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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsinites Invest Time, Labor in State's Fish, Wildlife Areas

   Whether you fish, hunt, hike or birdwatch on one of Wisconsin’s 200-plus fish and wildlife areas, you’ll benefit even more if you “adopt” and work on that prized land with help from the Department of Natural Resources.

   After all, you don’t have to own property and pay its taxes to bond with land and earn your neighbor's respect through sweat equity or financial contributions. We all value land more personally by investing time, labor and recreation into its soils, plants and living creatures.

   That’s also why the DNR has long worked with nonprofit 5013c “friends” groups ( who help with state parks, state forests, trails and recreation areas. These volunteers hold cleanups, work on trails, run special events, build and maintain cabins and shelters, and raise money for shelters, kiosks, signage and educational materials.

   During the past two years, Wisconsin’s “friends” groups volunteered nearly 12,800 hours of labor on state properties, the annual equivalent of nearly 6.5 full-time employees. These groups also donated over $377,500 in 2022-23 to those public properties and added over 300 new volunteers to their groups, boosting their ranks to nearly 2,000 people.

   But Wisconsin residents also own nearly 785,000 acres of fish and wildlife areas (, which traditionally attract mostly hunters, trappers and trout anglers. And since 2015, hundreds of Wisconsin residents have built and strengthened their connections with these lower-profile public lands through the DNR’s Adopt a Fish and Wildlife Area program, aka AWA.

   Whether signing up as individuals or through a private group or company, each sponsor donates at least $3,000 or volunteers a minimum of 100 hours of labor to a nearby fish or wildlife area.

   During 2022-2023, these sponsors from 38 AWA groups combined to work over 4,600 hours on 36 of Wisconsin’s fish/wildlife areas, which equates to roughly 2.5 full-time jobs annually. The DNR coordinates those work projects to ensure everyone’s time and labor is well-used, whether it’s posting signage, picking up trash, planting native trees, or cutting and removing invasive plants, to name a few tasks needed regularly on the state’s 135,000 acres of fisheries lands and 650,000 acres of wildlife areas.

   Eric Lobner, director of the DNR’s wildlife-management programs, led the agency’s efforts to expand volunteer efforts to these properties through AWA. Combined with the “friends” programs, Wisconsin’s public lands received over 17,000 hours of volunteer labor and over $423,000 in donations from the state’s citizenry the past two years.

   “Wisconsinites always want to do more for conservation, and find ways to contribute directly to preserving and managing the state’s natural resources,” Lobner said. “It’s especially important to them when they consider the land part of their neighborhood. Some of them aren’t sure how to help, but they show up and they’re willing to learn. Our staff members are good at figuring out how individual volunteers and organizations can help.”

   With nearly 785,000 acres spread across 200-plus fish and wildlife areas statewide, the DNR offers abundant opportunities for expanding AWA. The DNR closely monitors each project by tabulating donations, work hours, grant money and other resources invested in AWA and “friends” programs. Lobner notes, however, that it’s harder to measure a person’s or community’s connections to specific properties.

   “We can design management plans, organize clean-ups, coordinate habitat work, and install gates and signs, but how do you gauge ‘ownership’ by local communities?” Lobner said. “We think it makes a difference when people and communities take ownership in public properties. There’s probably less vandalism or illegal dumping when neighbors view that land as part of their community. When local volunteers are in there working regularly, the community more likely respects it and protects it.”

   The AWA program casts a wide net for volunteer labor, whether it’s individuals looking to team with other volunteers, or private groups bringing enough members to staff entire work parties. Sometimes its local Scout groups, a nearby Trout Unlimited chapter, or members of the Wisconsin Waterfowlers Association. In still other cases, it's a monetary donation from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to buy equipment that volunteers can use.

   And sometimes local companies pitch in. Foremost Farms in Middleton, for example, sends volunteers to work on the REM Pine River fisheries area near Yuba in Richland County. The company chose that site because it’s a few miles north of Richland Center, home to the company’s wastewater treatment plant, which also generates renewable energy. In 2023, 45 Foremost Farms employees combined to donate 103 hours of work removing trees and invasive plants to help reestablish native grasses and plant native trees.

   Lobner also notes that AWA and the “friends” groups directly help the DNR meet its work obligations. “We used to have 165 DNR staff working on the state’s 650,000 acres of wildlife areas and 135,000 acres of fisheries lands, but we’re now down to 142 staff,” Lobner said. “Those staffing shortages require us to be creative in how we engage the public in managing state lands. By working together with local individuals, and local groups and companies, we hope to ingrain a sense of place in those communities.”

   To recognize all those citizen-based contributions from 2022 and 2023, the DNR held its first awards program for AWA and “friends” participants on Feb. 8 in Stevens Point. The winners were:

   -- Groundswell Conservancy, 2022 AWA group of the year, for donating 384 hours of work burning invasive brush piles, removing invasive plants, collecting native prairie seeds and picking up trash.

   -- Friends of the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitors Center, 2022 “Friends” winner for donating over 1,100 volunteer hours and raising just over $30,000 to support 75 school youth education programs, 31 virtual programs, 113 public education programs, 28 off-site programs, and several recreational events.

   -- Lakeshore Trout Unlimited group for donating 640 hours of work and $6,236 of materials for projects in 2023 on the Onion River Fishery Area. The volunteers worked on trails, cleared deadfalls, repaired habitat structures and planted 75 native trees.

   -- Friends of the Brillion Nature Center for volunteering over 1,300 hours and raising over $62,000 in 2023 for Brillion Wildlife Area projects. That work included “repurposing” an old boardwalk in a trail area that’s too wet for regular access, replacing exterior lights, and installing bricks around a firepit. The center also held several events, including a snowshoe hike, Valentine’s Day dinner and maple syrup camp.

Volunteers from the Lakeshore Trout Unlimited group work on the Onion River Fishery Area southwest of Sheboygan. — Wisconsin DNR photos

The Lakeshore chapter of Trout Unlimited donated 640 hours of work and $6,236 of materials for projects on the Onion River Fishery Area in 2023.

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Patrick Durkin
Patrick Durkin
Feb 21

Thanks for the feedback, Dave. I’ll keep that in mind for a future column.


Feb 17

Patrick: Unsaid is the thousands of volunteer hours former DNR employees give annually doing conservation related work on their own. Examples are Keith McCaffery continuing to deer managent tasks actually going in daily to his old office for 20 years after retirement! Ed Frank attending DNR sharp-tailed grouse committee meetings (until DNR policy told him not to speak at those meetings!). Doc Schwengel and Tom Hansen continuing to do wetland restoration work 20 years after retirement. Etc.

I would add that most of that effort is thankless activity, that is the DNR seldom acknowledges the extra help that's provided by retirees. Further, DNR loses out on tens of thousands of volunteer hours and untold expertise by not encouraging retirees to…

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