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Wisconsin Strategy Initiatives: A History of Impact

The view of the confluence between the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers is a good reminder that the health of our lands and people rely upon healthy aquatic ecosystems, resilient rural communities, and clean energy.
The view of the confluence between the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers is a good reminder that the health of our lands and people rely upon healthy aquatic ecosystems, resilient rural communities, and clean energy.

Introduction • By Jane Elder

Initiative. It’s a noun that implies impetus and action. Over the last twenty years, the Academy has marshaled its unique capacities as a convening organization at the intersection of science and culture to provide what conservation biologist Curt Meine describes as “civic leadership at the statewide level.” We have embraced deep deliberation across a wide swath of expertise to focus attention on, and find promising strategies to address, three large-scale Wisconsin challenges since 2000: the health of our waters, the vitality of our farmlands and rural communities, and the role Wisconsin can play in addressing climate change.

Falling under the umbrella of Wisconsin Strategy Initiatives, these large-scale projects are the Wisconsin Idea in action, seeking out knowledge from science and other “ways of knowing” to engage Wisconsin citizens, communities, and a cross-section of the private and public sectors for a lively exchange of ideas—all in the quest to find a way forward through the complex challenges we face.   

The following stories share the journey and the impact of our three major Wisconsin Strategy Initiatives. What strikes me about each story is the willingness and commitment of people from all walks of life to step up and lead. These individuals have volunteered their time, effort, and wisdom because they know how important these three challenges are to the well-being of our state—its people, and the lands and waters upon which we depend. These volunteers have worked with Wisconsin Academy staff (myself included) to take on daunting and extraordinarily complex challenges, because they care and because they have something to offer that contributes to a solution. They also do it because they believe in the power of collaboration and understand that it takes multiple perspectives to see things in new ways.

It’s hard to imagine the hundreds of hours that these thoughtful and diligent volunteers—people who care about, and think about, a better future—have invested in the Wisconsin Strategy Initiatives over the years. These three projects have attracted people who understand that science matters, as do culture and community, when it comes to making choices about our shared future. The Wisconsin Academy is honored to have been able to turn their collective imagination into action.


The Waters of Wisconsin • By Curt Meine

Twenty years ago, as today, water issues regularly hit the news headlines across Wisconsin. Climate change and algal blooms. Polluted runoff and contaminated wells. Degraded wetlands and shoreline development. Threatened aquatic species disappearing and invasive ones taking over. Drawn-down aquifers and looming Great Lakes withdrawals. Rather than regard these and other concerns as isolated, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters began a process that sought to address our relationship with water in a way that reflected the nature of water itself: connected, complex, and comprehensive.

From 2000 to 2003, the Academy led an ambitious effort to review the status and needs of Wisconsin’s water resources and aquatic ecosystems. The Waters of Wisconsin initiative, which everyone involved simply called “WOW,” aimed to consider the big picture and take the long view of our state’s waters. In establishing the Waters of Wisconsin initiative in 2000, the Academy sought to use its institutional strengths—and the community of people eager to share knowledge and ideas—to serve the people of Wisconsin.

WOW was envisioned as the pilot project for a new Academy program, the Wisconsin Idea at the Wisconsin Academy (today known as the Wisconsin Strategy Initiatives). The “idea” was that, in a time of increasingly challenging issues at the intersection of science and policy, the Wisconsin Academy could become a home for science-based input to the public policy process. As an independent and state-chartered institution, the Academy could bring together civic, scientific, and academic leaders to investigate difficult issues facing the state.

The model was tried and true, proven to get results when applied to large, nebulous problems. The National Academy of Sciences, established in 1863, just seven years before the Wisconsin Academy, served this function at the national level. National Academy committees regularly bring together leading scientific experts to inform Congress, federal agencies, and the public on questions of national importance. Invariably, scientists are honored to play this role in serving the public. Why couldn’t the Wisconsin Academy be a home to such an endeavor here?

The Wisconsin Academy has in fact had a long history of such service. However, this new initiative had a more recent point of origin. In 1999, the Wisconsin Academy organized and hosted a major conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Aldo Leopold’s conservation classic, A Sand County Almanac. The event drew hundreds of people from around the state and beyond to Madison, suggesting to the organization’s staff and supporters that the Academy had new opportunities to take on civic leadership at the statewide level.

To consider these opportunities, then-Academy director Robert Lange brought together a group of Wisconsin civic leaders: former governor Tony Earl, University of Wisconsin–Madison’s legislative liaison (and later Academy director) Margaret Lewis, state AFL-CIO president David Newby, and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce president James Haney. This diverse group met informally over breakfast at the Edgewater Hotel in Madison, and soon began to refer to themselves as The Edgewater Group. All appreciated the role that the Academy could play, especially in a time of growing political polarization. Over several meetings, the group discussed possible topics that the Academy might take on.

Perhaps it was the view of Lake Mendota out the window, but over several breakfasts the group found itself returning regularly to the theme of water. It made sense. Water played to the strengths of the Academy. Water had coursed through the Academy’s history ever since its founding. The first volume of the Academy’s scientific journal Transactions, published in 1872, included articles on the geology of Devil’s Lake, “the ancient lakes of Wisconsin,” and the “deep-water fauna” of Lake Michigan. Water connected the sciences, arts, and letters. Wisconsin commanded worldwide respect for its contributions to the freshwater sciences and for its institutions involved in water stewardship. At the same time, communities around the state faced pressing issues involving water quality and quantity that affected both groundwater and surface waters. The Great Lakes Charter (which later became the Great Lakes Compact) was being drafted. Water, it seemed, was the perfect medium for demonstrating how the Academy could serve Wisconsin in new ways.

As the Academy’s Director of Conservation Programs, I served as the director of the WOW Initiative. Drawing support and encouragement from the Academy Board and my fellow staff members, WOW coalesced around a committee of twenty Wisconsin citizens representing varied fields of scientific knowledge, professional backgrounds, regions of the state, and water interests. At the heart of the committee were three respected co-chairs who could motivate others to come aboard and contribute time, expertise, and other resources. Steve Born, an internationally recognized leader in water policy, had recently retired from the UW–Madison. Pat Leavenworth was serving as State Conservationist for the Wisconsin office of the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, where she oversaw programs vital to the stewardship of the state’s private lands and waters. John Magnuson, also recently retired after leading the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s renowned Center for Limnology, brought his expertise as one of the world’s preeminent students of freshwater ecosystems.  

As WOW’s committee came together, so did its mission: “The initiative will, through a process of informed discussion, examine and analyze the current state and long-term sustainability of Wisconsin’s waters.” In pursuing that mission, the committee considered the generations to come. Among the goals was to outline a vision of a sustainable future for Wisconsin’s waters along with recommendations and strategies needed to achieve this vision by 2075. That 2075 reference point was a deliberate choice—we wanted a target date that would stretch our imaginations, deploy our best scientific judgment, and highlight our intergenerational responsibilities.

To meet these ambitious aims, we deviated somewhat from the National Academy model of scientific studies. In particular, we opened the process to as wide a circle of participants as we could by establishing an advisory network that included more than three hundred citizens around Wisconsin. We developed partnerships with dozens of water-related organizations and communicated regularly with media outlets, elected representatives, businesses, and professional and nonprofit groups. In connection with committee meetings, we organized seven open public forums in communities across Wisconsin, from La Crosse to Milwaukee to Ashland, exploring water themes especially relevant in those communities. Along the way, we welcomed the arts, stories, and song into our meetings. The concluding conference at Monona Terrace pulled together all these tributaries of public engagement and creative expression. 

In all these ways, we kept water science at the heart of our work while inviting diverse voices and perspectives, connecting with as many water-interested citizens and institutions as we could manage. This commitment—to allow conversation to flow between the Wisconsin Academy and our fellow citizens—was more demanding and time-consuming than a National Academy project might be. But we felt that this investment in process was as important as whatever results we might produce. Just as water connected us across Wisconsin, so, we felt, should we work to sustain our waters by connecting people.

The State of Our Waters

In April 2003 the Academy released the WOW committee’s report, Waters of Wisconsin: The Future of Our Aquatic Ecosystems and Resources. The report reflected the findings of four WOW working groups that focused on the status of, and trends affecting, Wisconsin’s waters; scenarios for Wisconsin’s water future; water values and principles for sustaining our waters; and water policies.

In the report, the committee proposed a series of priority actions to put Wisconsin on a path to water sustainability. First, we called upon the governor, state legislature, and tribes to work together to establish a Wisconsin Water Policy Task Force to outline steps toward a comprehensive state water policy. Second, understanding that education is central to civic life and good decision-making, we encouraged the state’s educators, at all levels, to enhance water education programs. Third, we urged the state’s government agencies and partners to maintain and improve Wisconsin’s already strong water monitoring network and to coordinate and communicate water information more effectively. Finally, we recommended that water management decisions—in both the public and private sector—be informed by a set of sustainability principles and guided by a water ethic that embraces the sciences but also considers cultural, moral, and religious attitudes toward water.

The WOW report’s summary concluded with a statement that reflected the project’s recognition of essential water connections and our core commitment to the future:

We should not expect that we can address all our water challenges easily or quickly, or that we can anticipate all the water problems that future generations will confront. We can, however, begin to act on recognition of the connections that characterize water—between the waters of the atmosphere, surface waters, and groundwater; between human uses and ecosystem needs; between water quality and water quantity; between Wisconsin and our neighbors; between our generation and generations yet to come. Recognizing those connections, we can better prepare the way for future stewards of Wisconsin’s waters. In so doing, we should pause, too, to refresh ourselves, and remember to celebrate the great gift of the waters.

Reading these words now, one might hear echoes of ancestral voices of those indigenous peoples who had kept and honored Wisconsin’s waters for millennia, and of the Wisconsin Academy founders who sought to bring knowledge together to serve the state. You might also hear a chorus of voices from the generations of Wisconsin citizens, scientists, and conservationists who have worked on behalf of its waters. WOW and its participants were in good company. 

The WOW project yielded immediate and tangible results. Even as WOW was wrapping up its work, Governor Scott McCallum designated 2003 as the “Year of Water” in Wisconsin, a commitment that Governor James Doyle reaffirmed upon assuming office that year. This opened up opportunities for civic engagement and education throughout the state. WOW’s findings informed new state groundwater protection and wetland conservation legislation, as well as the multi-state and -province negotiations that resulted in the 2008 Great Lakes Compact.

In many ways, WOW was able to bolster the efforts of project partners as well. The WOW process helped to expand collaborative water monitoring efforts and access to water policy information. In 2001 Wisconsin’s eleven Native American Tribes, along with WOW co-chair Pat Leavenworth, established the Wisconsin Tribal Conservation Advisory Council. This council provided a new avenue for cooperation between the tribes and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and was the first such council to be formed in the country.

These and other outcomes of WOW were gratifying. But we also intended for the work of WOW to stand the test of time and to serve as a benchmark for understanding changes in both Wisconsin’s waters and its water stewardship actions. In the years that followed, we could trace many positive developments. For example, the 2003 WOW report highlighted the growing need for a shared water ethic, asserting that “water stewardship is … an expression of ethical responsibility to fellow citizens, to downstream users, to future generations, and to the larger community of life.” Since then, attentiveness to water ethics has grown dramatically, not only in Wisconsin but around the world. Today local citizens and communities in Wisconsin actively draw on this ethic, providing water leadership from the Bad River to Kewaunee County to the Lake Michigan shore. 

Looking back, we must also acknowledge less positive developments. It is no secret that Wisconsin has gone through a period of political retrenchment in which our bipartisan tradition of land and water stewardship has been badly eroded. Ideology has served to divide and distract, and science—in the public sphere and in the policy-making process—has been demoted and even denigrated. It is especially troubling that this came to pass during such a critical period, when Wisconsin was positioned to strengthen our water future and institutions—and needed to do so.

Over the last two decades, existing water problems have intensified, and new concerns have emerged. Contamination of groundwater supplies has become acute in vulnerable landscapes across Wisconsin. Global climate change is expressing itself in Wisconsin through recurring episodes of extreme precipitation and flooding. Lakes Superior and Michigan are now experiencing historically high water levels. The suite of artificial compounds known as PFAs (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are now being scrutinized for their occurrence and health impacts. Yet, we still tend to treat these as isolated issues, and the state still has no comprehensive water policy framework to guide Wisconsin toward a healthier, more resilient water future.

With these hard political and hydrological realities in mind, the Wisconsin Academy in 2012 again called together citizens, scientists, and civic leaders to review the changing status of waters in Wisconsin and to assess progress since the original WOW project. Many of the original participants took part, along with many newcomers who could build on our earlier efforts. The groundwork that WOW provided now seemed, unexpectedly, more important than ever. At a time when support for science in making sound policy choices was lacking, the Wisconsin Academy again offered itself up as an independent and non-partisan space for finding a way forward.

Out of the Dark, Into the Light

Over the next three years, the Academy again convened water stakeholders, engaged water experts, and hosted public discussions. In 2016 the Academy published its findings in the report Shifting Currents: Progress, Setbacks, and Shifts in Policy and Practice. The comprehensive report tallied up gains and losses in water outcomes over the prior decade. Some of its recommendations addressed needs that remained unmet or inadequately addressed: develop an integrated water management framework; control nutrient pollution; safeguard drinking water; manage invasive species; apply watershed-scale strategies. Other recommendations spoke to changing conditions and stresses: invest in water literacy; modernize water infrastructure; plan for climate change; commit to transparency and public participation. As important as its specific findings were, the most important result of “WOW 2.0” (as the renewed effort was sometimes labeled) was that it carried the Academy’s commitment forward. The chain of connection, from 1870 to the present, remained unbroken.

At a time when science-based policymaking was challenged in Wisconsin, the Shifting Currents report was not reticent in calling out the most dire concern, which reached well beyond the many issues involving water: “The value of evidence, data, and scientific perspectives appears to be less salient in Wisconsin’s policy-making than in the past. Management of water resources and related public policy will be more effective and longer lasting when informed by science.” For a century and a half, the Wisconsin Academy has worked to put scientific knowledge and information to work in the public interest of all the people of Wisconsin—and to recognize that our well-being depends on the health of Wisconsin’s lands and waters. The Waters of Wisconsin program took this legacy seriously and made the Wisconsin Idea as real as rain. When science was made suspect and public debate fell into the shadows, the Wisconsin Academy persevered.

Water again, as always, finds itself in the headlines of the day. A new governor has declared 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water.” A newly attentive state legislature established a bipartisan Water Quality Task Force that has proposed new legislation. At the same time, extreme rain events have occurred with devastating frequency across the state, destroying croplands, roads, and homes. Groundwater quality and rules for siting livestock facilities are matters of intensified debate.

There is never a dull moment when it comes to water in Wisconsin. The question is: Can we take these moments, see patterns, adapt to change, and, in caretaking our waters, do our best to honor those who came before us— and those who will follow?


The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin • By Bill Berry

The time was right. It was 2005, and rural Wisconsin was being buffeted by change. Some of it was good, like the growth of local and regional foods produced by small farmers. But much of it was bad—bad for farmers, for rural communities, and for Wisconsin. Prime farmland was being developed for residential and commercial uses at an alarming rate, and dairy farms were rapidly disappearing from country roads. Rural communities from the north to the south of the state struggled as people—especially young people—moved away, downtown storefronts were shuttered, and public schools and hospitals barely managed to keep their doors open.

The future of rural life in Wisconsin seemed to be in question. But one question often led to another: How can we make vibrant and healthy rural communities? What can people who live in urban areas do to support our rural communities? In an era of global, interconnected trade, where do small Wisconsin farms and farmers fit in? How is immigration changing the face of rural Wisconsin, and where will the next generation of rural leaders come from? 

Recognizing that the challenges faced by rural communities have statewide implications, the Wisconsin Academy and a handful of rural leaders came together to try to answer some of these difficult questions. The Academy tapped Stan Gruszynski, Tom Lyon, and Wilda Nilsestuen to lead a nearly three-year initiative called The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin. The goal was to explore issues of vital importance to rural communities and develop a set of recommendations to provide guidance and understanding for citizens, community leaders, and policymakers. The effort ultimately led to a final report with more than 80 recommendations. But, as important as that report was, the community that formed around the initiative turned out to be even more crucial to addressing these issues that touch every aspect of our lives, regardless of where we live in the state.

A Focus on the Rural

In 2005 Stan Gruszynski was director of the Global Environmental Management Education Center’s Rural Leadership and Development Program at UW–Stevens Point. Gruszynski also served on the Wisconsin Academy Board, and he often spoke with then-executive director Mike Strigel about the potential for the next major Academy initiative—after the successful Waters of Wisconsin—to focus on the rural. Gruszynski suggested that Strigel talk to Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Rod Nilsestuen (brother of Future of Farming project manager Wilda Nilsestuen), who had his finger on the pulse of the most pressing rural issues.

It was at Nilsestuen’s office that Strigel got to know Tom Lyon, the former president of Cooperative Resources International in Shawano who was enjoying a second career at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade , and Consumer Protection, serving as senior advisor to Secretary Nilsestuen. Lyon explained to Strigel that “there was a belief among many involved in Wisconsin agriculture and its rural communities that such an assessment [of farming and rural life] was needed.” 

As the plan for an initiative around farming and rural life began to pick up steam at the Academy, support was building in other quarters. UW–Madison rural sociologist Jack Kloppenburg and a few others at the UW began calling for the Academy to respond to issues revealed through their research. While Spring Green farmer and longtime rural leader Dick Cates, Cochrane dairy farmer John Rosenow, and others in the ag community signaled a readiness to join forces with a powerful convener and distributor of ideas like the Academy.

Some were suspicious, however. Why trust this academic-sounding place in Madison to help solve problems in rural communities hundreds of miles away? Moreover, who was going to pay for this broad examination of rural issues?

The Wisconsin Academy built a lot of trust and good will with its Waters of Wisconsin initiative and had a history of tracking and responding to large, intractable issues of statewide importance. Founded in 1870 as a place for sharing ideas that benefit the entire state, the Academy seemed a logical choice for a fair and independent assessment of rural issues and potential solutions. Moreover, the Academy had a magazine, an art gallery, a series of public lectures, and other tools with which to help share ideas surrounding such a nebulous project. 

After careful consideration by the Academy Board and staff, and not without some concern about the project’s cost, the Wisconsin Academy reached out to Gruszynski and Lyon to set The Future of Farming and Rural Life initiative in motion. The two co-chairs had both compiled impressive resumes working in government, higher education, and the private sector. Yet both were farm boys who never gave up their abiding interest in rural issues. Gruszynski promised to bring resources to the table from the Global Environmental Management Initiative at UW–Stevens Point. Lyon would be called upon to reach out to his deep contacts in the agricultural industry and rural sector for financial support. Wilda Nilsestuen, a Wisconsin native and Rod Nilsestuen’s sister, joined as the Future of Farming initiative project manager in 2005. Like Gruszynski and Lyon, she had deep rural roots, growing up on a Trempealeau County dairy farm in a family of high achievers. Nilsestuen had honed her program-planning skills on the East Coast before returning to her home state and eagerly took on a leadership role.

Confronting Change with Conversation

Drawing on their own expertise and that of a committed coordinating committee, the initiative team identified four key areas for analysis: production agriculture, food systems, land and water resources, and resilience for rural communities. But within these areas, major subcategories also emerged. Immigrant labor, for instance, played a huge role in production agriculture discussions. But immigration was also a consideration when it came to community resilience, as were education and health care.

Because these were statewide issues, the Academy made a conscious decision to take the discussion directly to the people. The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin initiative went public in early 2006 with the first of six regional forums. The initiative relied on extensive media and organizational outreach to include as wide a range of participants as possible. If someone chose not to participate, it wasn’t for the lack of an invitation. “We said all voices to the table, and we meant it,” says Wilda Nilsestuen.

The forums brought farmers and local producers together with initiative leaders, researchers, and experts in public policy to talk about what was working and what wasn’t in communities across the state. The Academy quickly realized that citizens were eager to dig in on tough issues and willing to participate in day-long conversations primed by expert speakers.

The regional forum themes included land use and working lands issues, which packed the Oconomowoc Lake Club in southeast Wisconsin. Forum participants in Neenah learned about effective rural healthcare cooperatives and how new technologies can drive educational innovation. In Wausau, production agriculture considerations led to one of the first public forums on the expanding need for immigrant labor on Wisconsin farms and in other rural businesses. In Ashland, the themes were aligned with needs in the north, including national forests, timber and wood production, recreation, and tourism. In Menomonie, the focus was on food systems and innovation, including the potential of robust local and regional food systems and the impediments to future growth.

In keeping with the Wisconsin Academy’s mission, the initiative made a point of highlighting the arts and letters at the regional forums as well as the culminating state conference, “Our Future, Our Heritage,” in May 2007. There were performances by musicians, ranging from the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society and the Big Top Chautauqua’s Blue Canvas Orchestra in Madison to the Mudd Creek bluegrass band in Neenah. In Ashland, author Ben Logan, a nationally known rural literary icon, read a moving excerpt from his 1975 classic, The Land Remembers: A Story of a Farm and Its People. The Academy’s magazine, Wisconsin People & Ideas, was employed to further expand on key project themes, and the “Our Future, Our Heritage” conference in Madison was timed to coincide with Wisconsin’s People on the Land, an art exhibit at the Academy’s James Watrous Gallery. And, if food is art, then it was hard to top chef Jack Kaestner’s elaborate lunch at the Oconomowoc forum, which featured locally grown foods. 

Indeed, local food and drink were prime ingredients at forum lunches and snack times, and at day’s end, there might be a sampler of craft beer or wine and some local artisan cheese. The Academy strove to provide an immersive and interconnected experience for participants, and local and regional producers were often on hand to meet with participants face-to-face. It was rural Wisconsin through and through, including Stan Gruszynski’s funny and always poignant vignettes about growing up in rural Wisconsin.

Throughout this process, Academy and initiative leadership worked hard to ensure that the forums and related issues received considerable media attention. It was important to all involved that these issues made their way to newspapers and radio and TV stations across the state. Project leaders held editorial board sessions from Milwaukee to Eau Claire and appeared on television and radio broadcasts, some of them statewide. That furthered the dialogue and served to amplify to a larger audience the key themes that emerged in the initiative. The Capital Times newspaper made its editorial pages open to the initiative monthly for a year to host op-ed columns by initiative participants. The Academy’s Future of Farming and Rural Life website recorded heavy traffic, not just in Wisconsin but around the country, as other states with intractable rural issues sought answers and best practices.

“Our Future, Our Heritage,” drew more than five hundred participants to the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, where plenary sessions for each of the four main project areas summarized the recommendations that would eventually make their way into the final report. Participants pored over the findings and in some cases suggested revisions, additions, and deletions. Round tables on dozens of topics were used to gain even more input. Cultural events and, of course, more local food and drink were provided at meals and breaks.

Recommendations and Outcomes

Coffee urns churned out Wilda Nilsestuen’s hearty “Norwegian coffee” as the Academy’s Steenbock Center was turned into a large-group meeting room where advisory teams worked for months to sort and sift the carefully recorded input from the forums and conference. The painstaking process gave shape to a book-length report published by the Academy in Fall 2007, The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin, which was chock-full of (as the subtitle suggests) “findings, recommendations, and steps to a healthy future.” 

Some recommendations from the report produced significant policy changes. Project manager Wilda Nilsestuen cites the issue of rural healthcare, for instance, where many of the major strides that have taken place among healthcare cooperatives and other entities in recent years can be traced back to the Future of Farming initiative. Following the report, the Wisconsin Collaborative for Rural Graduate Medical Education program was established by the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative. Funded by a state grant, the program focuses on addressing the shortage of rural primary care physicians through the expansion of graduate medical education. 

In other cases, such as farmland protection, the report recommendations led directly to policy change. Looking back today, Future of Farming co-chair Tom Lyon says that the most important area of the initiative was the work done on land use. “Farmland was being gobbled up by commercial and residential development, and people weren’t thinking about it,” says Lyon. “The initiative played a pretty substantial role in supplementing what [Rod] Nilsestuen was trying to do with revising state farmland preservation rules.” 

In 2009 the state’s farmland preservation program underwent complete revision, with major pieces drawing language directly from the report. Among other changes traced back to the report was a new program that gave local citizens more say over how to protect the best farmland in their counties. The program also allowed for establishment of Agricultural Enterprise Areas to further identify and protect farmland. Millions of acres of farmland across the state were affected by these changes. 

In some cases, the Future of Farming initiative served to encourage robust discussion about the challenges at both the community and leadership levels. Indeed, many of the issues raised during the initiative eluded simple answers and needed the kinds of dialogue that took place to produce action later. 

“Social issues like immigration had pretty much escaped public attention,” recalls initiative co-chair Gruszynski. But when the initiative focused on production agriculture’s challenges, the need for immigrant labor and the need for a solution to residency emerged. “We really brought immigrant labor issues out of the closet,” Gruszynski said. “People knew about it, but farmers weren’t really talking about it. We raised these social issues. With issues like immigration and health care, you’re not going to find solutions unless you talk about values, and we did that.”

The initiative’s simple recommendation for immigrant labor—Advocate for an effective federal documented worker program—is as valid today as it was in 2007. The report also recommended training programs to help address a labor shortage in the agricultural sector. According to the University of Wisconsin Extension Dairy Team, hired labor is supporting about two-thirds of the milk production in Wisconsin today. Much of that labor is concentrated on large farms—the number of which continues to grow as the number of small farms decreases. To help stem the loss of farms, the report recommended favorable tax treatment for working farms. In subsequent years the state legislature has made changes to tax policy, easing property tax and state tax burdens on farmland. 

These tax changes are recognized as progress that was advanced by the report recommendations. But the strain on farms and farmlands has continued, especially for mid-sized operations. In 1935, Wisconsin had 200,000 farms of all types. Today there are about 68,700. When Wisconsin started tracking dairy farms in 1950, the state had 143,000. After years of steep declines, today the number of dairy farms is around 8,000—and it seems to shrink almost daily. 

The initiative wasn’t the first to bring attention to the growing importance of local and regional food systems. But it gave them statewide attention and recommended steps to further their growth. As Gruszynski notes:

We gave some of the first real attention to the idea of rural people being able to develop alternative businesses and industries that were spin offs from what you would call traditional agriculture. We drew attention to large businesses like Organic Valley and small local food businesses and farms that were starting up all over. To me, what we were doing was not only drawing focus to rural Wisconsin, but we were opening the door to new opportunities.

In some cases, the report found impediments to these new businesses and offered solutions. For instance, the report recommended changes in federal rules so that small- and medium-sized meat processors could more easily sell their products across state lines. The businesses had been banned from that because they didn’t have enough federal inspectors to issue approvals. The rules were changed at the federal level, and now state inspections are seen as adequate. The report recommended extensive public education about the importance of local and regional food systems to overall food security. State lawmakers have since approved a number of measures, but the growth of local and regional foods is also a testament to the work of food advocates who took matters into their own hands, with little or no help from government or the food industry. Regional farmshed organizations, community-supported agriculture farms, and farmers' markets have proliferated. Today it is truly possible to “know your farmer” in much of Wisconsin. And, based on statistics, it’s likely that in the future that farmer will be a millennial.

Encompassing all of these issues are themes of rural resilience, and the report did much to advance awareness around key generational issues. On teacher shortages, declining student populations, and other problems faced by rural schools, Gruszynski recalls how the initiative “contributed to the realization that … we had to begin to talk about what to do.” Recent changes in the way the state funds public education reflect some of the report recommendations with regard to rural schools. But the changes fall short of the more sweeping school funding changes and other recommendations the report envisioned, such as providing incentives to districts that consolidate administration and finding ways to share education programming. These recommendations, like many in the report, remain valid today. 

Likewise, the study’s rural healthcare recommendations focused on addressing the alarming deficiencies in rural mental and dental healthcare. Some who formerly couldn’t access care did so with the Affordable Care Act and enhanced BadgerCare opportunities. In some cases, community collaborations have led to dental clinics for low-income people. But many of the endemic issues, like a shortage of rural care providers, remain challenging. 

All three initiative leaders  were moved by the glaring weaknesses in rural healthcare delivery. “It kept surfacing,” Lyon said. Time and again, participants heard that rural healthcare was often unaffordable and, in many cases, unavailable at any cost. “Prevalent in our findings was the lack of health services in general and dental and mental health and diabetes in particular,” recalls Lyon. Forum participants heard that in many farm families, at least one member had to take work elsewhere just to provide health insurance for the family.

Looking back today at the three-year course of this extraordinary initiative, it’s clear that there’s a lot more work to be done to secure a sustainable future for farming and rural life in Wisconsin. To guide our thoughts and actions, we can find no better advice than that of author Jerry Apps. In his concluding essay to the 2007 The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin report, Apps writes, 

We owe it to those who follow us to be intelligent decision makers, to be deliberate and careful as we move forward, remembering always that caring for the land is where we start, and caring for each other must quickly follow.


Climate & Energy • By Chelsea Chandler

As we celebrate the Wisconsin Academy’s 150th anniversary, I can’t help but ponder what our state will look like in another 150 years. As I look to my baby daughter and the seedlings I plant on my farm each spring, I see so much growth, promise, and boundless potential for a thriving future.

This future is clouded, however, by threats from our changing climate.

Will we succumb to inaction and indifference, waiting until it is too late? Or will we rise to the climate challenge, come together, and mobilize to build the healthier future that our children, our state, and our world need?

The scientific consensus is that our climate is changing, it’s driven by human activity, and we have an ever-shortening window in which to act to avoid catastrophe. Scientists aren’t sugar-coating it. Even if we act to mitigate the damage we’ve already set in motion, we’re still looking at living on a more inhospitable planet in the future. In fact, from the massive wildfires devastating Australia to the floods wreaking havoc here in Wisconsin, we’re starting to experience this new global reality today. Those working on climate change—from advocacy groups and the media to elected officials and the United Nations—are increasingly substituting terms like “climate crisis” and “climate emergency” in order to better capture the urgency of this global threat.

It’s not exactly a hopeful message.

But, to paraphrase NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel, what we need is not hope, but courage. Courage is knowing we can’t totally fix the problem, but also that we can’t give up and run away from it. Courage is grieving, accepting that we can’t undo all of our mistakes and set things back to the way they used to be. Courage is acknowledging the reality that our children’s lives probably won’t look quite as we thought they would, while resolving to do everything in our power to make them as happy and healthy as possible.

The story of how the Academy came to work on climate change and clean energy in Wisconsin is one of courage. It’s a story of how a committed group of people came together to chart a course forward to advance climate solutions at a moment in our state history when science was under attack and climate change was for some a dirty word. Recognizing the threat to our people, lands, and waters, and fortified by our successes with the Waters of Wisconsin and Future of Farming initiatives, the Academy dove into another statewide challenge. This time, however, it was a challenge with global implications.

An Initiative is Born

In Spring 2012 the Wisconsin Academy began a project to explore pathways toward a sustainable energy future for Wisconsin and the world. That fall the Academy held a meeting of a dozen or so Wisconsin leaders working on various threads of the climate change challenge, including leaders in energy conservation and efficiency, renewable energy, transportation, and utilities; and a few leaders from faith communities and nonprofits working in energy policy and community action. In preparation for this meeting, the Academy had carefully analyzed who was working on climate change in Wisconsin and created a map of organizations, topics, and leaders in the field. In doing so, we learned there was no statewide coalition on climate change or clean energy, and that many efforts ran in separate channels of leadership and strategy with few if any shared goals. A key person in renewable energy, for example, might never have collaborated with an expert in transportation or energy efficiency. At that first meeting, the group discussed the potential of pulling together climate leaders for a larger conversation on strategies that could drive progress faster than those developed by organizations working alone. 

The Academy and the group of leaders who would later become the initiative’s steering committee saw an opportunity, and a need, for a neutral nonpartisan convener to create and strengthen connections among regional climate and energy leaders while also stimulating discussion and informing strategy that would move Wisconsin forward. We knew that, even though the topic of climate change was politically controversial, it was urgent to provide a forum for this discussion and exploration. Because climate change and our energy choices are inexorably linked, Academy executive director Jane Elder and the steering committee members dubbed the project the Climate & Energy Initiative.

Just as Wisconsin did not have an interdisciplinary coalition of climate and energy leaders when the Academy developed its network, the state also did not have a comprehensive climate change plan. Therefore, one of the first tasks undertaken by the C&E team was to develop a set of recommendations—what we called a roadmap—to reduce Wisconsin’s greenhouse gas emissions and prepare communities for the impacts of climate change. The C&E team required that all recommendations meet some basic criteria to be meaningful: they had to reduce Wisconsin’s greenhouse gas emissions or support natural carbon storage; embrace the foundations of sustainability (healthy and resilient people, environments, and economies); and offer practical and effective steps to advance clean and sustainable energy production and use.

A New Roadmap for Wisconsin

In collaboration with climate and energy experts across the state, in 2014 the Wisconsin Academy published Climate Forward: A New Road Map for Wisconsin’s Climate and Energy Future. This seminal work distilled recommendations from many of Wisconsin’s thought leaders on five strategic pathways that could lead to vast improvements in energy efficiency, renewable energy, transportation, natural carbon storage, and sustainable business practices. In addition to recommending tactics, the report also profiled a number of cities, businesses, and other organizations that were already in the vanguard of sustainability. These included the City of La Crosse, which has seen a 27% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2008, and Gundersen Health System, a network of clinics based in western Wisconsin that produces more clean energy than it consumes. The list of Wisconsin businesses—from long-haul trucking to convenience store chains—that had begun action to reduce their carbon footprint was as impressive as it was illustrative of how change can be implemented on many levels.

With the completion of the 2014 Climate Forward report, the work of the C&E team could have been a “one-and-done” thing.  But the Academy knew that this had to be a long-term effort. In 2017, the Wisconsin Academy and the C&E steering committee revisited the Climate Forward report recommendations to assess progress, setbacks, and new opportunities that had arisen in the rapidly changing landscape. The 2017 Update acknowledged that there were many examples demonstrating that Wisconsin had fallen behind neighboring states with respect to renewable investments and adoption of climate-smart policies. The report also helped highlight that, driven by customer demand and economics, more businesses and utilities were now planning for a low-carbon future by integrating more renewable energy. Perhaps most notable was the observation that local governments across Wisconsin were no longer waiting for state or federal direction. They had been stepping up to take the lead on climate issues, and their efforts were models that could be replicated and scaled up in municipalities and counties across the state. 

Acting Local

In support of the local efforts highlighted in the 2017 Update, the C&E team organized five regional summits on clean energy and resilience to provide local decision makers and influencers with the tools, knowledge, and resources to support immediate action in their communities. At a time when the state had all but excused itself from climate and energy policy, the Wisconsin Academy encouraged local elected officials, sustainability committees, and citizen leaders to step into prominent climate leadership roles. 

Held in different parts of the state—Stevens Point, Fond du Lac, Platteville, Eau Claire, and Appleton—the summits attracted urban leaders with full staff and resources as well as leaders from rural settings who often wore many hats. Yet we found that regardless of how large their community, many local leaders cited common obstacles, such as limited budgets, competing priorities, and few or no in-house energy experts. By connecting these leaders with others who had already implemented programs like community solar or electric vehicle charging, the Academy helped them to identify best practices, financing mechanisms, and other resources. In addition, we heard again and again how important and encouraging it was for participants to discover that they were not alone, that they were part of a large network of actors working on climate and energy challenges in communities across the state.

At the 2017 summit in Eau Claire, attendees were eager to learn about the city’s freshly announced goal of generating 100% renewable energy for municipal operations by 2050 and for the wider Eau Claire community to become carbon neutral by the same year. The following year at the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Appleton, summit participants were able to tour the preserve’s new microgrid, which included solar panels, a large battery to store energy, and a hydrogen fuel cell—a system that can operate with the larger electrical transmission grid or independently. Observing this smart technology in person allowed participants to envision how it could be a step toward energy independence in their own communities.

Stepping into Solutions

The Climate & Energy team recognized that to meet the huge demands of the climate challenge, a broader and more diverse leadership community would be required. How could we expand the discussion to help inform larger public audiences and galvanize them into action? A few ways we have done this is by organizing public presentations and discussions that make complex energy topics intelligible and accessible, as well as sharing individual stories of successful climate adaptation or mitigation projects through the Academy blog, social media channels, and this magazine.

In 2017, we tried yet another approach, launching an environmental breakfast series to foster more casual interaction and peer learning among experts, practitioners, and the interested public. The first series of six breakfasts, united by the theme “We’ll Always Have Paris,” demonstrated how various players across Wisconsin were stepping up to fill the climate leadership gap by working toward the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement that came from the 2015 United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21), despite President Trump’s announced intention to withdraw the U.S. from the international accord. The following year, the breakfast theme was based on the 2017 book, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Edited by environmentalist and journalist Paul Hawkin, Drawdown is a compilation of research that details one hundred of the most substantive solutions to global warming. For our “Drawdown in Wisconsin” series, we explored several solutions that were particularly promising here, such as supporting electric vehicles, reducing food waste, and implementing regenerative agriculture (a type of farming designed to improve soil health and store carbon).

Another project focused on helping citizens to understand how the energy system works in Wisconsin, who makes key decisions, and what roles the public can play in this system. We created a web portal  to help everyday people learn more about their utility, understand how our electrical system came to be, and get involved in the process—whether through their utility, in their community, or at the ballot box.

Time to Fast Forward

In 2019, encouraged by our series of successful local leadership summits and a new state administration with an interest in combating climate change, the Academy’s Climate & Energy team and steering committee sensed an opportunity to scale up the conversation from the local and regional to the statewide level. In addition, after reviewing participant feedback from prior events, we knew that people were craving events with more dialogue, the opportunity to ask questions and contribute, and more actionable items to “take home” afterward. With this in mind, we designed Climate Fast Forward, a conference that would attract not only attendants but active participants.

The conference took place on November 8, 2019, at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, overlooking beautiful Lake Monona. Welcoming remarks and morning panels helped set the stage for the day, motivating participants and charging them with the task of generating bold solutions for our state.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who shared some concrete examples of how that city is tackling climate with such things as investment in electric vehicles and solar panels, characterized our climate emergency as “an all-hands-on-deck effort” that requires interdisciplinary and intersectional collaboration. University of Wisconsin–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced she would be signing an ambitious commitment called “Second Nature,” tasking the university to become more resilient by collaborating with local and state entities to adapt to and mitigate climate change. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary-designee Preston Cole emphasized the urgency of the problem and the agency’s role in responding—and leading. “Now is the time. Not tomorrow,” said Cole. “We’re going to pay attention to the science, and we’re going to pay attention to the law when we begin to do the work that the people are asking us to do.”

Participants moved from plenary sessions to breakout rooms, where they shared insight and expertise around topics of energy generation, energy use, resilience and adaptation, natural carbon sinks, and governance. Each breakout group was asked to develop a set of solutions in the topic areas that could be passed on to Wisconsin decision-makers. This collaborative process is one of the greatest strengths of the Academy: the ability to bring together diverse voices and perspectives, wrestle with a major challenge, and brainstorm viable solutions. The best solutions arise, as we’ve learned over the years, when people contribute different life experiences, skill sets, and ways of thinking.

Fiction writer and educator Kim Suhr observed that “the power of the day came with the eclectic group of voices that came together to explore solutions to our climate change crisis.” At her breakout table were “a couple of climate activists, a farmer, a writer, a college student, some retirees, a former teacher, a young founder of an NGO, and a recent AmeriCorps participant.” The result, she said, was “worthwhile discussion and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Paul Robbins, director of the renowned Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW–Madison, shared reflections from the main stage on the breakout groups’ recommendations, noting how inspired he was by the sheer number of solutions that participants generated. Referencing the Drawdown book with its one hundred global climate solutions, Robbins declared, “We now have a Drawdown for the state of Wisconsin.” He added that by harnessing the participants’ drive and home-grown expertise at this crucial moment, the conference had come up with a plan for climate leadership and action that could resonate with decision makers in Wisconsin and beyond. 

Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, the Chair of the Governor’s Climate Change Task Force, listened to the top recommendations and assured participants that those in Governor Evers’s administration “are partners in this work” who similarly want to “find solutions that make life more fair, equitable, and just.” At the end of this auspicious day, feelings of hope and energy, generated by working together toward solutions, were echoed in the closing benediction by poet and Academy Fellow Robin Chapman. Her poem, “We are few, and so I wish for more,"struck a solid chord with the weary but inspired conference participants. 

Moving Boldly into the Future

It’s true that in recent years, Wisconsin leaders have faltered in their pursuit of clean energy and environmental protections guided by scientific research. Despite this, there has been a steadfast community of problem-solvers and leaders who have not wavered in their determination to keep moving forward at every opportunity. While Academy executive director Jane Elder has championed the Climate & Energy Initiative, over the years the project has benefited from the different skills and leadership of several directors: Melissa Gavin, Meg Domroese, and Meredith Keller. The oversight of the initiative was entrusted to me in 2016. With these skilled and passionate women leading the way, the Academy has over the past seven years worked with the state’s best thinkers on climate change to develop a plan to address the most wicked problem of them all.

Carrying on the tradition of prior Wisconsin Strategy Initiatives, other Academy programs amplified the research and recommendations developed through the Climate & Energy Initiative. Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine ran articles on various clean energy efforts, an update on the Wisconsin contingent participating in COP21, and a guide to the way energy decisions are made at the utility level. To help us better see climate change through the eyes of visual artists,  James Watrous Gallery director Jody Clowes brought together five Wisconsin artists from across the state for the major Spring 2019 exhibition, Uprooted: Plants in a Changing Climate.

Reflecting back on the impact of the Climate & Energy Initiative, I would say the Academy’s biggest success has been bringing together this respectful, determined, and collaborative community of leaders and problem solvers and providing them with purpose and opportunity. Whether by advising on a report, exchanging ideas at a conference, learning about a new topic at an environmental breakfast, or reading a post from our initiative blog or an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, the people involved in the Academy’s Climate & Energy Initiative have found themselves surrounded by a thoughtful and receptive community where ideas grow into action. Participants say they are emboldened by the solidarity, conviction, and camaraderie they have found, as well as by the many collaborations that have formed around the Academy’s climate change activities—all of which are moving forward with purpose at this very moment. 

Our goal always was—and still is—to provide the tools and the spark to act on climate change. I like to think of our work as creating a repository of carefully crafted ideas from which those with the will to act can draw. I invite you to draw from this repository as well and join the others that make up the Academy’s Climate & Energy network. Be courageous, share your wisdom, and put ideas into action so together we can build the best possible Wisconsin and world for our children.

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Author and journalist Bill Berry lives in Stevens Point. He has written about the environment and conservation for more than five decades.

Chelsea Chandler was the director of the Academy's Environmental Initiatives from 2016 to 2020. She led the Climate & Energy and Waters of Wisconsin Initiatives, to which she brought her interdisciplinary experience and passion for researching and communicating solutions to environmental challenges.

Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

Curt Meine is a conservation biologist, environmental historian, and writer. He serves as Senior Fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, and with the Chicago-based Center for Humans and Nature.

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