The New Stewards

The New Stewards

If you’ve been paying attention, you might realize that there is a bit of a revolution going on when it comes to our local parks and state natural areas. Much of the push is coming from citizens campaigning through social media, contacting local representatives, engaging news articles, letter-writing campaigns and most recently a petition to protect Pewit’s Nest SNA on In addition, a company called “Good Lands Guides” has organized an April 2nd volunteer day at Devil’s Lake State Park with over 300 sign-ups so far. Wonderful!

One of the major problems we need to deal with at Devil’s Lake State Park is simply overuse. The park, which officially claims about 2.7 million visitors (Probably more like 3.4 million or more) is in many ways falling apart under the pressure of its own popularity. We’ve all seen it. Trails are disintegrating, brush is piling up, signs are rotting away, etc., While budget, staffing & political issues are part of the problem, they are not an excuse for the decline. As we’re seeing, more and more people are realizing many of the infrastructure issues could be solved simply by the park staff, park friends group members and park users opening lines of communication and combining resources to solve real problems instead of bemoaning the issues and waiting for outside solutions. This is where change is clearly in the air.

Among the many issues we see at Devil’s Lake is the problem of what are called, “volunteer” trails, places where people go off trail in large enough numbers to kill the ground under their feet and create hard dirt paths. These non-official trails are everywhere at Devil’s Lake. The most concerning and potentially the most damaging are those you see branching from the East and West Bluff trails to overlooks, into the woods or just disappearing into the rocks below the trails. These paths not only destroy the beauty of the park, but can carry invasive plants deeper into the forest, kill rare native plants and destroy cliffside habitats important to local wildlife. What’s more, with time and use these trails get wider, compress the soil and accelerate erosion. In some areas they are turning overlooks into dangerous, slippery, mud slides that could send an unsuspecting visitor plummeting into the boulders hundreds of feet below!

Volunteers working with the Naturalist to block "Volunteer" Trails.

Volunteers working with the Park Naturalist to block “Volunteer” Trails in 2016.

Last year the park naturalist began organizing groups of volunteers to begin blocking these trails. It was realized that there would need to be discussions with rock climbers and boulderers who use some of these trails as access points to popular climbs. The goal is not to cut off access, but to restore and protect the park’s natural environment.

This issue is nothing new. In national parks where climbing, bouldering & trekking are popular, such as Yosemite National Park, they have been addressing these issues for years. There are agreed upon systems in place. Here in Wisconsin, a sort of “don’t ask don’t tell” climbing policy has hindered communication and conservation. Thankfully there are folks who feel it’s time to change that.

Climbers, Devil's Lake State Park

This weekend I put on my “nature advocate” pants and joined; Devil’s Lake State Park’s Naturalist Sue Johansen, Friends group board member and rock climber, Doug Hemken along with Adam Remus (and family!), member of the Wisconsin Climbing Association & manager at Fontana Sports in Madison, WI for a hike up the West Bluff. Our goal was to combine our thoughts about all of these meandering “volunteer” trails before the upcoming April 2nd volunteer day. In addition to marking off popular access points and deciding which trails to block, we had an opportunity to open some discussions on how park users from climbers & boulders to trekkers and simply day users can all work together to protect and support the park we all love. Of course, it’s going to be a long discussion with lots of other voices joining in!

Adam Remus - Devil's Lake State Park

Adam Remus

You know, Yosemite National Park has this program they call, “Climber Stewards“. Climber Stewards work with the park on access trails, climber interpretation, climbing patrols, peregrine falcon monitoring and more. I think this grant-funded program could be a good model for how Devil’s Lake State Park could work closely with the climbing community to address some of the overuse issues the park is facing. I mean, they’re out there!! It seems to me, our own brand of “Climber Stewards” with a grant and support of the Friends of Devil’s Lake, an O.K. from WI Parks powers-that-be and leadership within the climbing community could be active in a very short time.  Any takers??

One thing is very clear, people love Devil’s Lake State Park and our state natural areas. They realize times are changing and that you can’t just sit on the sidelines. They are beginning to speak up, lines of communication are opening and you can feel a sea change coming on. It’s certainly time for some new stewards to step forward.

***Obligatory Disclaimer:  This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Which is sometimes too bad if you ask me!).


Would YOU like to volunteer to help out at Devil’s Lake State Park?  

Please Contact The Park Naturalist at: 
Contact Sue Johansen, Park Naturalist
608-356-8301 Ext. 140

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