While other kids who grew up in Madison often frequented local parks, Dan Erdman spent his childhood summers helping on the land his family purchased on the west side of Dane County instead. Decades later, he has found a new appreciation for the hard work, time, and resources that staff, volunteers, and supporters invest into an expansive park system like ours.
“Now as an adult, Natalie and I have been able to explore all the different recreational parks, wildlife areas, and trail systems that Dane County has established. It’s been a new discovery for us,” Dan said.
Even before Natalie retired, she and Dan would take off late Friday afternoons to pick a park within a short drive, go for a hike, and later find a new place to try a fish fry. One of their recent park discoveries happened by chance when they attended a memorial service at a cozy 1850s log church near Mount Horeb overlooking the Driftless Area. They returned a few weeks later to hike the mowed trails and view the prairie being restored around the church at the Hauge Historic District Park in the Town of Perry, with one of the best views of a sunset in Southern Wisconsin.
“There are so many options and parks to explore,” Dan said. “We could go another 20 years and always go to a new place (park or trail system). It’s a really amazing community asset that we have.”
The closest Dane County Park to their home and Dan’s workplace is Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, where Natalie enjoys the natural beauty and wildlife on weekly walks to the top of Frederick’s Hill -- a place that holds a lot of meaning for them.
“I met Dan 15 years ago, and one of our first outings together was to Pheasant Branch to go canoeing and hike out there with Dan’s dog,” Natalie said. “Frederick’s Hill was filled with invasives; you couldn’t tell an oak savanna was there.”
The hill -- like many other areas within our parks -- has been transformed over the years. “Dane County Parks and the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy have turned it back into the oak savanna it used to be. We visit various times of year and see the wildflowers that come and go. It’s really a testimony, not to just owning land and having it open to people, but to the parks staff and volunteers taking it to where it needs to be,” Natalie said.
“And, of course, we’re very excited when Dane County purchased the property to the north,” Dan said. “What’s so great about many of these parks is they are supported by friends organizations that help with park upkeep and maintenance and mowing trails. It’s a wonderful thing when you can get local people to take ownership.”
That’s just one of the reasons why the Erdmans have chosen to support our county parks. They were introduced to the Foundation through the nonprofit’s co-founder Bill Lunney, who Dan said “has been amazing in his efforts to really develop and expand the Dane County Parks system.”
As supporters of Groundswell Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy, too, the Erdmans are impressed with the collaborative approach the Foundation, Dane County, and other partners also take to preserve key parcels.
“I’m not sure if people in this community understand how impressive it is that their county government makes this kind of investment and partners so well with organizations who are trying to improve the quality of our land and water,” Natalie said.
“As Dane County grows and there’s more and more pressure to develop, these parks will become more and more valuable,” Dan added.
The Erdmans can attest to the increased park use that Dane County has seen since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March. Instead of going to ball games and concerts, Dan said, people are getting outside and exploring parks.
“I think one of the few lasting benefits of this pandemic is people are discovering the outdoors, the beauty and value of nature, and how fun it is to appreciate the natural world,” Dan said. “And that will pay dividends as people will value and try to stand up to protect these natural areas, which is critical.”