Though the work of the glaciers in Wisconsin was completed more than 10,000 years ago, the notion of a hiking trail celebrating the state's Ice Age legacy dates back just a century. The story of the Ice Age Trail is a fascinating mix of vision, conservation, and passion involving both some of Wisconsin's most famous politicians and thousands of private citizens. Because the Ice Age Trail Alliance was established not long after the idea of the Ice Age Trail itself took shape, their histories are inseparable.
During the 1920s, extreme flooding of the Milwaukee River coupled with increased recreation needs of the growing city of Milwaukee focused attention on the Kettle Moraine, a scenic belt of glacial ridges in southeastern Wisconsin. In response, the Milwaukee Chapter of the Izaak Walton League purchased 800 acres around Moon Lake (now Mauthe Lake) in the Northern Kettle Moraine in 1926. Ten years later, the Kettle Moraine State Forest was established and volunteers began constructing its first hiking trails.
Among the leading proponents for the protection of the Kettle Moraine was Raymond Zillmer, a lawyer by profession and an avid walker, mountaineer and student of natural history. He explored the wildlands of northern Minnesota, mountaineered in remote areas of the Canadian Rockies (Mt. Zillmer in the Cariboo Range was named in his honor) and followed the development of the Appalachian Trail. Zillmer was twice responsible for personally convincing two governors to increase land acquisition funding for the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
In the 1950s, Zillmer envisioned the Kettle Moraine State Forest forming the nucleus for a much larger linear park that would be used "by millions more people than use the more remote national parks." He pictured extending the Kettle Moraine Glacial Hiking Trail along the terminal moraine of the most recent continental glaciation for several hundred miles. He was certain the concept warranted national attention.
In 1958, Zillmer founded the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation (now the Ice Age Trail Alliance) to begin efforts to establish a national park in Wisconsin that would encompass this route. That year, in a letter to Daniel Tobin, Regional Director of the National Park Service, Zillmer wrote: "I am intimately familiar with the moraines...of the existing Kettle Moraine State Forest, having covered almost literally every foot of the area many times in the last 40 years....I found that my work in the Kettle Moraine Forest project was of unestimatable value. In fact, I believe it is impossible to understand the (proposed national park) without a complete knowledge of what the state has accomplished. It has established the practicality of a long narrow strip as far as outdoor recreation is concerned."
His efforts paid off. Later that year, Mr. Tobin accompanied Zillmer for several days of inspection along the proposed route. Zillmer was capturing the interest of the National Park Service, conservationists and political leaders. Bills were introduced in Congress to create an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin. In April 1961, National Park Service geologist Robert Rose completed a study of the proposal. He concluded the report by stating, "through proper utilization of the high quality resources which occur in the State of Wisconsin, one of the greatest stories in the natural history of North America could be illustrated and adequately interpreted. Here is an opportunity to develop a story using features intimately associated with the lives and livelihood of millions of people....It seems that the National Park Service could not embark on an adventure more important and broader in vision than that of using some of the same features that yield up essential necessities of life in the form of food, minerals and fibre, to enrich the cultural lives of these same people and the thousands from elsewhere who will be attracted to this great unit of the National Park System when established, adequately developed and fully interpreted. This could well rank among the greatest of the many significant adventures upon which the Service has embarked in the past or with which it may become intimately identified in the future."
Yet just as creation of this new type of national park was gaining momentum, Raymond Zillmer died. The vision of the Ice Age project being a linear park and trail, similar to today's Appalachian Trail, almost passed with him.
Later in 1961, the National Park Service (NPS) concluded that, while many of the unique glacial features of Wisconsin warranted national attention, a park hundreds of miles in length would be too difficult to administer. (Although similarly challenging parks, such as Cape Cod National Seashore, which today has over 2,000 private inholdings, were authorized during the 1960s.) However, the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest was identified as having the significance of a national monument administered by the NPS.
Grassroots supporters, State of Wisconsin officials, and NPS staff went back to the drawing board. What they came up with was the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, an affiliated area of the National Park System composed of nine separate units around Wisconsin. In 1964, thanks to the efforts of Congressman Henry Reuss, the Ice Age Reserve legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Johnson. The Northern Kettle Moraine never became a national monument and the Ice Age Trail lay in waiting.
Aldo Leopold was a pioneer in the fields of forestry and ecology, and a professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. During the 1940s, he described the need for society to develop "a land ethic [that] changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it."
Leopold often drew inspiration from walks through local hinterlands. He once wrote, "The automobile has spread [the] once mild and local predicament [of outdoor recreation] to the outermost limits of good roads...it has made scarce in the hinterlands something once abundant on the back forty....Advertisements...confide to all...the whereabouts of new retreats, landscapes, hunting grounds, and fishing-lakes just beyond those recently overrun. Bureaus build roads into new hinterlands, then buy more hinterlands to absorb the exodus accelerated by the roads....This is Outdoor Recreation, Latest Model."
Along a similar theme, fellow Wilderness Society founder Benton MacKaye (who lived in Milwaukee in 1920) noted the skew of our nation's public land distribution. In 1921 he proposed a project to increase recreational resources near our nation's major population areas by creating a long-distance walking trail in the east. Coursing from New England to Georgia along the Appalachian Mountains, the Appalachian Trail would become the grandfather of America's long-distance trails.
In his 1965 Natural Beauty Message, President Johnson stated, "We can and should have an abundance of trails for walking...in and close to our cities. In the back country we need to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of America." Thanks to the efforts of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and others, the push to establish linear national parks grew, and in 1968 the National Trails System Act became law. The 2,100-mile Appalachian and 2,600-mile Pacific Crest trails were established as the baselines of the National Trails System.
In the early 1970s, the Ice Age Trail Council was formed to carry out Ray Zillmer's vision for a long-distance hiking trail. Older trails on public lands, such as the Glacial Hiking Trail in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest, became building blocks for the Ice Age Trail. Volunteers constructed new trail segments along much of the remaining route. Many of these new segments were built on private land after volunteers received handshake agreements with the landowners. (The Ice Age Trail Council merged with the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation in 1990; the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation changed its name to Ice Age Trail Alliance in 2009.)
Following the Trail's first successful thru-hiker, and under the sponsorship of Congressman Henry Reuss (pictured here speaking with Gaylord Nelson [left]), the Ice Age Trail finally joined the National Trails System. On October 3, 1980, President Carter signed the law establishing the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Ray Zillmer's vision seemed fulfilled.
Today, there are only 11 National Scenic Trails in the system. But unlike the Appalachian Trail, where the National Park Service is leading efforts to protect trail resources with the acquisition of key parcels, the National Park Service has acquired only one property for the Ice Age Trail. Nationally significant glacial features that the Trail is intended to commemorate are at risk of being impaired or lost.
Many of the handshake agreements with private landowners along the Trail have been lost to changing land uses. To curb this havoc on Trail lands and the corresponding trail rerouting and reconstruction projects, the Ice Age Trail was designated Wisconsin's only State Scenic Trail in 1987. The State of Wisconsin has since permanently protected 7,000 acres for the Trail. Over the decades, the Ice Age Trail Alliance has acquired over 3,000 acres, mostly in the form of narrow easements.
Following the decades-long trend, viewsheds in western states, including many of Utah's national monuments and rocky roadless areas, continue to dominate conservation attention. It should come as no surprise that many visitors to such parks and protected areas stay only long enough to take a few pictures before driving to the next pretty view.
The Ice Age Trail Alliance believes that if future generations are to adopt a land ethic and protect our national parks, they will need places that regularly challenge their minds to understand the natural world and engage their bodies to action. Within 20 miles of 60% of Wisconsin residents, and an easy drive from Chicago and the Twin Cities, the Ice Age Trail is such a place.
Thousands of volunteers contribute tens of thousands of hours every year to the development and maintenance of the Ice Age Trail. Their efforts span decades. Their legacy is forever.