Mr. Rohner’s late wife, Helen.


Helen Rohner, with great granddaughter Caroline. Helen’s love for children, inspired the Rohner family donation to create the fishing park in Williams Bay.


The land is located along Highway 67 west of the Kishwaukétoe Nature Preserve. It is bordered on the west by Southwick Creek, a trout stream that runs into Geneva Lake. The park plans call for fishing spots to be created for children along the creek, as well as a boardwalk across a wetland on the property that will connect with Kishwaukétoe.

“We are so grateful to the Rohner family for their donation to preserve this land and to create a park that will encourage children to learn about the wonders of nature,” said Dennis Jordan, GLC Chairman.

Helen Rohner, who died in 2016 had been a Lake Geneva summer resident for many years.

“She could still remember the World War II troops coming through Lake Geneva on the train,” said her daughter, Barbara Franke. Franke said her mother loved children. Helen Rohner’s daughter and 2 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren still spend part of their summers at Lake Geneva homes, she said.

The park will also feature “story boards” on the lifecycles of trout and include a native plant nature trail with educational signs and other nature activities. A small barn on the property will be painted with a large brown trout that are the predominant fish in Southwick Creek. In the future, the barn may also be restored for a variety of children’s activities.

“This park will not only provide new activities for children, it will also help draw families and other visitors to Williams Bay to learn about the health of our fisheries and the importance of protecting aquatic habitat,” said Karen Yancey, GLC Executive Director.

In conjunction with the purchase, the GLC will work with the Village of Williams Bay and Kishwaukétoe Nature Preserve on their plans to reroute Southwick Creek to make it easier for trout to reach their spawning grounds further north on the creek.

The Conservancy plans to ask for volunteer assistance from a variety of civic and community groups as it develops the park.

“The Conservancy holds a conservation easement on Kishwaukétoe Nature Conservancy and hopes to work with their volunteers to interweave children’s activities and create an extension of the hiking trails and native habitats at Kishwaukétoe,” said Yancey.

The current timetable calls for a dedication of the park to be held on Memorial Day weekend, 2018.

The Geneva Lake Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, not-for- profit organization and recognized land trust with almost 2,000 acres under protection. Its mission is to preserve and advocate for Walworth County waterways, natural areas and working lands.

Monroe County Public Land Preserve opens


The following post was published by News 8 in La Crosse on October 20, 2017.

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – The new Wilton Hemlocks Nature Preserve in Monroe County will protect rare habitat on the Kickapoo River.

Thanks to a major grant from the Paul E. Stry Foundation, Mississippi Valley Conservancy has accepted a land donation from Eric and Inese Epstein. The Epstein’s donation of 89.14 acres of property is on the Kickapoo River and has been named the “Wilton Hemlocks”. The preserve is open to the public for research, education, hiking, fishing, and paddling.

It is the first Mississippi Valley Conservancy public nature preserve in Monroe County and brings the total Conservancy protected nature preserves to 21.

“The generosity of the Epsteins and the Stry Foundation ensure that the site will be open to the public for hiking, bird watching, nature photography, fishing, and canoeing,” said Carol Abrahamzon, executive director of the Conservancy. “We will also use the land for environmental education programs and make it available for researchers and graduate students to study the rare species, some of them state-listed, using the property.”

Gathering Waters • 211 S. Paterson St. Suite 270 • Madison, WI 53703 • PH 608-251-9131 • FX 608-663-5971 •