Friends of Wisconsin State Parks Celebrates 20 Years of Getting Wisconsin Outside

Yellowstone Lake State Park
Photo by Friends of Wisconsin State Parks

Lace up your shoes and feel the crisp breeze at your back. Summer may be coming to an end, but your outdoor adventures don’t have to. It’s time to explore Wisconsin’s many fine state parks. Friends of Wisconsin State Parks (FWSP), headquartered at 101 S. Webster Street in Madison, is the nonprofit to thank for keeping our parks in such fine condition. This year marks the statewide organization’s 20th year working toward its mission of preserving, promoting, protecting, and enhancing Wisconsin state parks, forests, trails, and recreation areas.

Within FWSP, there are 82 local Friends chapters based throughout Wisconsin that work on their associated parks, trails, or recreation areas. The local chapters are each 501(c)(3) nonprofits on their own. “We were organized to be the umbrella organization for all the Friends groups in the state,” says Bill Zager, president of FWSP. “From the Dells to St. Croix, Pattison Park’s waterfalls to Devil’s Lake, all the parks have their uniqueness.”

In November, FWSP will have a 20-year celebration and awards banquet at the Holiday Inn and Convention Center in Stevens Point. “’I enjoy being able to help the state parks,” Bill, who has been involved with FWSP since 2008, says. “It’s one of the pristine properties we as taxpayers all own. It’s really something to be able to help the parks be in pristine condition and to promote them. It grows on you.”

Photo provided by Friends of Wisconsin State Parks

FWSP carries out its mission through the following:

• Preserve: FWSP sponsors the annual Work Play Earth Day projects around the state in April, where volunteers and members complete projects and clean up state parks, forests, trails, and recreation areas.

• Promote: FWSP funds projects and issues grants to local chapters for educational programs and interpretive projects across Wisconsin parks, forests, trails, and recreation areas.

• Protect: FWSP advocates on state park system issues in an effort to protect Wisconsin’s state park, forest, trail, and recreation area properties, and also hosts summit meetings around the state to inform and support local chapters.

• Enhance: FWSP funds tree and flower projects at park offices and high visibility areas for the enjoyment of park visitors, and chapters also use grant funding for projects that enhance parks, forests, and trails.

FWSP often receives information from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and disperses it to local chapters. In November, the organization will have an all-day workshop where experts from across the county will speak on subjects, such as fundraising or promotions, for representatives of local chapters. The FWSP board meets four times a year along with additional executive board meetings.

Bill joined FWSP simply because he developed an interest in Wisconsin’s parks. Bill, who lives in Amery, was involved with Friends of Stower Seven Lakes State Trail stretching to St. Croix Falls, and continues to be involved with the chapter. He became FWSP president two years ago. “When I volunteer on our local trail, I run into people,” he says. “I met a guy who had a trailer on his bike, and he said he was heading home. I asked where that is, and he said Omaha, Nebraska.”

Photo provided by Friends of Wisconsin State Parks

Bill also met a group of East Coast high school students riding their bikes from California back to the East Coast, raising money for disabled veterans. “It’s always interesting,” he says. “Seeing things like that fires you up.”

After attending several state park national conferences, Bill has noticed volunteerism seems different for today’s youth than it was for his generation. “Nationwide, the younger generation seems to want to volunteer for projects, like a specific clean-up day,” he says. “They don’t want to join the organization.”

FWSP has a core group of members in addition to a larger email list of potential volunteers. Groups report volunteer hours they have worked. In 2014, FWSP had 7,000 volunteers who served about 154,000 hours in the state. “Wisconsin has dedicated volunteers,” Bill says. “But we are always in need. The individual parks are where the majority of volunteering is done.”

For those who want to make a financial donation, it can be done in a general amount or toward specific items, such as flowers for a park entrance. FWSP also helps with naturalist programs, providing the training and education programs at the parks.

Photo provided by Friends of Wisconsin State Parks

Patricia Loosen, executive director of FWSP, says having the headquarters in Madison works well because of the organization’s relationship with the DNR parks bureau and other collaborative partners located in Madison. Nearby Madison parks include Mirror Lake State Park and Devil’s Lake State Park, both in Baraboo, and Lake Kegonsa in Stoughton. Adventure goers also can walk Capital Springs State Recreation Area in Madison, along with Capital City State Trail and a portion of the Badger State Trail.

“As people in Madison use those trails and state park facilities, they tell people about it,” Bill says. “A lot of the park users are quiet people, but it’s important everyone knows how much these trails and parks get used. I encourage communication.” Bill suggests informing the DNR and local government officials. “We are proud of the parks, and we want to keep them the way they are.”

FWSP’s photo contest will be open until August 31. A committee chooses the best photos and the winning images appear in a calendar that is included in Natural Resources Magazine . The photographers also are recognized at the annual awards banquet.

Chelsey Dequaine is the social media/community specialist for designCraft Advertising and a freelance writer.