For the past 25 years, something special has been happening on the 20 acres at Aldo Leopold Nature Center (ALNC) in Monona. It’s magical actually, and it can’t be found in any book or on a website. It has to be experienced and explored. It’s intriguing, beautiful, and awe inspiring all at once.
When a child recognizes a groundhog running down the trail into tall prairie grass or watches a monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis for the first time, a bond is created—a curiosity sparked. When a family hikes to the pond dock and, using a net from their Trailside Backpack, pulls a squirming tadpole from the water, shared experiences are generated, sparking memories that can last a lifetime.
ALNC nurtures countless connections every day through environmental education programs that engage; educate; and, in turn, empower south central Wisconsin children, their families, and community members with the numerous benefits that connecting to the natural world provides. These experiences foster admiration and respect for nature and encourage sustainability and stewardship of the land.
This year, ALNC is proud to celebrate 25 years of cultivating connections with the natural world. But where did it all begin? What changes have been witnessed by the old oaks and hickories that stand watch over our grounds? How did the reclaimed prairie, pond, and basswood forest come to be essential teaching tools about our fascinating, ever-changing world?
The land has always been special. Ho-Chunk (Hoocąk) occupied the Four Lakes (Teejop) area of Dane County for thousands of years. With respect for the land, their ancestors, and future generations, the Ho-Chunk cultivated native vegetation for food, gathered water, and speared fish in the lakes and rivers. We recognize and honor those who have long called this land home and remain part of our community.
One hundred years ago, in place of the nature center stood Morningside Tuberculosis Sanitarium. For over 50 years, the grounds served as a healing sanctuary for recovering children and adult patients. When the sanitarium closed in the early 1970s, the L. R. Head Nature Center was established and visited by school groups and members of both the Monona and Madison communities. Over time, the organization evolved into the Sand County Foundation, and in the early 1990s, the foundation decided to sell the property and use the revenue to support its mission.
Those who had come to love this land and its wild inhabitants knew the land must be conserved. Many passionate and forward-thinking Monona residents organized a campaign, and after extensive negotiations, the City of Monona purchased the land with a stipulation that a nature center be located on the site.
During negotiations to purchase the property, local leaders were simultaneously working to establish what would become the ALNC. Terry Kelly agreed to be president and, along with Nina Leopold Bradley, Aldo Leopold’s eldest daughter, worked with other local leaders to establish a board of directors. In 1994, ALNC was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. With a generous gift from the charitable arm of the Pleasant Company, ALNC began establishing programs that in many ways continue today.
Since its humble beginning in a converted greenhouse, the programs and offerings of ALNC have evolved. Over the past two and a half decades, the nature center has grown from serving 4,000 visitors a year in 1994 to over 70,000 in 2018. In addition to expanded summer camp and field trip programs, ALNC offers Vacation Day, Homeschool, Wonder Bugs preschool, and Scouts programs as well as birthday parties; activities and exhibits for walk-in visitors; wedding and corporate rentals; and a wide variety of family-friendly public events, such as Pipers in the Prairie, Fall Fest, and Maple Syrup Fest.
With additional program offerings and ever-increasing numbers of visitors, ALNC has needed to expand its facility throughout the years. The converted greenhouse was replaced by the original building in 1997, providing necessary classroom and administrative space. In 2012, with a growing demand for services, ALNC unveiled an 11,000-square-foot addition to add a Climate Education Center, including Science on a Sphere and Blue Marble Immersion Theaters.
Five years later, following extensive strategic planning, ALNC affirmed its mission in the spirit of Aldo Leopold: to engage and educate current and future generations, empowering them to respect, protect, and enjoy the natural world. In addition to strengthening core programming, the nature center knew that expanding equitable access to both the grounds and programming was imperative for its continued success and relevance in the community.
Today, ALNC is expanding access in a variety of ways. In addition to increased scholarship offerings, taking the Wonder Bugs preschool program on the road, enacting inclusive organizational policies and language, and improving access to hiking trails, ALNC began a remodel in 2018 that will create accessible indoor and outdoor learning labs, providing much-needed classroom space for a variety of programs, including a nature preschool.
What truly makes ALNC special, however, is not the building itself, the number of programs offered, or even the beautiful land—it’s the environmental educators who build connections with students and the natural world. It’s the dedicated members and gracious donors who know the importance of places like ALNC and support its environmental education programs and mission. It’s the Leopold legacy and the importance of connecting with and caring for the earth. It’s the pure joy and wonder on a child’s face when she sees the sandhill cranes with their colts or watches a bee collect pollen from a purple coneflower. It’s the desire to learn, to experience, and to preserve this place year after year.
Over ALNC’s past 25 years, countless connections have been sparked between children and the natural world—instilling life-long wonder and respect for nature—and all of these connections began with the natural magic that occurs in the prairie, pond, and forests of ALNC. Thanks to our founders, supporters, members, volunteers, staff, and community, ALNC will continue to foster these experiences through discovery, exploration, and learning for the next 25 years and beyond.
Cara Erickson is the marketing & communications manager at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.