Long before their paths crossed, Gary Werner and Melanie Lord grew up with families who enjoyed the outdoors. That love and appreciation for nature and public spaces -- and each other -- continued to grow, leading them to become fervent volunteers of Dane County Parks, advocates of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, and supporters of the Foundation and Endowment.
“We see it as part of being good citizens of Dane County to be involved in helping to sustain and improve and enhance this system of parks and trails,” Gary said. “You can do that through sweat equity, but if you’re fortunate enough to have enough to live a comfortable life and you have extra money, you ought to be giving it back somehow or other.”
Melanie’s father was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and she fondly remembers swimming and ice skating at Vilas Park when they lived in University housing, hiking with her family throughout southern Wisconsin on weekends, and taking camping trips to the east and west coasts during summer vacation. Meanwhile, Gary recalls going for Sunday afternoon drives with his parents on backroads to discover places like what are now Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area and the historic chapel at Indian Lake County Park. His father was involved early on with the first piece of the Ice Age Trail through Dane County at that park in the early 1970s.
Gary became more aware of the importance of these Dane County “gems” in connection with the Ice Age Trail through his professional involvement with the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (now the Ice Age Trail Alliance). “One of the conscious decisions we made in the 1980s was to route the trail from Badger Prairie to Festge to Indian Lake County Parks,” said Gary. The trail also passes through the on-leash portion of Prairie Moraine County Park, one of Melanie’s favorite places to visit.
Planting a seed
Gary and Melanie have been volunteering throughout the county since the 1980s, beginning with prairie seed collection and plantings. They appreciate the rewards of patiently witnessing the transformation of the restored prairie and oak savanna landscape at places like the Springfield Hill Natural Resource Area, Liebetrau Prairie, Table Bluff segment, and Ice Age Trail Junction Area along the Ice Age Trail. “Watching them blossom over all these years is fabulous,” Melanie said.
Gary has also been helping with prescribed burns for nearly 30 years. When they’re not biking, you’ll likely find them clearing invasive trees, shrubs, and weeds or burning slash piles (depending on the season) with a group of familiar faces each weekend. “People are coming out and helping consistently week after week because they believe in the land management work they are doing, but also because of the friendships,” said Gary. During the pandemic, the physically-distanced yet socially-connected aspect of volunteering gave people “a good way to see one another while working together with purpose,” he said.
Over the last year, Dane County Parks welcomed 4 million visitors, a 25% increase from 2019. Gary and Melanie can attest to the fact that more and more in the community of all generations have discovered the parks and trails, including a new set of one-time, regular, or (what Melanie calls) “episodically consistent” volunteers. Gary said many newbies shared that they “want to give back now, because they appreciate the essential value of these places close to home,” and they realize that parks and trails “didn’t just miraculously appear;” rather, there are people involved creating, maintaining, and protecting them.
Melanie said it’s rewarding to be able to tell friends and coworkers that in Dane County, “we have all kinds of places you can go that are interesting, provide recreational opportunities, and even with increased use you can still have a fairly quiet experience.” Gary added that “part of what makes the Madison community so wonderful is you have this very urban metropolitan city but within this rural landscape of farms, parks, and wildlife areas with scenic features like the terminal moraine and Driftless Area valleys right at your doorstep.”
Gary attributes many of these special places to the foresight of people from nearly 100 years ago to the present, including the creators of the UW Arboretum, the contributions of Phil and Libby Lewis to the Nine Springs E-Way, and the county park commissioners and park planners who embraced “the idea of trails linking together to make a network of continuous routes.” He credits his experience with national trails with becoming more aware of the relationship between state and county parks and connecting places together via the trails.
Foundation President Bill Lunney, who served as Parks Commission Chair for 30 years, referred to Gary as “the conscience of the county parks board” because of his fierce advocacy work. Gary “consistently went to bat for the county parks budget and fellow travelers, arguing for the importance of aggressively acquiring more land for not just the Ice Age Trail.” And while having strong support for parks with elected officials is advantageous, Melanie said the private sector provides a “cushion” when the public sector is “fickle” and budgets are tight. She said that contributing to nonprofits such as the Foundation for Dane County Parks and volunteering also shows that “private citizens and organizations are equally invested and caring about those resources.”
Gary, who served as the founding Executive Director of the Partnership for the National Trails System, said that the Foundation and Dane County Parks have emulated the “public-private partnership model, one of the most wonderful aspects of the National Trails System, where both partners are bringing resources to the table to help the cause of the public lands being sustained.” What makes this relationship work is that the parks department has “cultivated a culture of empowering volunteers to take on real significant stewardship of these places,” which has enabled the acquisition of more land and is mirrored by the increase of volunteers and contributed hours each year.
Another aspect of the “full empowerment of volunteers” is the Friends of Dane County Parks Endowment fund grants. Gary serves on the grant advisory committee and has seen firsthand the multiple benefits of groups “bringing their ideas forward and getting them implemented in a fairly direct way,” whether it be a piece of new equipment, informational signage, or programming that further engages the public.
Reflecting on the lessons his parents instilled in him as a child to invest and save for the future, Gary related having a nonprofit foundation for the parks to a large piggy bank. “And an Endowment within the Foundation is like saving for a rainy day or developing a separate accumulation of resources that can be used on an ongoing basis to sustain benefits for parks and trails,” he said. “We’re happy to be able to contribute a consistently modest amount of money because we see it continuing to grow and see it as such a wonderful asset to the community.”
In sharing their hopes for the future, Gary said he would like to see bigger parks of more than 1,000 acres that can “hold their own” in terms of biodiversity (which could happen with the Indian Lake County Park expansion). He would also like to see the nearly 40 miles of gaps filled in along the Ice Age Trail so it could be finished as a corridor through Dane County and “become a public greenway that will link together a number of parks and trails into a continuous system.” Melanie added that she envisions “Dane County Parks as one of the premier and unique county systems in the country, and that our citizens understand, respect, and are involved in continuing to make it better.”
We are forever grateful for the support of park volunteers, donors, and activists like Gary and Melanie. On behalf of the Foundation for Dane County Parks, thank you both!