Within the past couple years, the Wisconsin DNR has actively encouraged the traditions of hunting and fishing.
That new focus will also be felt at the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center, about 25 miles north of Madison. For generations, instructors there have taught school children about native species and conservation.
The DNR announced recently it would end its contract with the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation to manage the center, because the agency wants the facility to begin offering outdoor skills training - teaching people to hunt, fish and trap.
After dozens of people criticized the plan to cut kids out of the picture, the DNR has decided to allow a blend of programming.
To learn what the center has long offered, WUWM pays a visit.
Until a few days ago, you would have heard this message on the MacKenzie Center answering machine.....
"If you calling regarding the most recent press on the changes facing the center, we urge you to contact your legislators and the secretary of the DNR."
That’s the voice of Ruth Ann Lee. She has worked here six years – starting when the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation took on its management. Last year, Lee became director.
She meets me inside the lodge. Its large windows open out to stately pines and deciduous trees. Birds dart in and out of feeders.
“The windows are tinted so the kids can stand inside and observe all the songbirds at the feeders and the squirrels and things like that,” Lee says. Inside, a stone fireplace and wooden beams dominate the space. The cafeteria is adorned with “taxidermied” native birds and wildlife.
"That’s the great blue heron,” she says.
Lee says anything the kids can REACH – inside and out – they’re allowed to handle.
“We let them touch and explore because that’s what they’re here for.
Last year 16,000 students experienced MacKenzie. Lee says each program is tailored to what a school wants for its students. Some come for a day; others spend several.
When I visited, snow blanketed the ground.
“This time of year they’re snowshoeing and skiing – they can do that. Sometimes they’re doing it as part of a class. You see some structures out here with shelter building classes and building forts, just having a good time being absorbed in nature; and playing and that just as important sometimes too,” Lee says.
Today the center is void of children; its dormitories – that sleep up to 80 kids – are silent; Lee says that’s because it’s a volunteer training day. With only two full-time educators; MacKenzie depends on volunteers, who
“Do about 3,000 volunteer hours in a given year; so some are teachers, and they’re very good teachers; some are maintenance help; and you know they do a little bit of everything,” Lee says.
Lee guides me through of few of MacKenzie’s 250 explorable acres.
“We have several restored prairies in different stages of restoration; we have a nature study pond, we have some grasslands. 4t3 We just walked into the back entrance of our wildlife exhibit,” Lee says. Lee is quick to explain that the exhibit's 35 animals are not the zoo variety.
“They’re not scooped of the wild and put on display for public entertainment, they’ve all been injured... When we accept an animal, we’re accepting them for life and MacKenzie is they’re home and then we care for them,” Lee says.
She points to a couple native hawks.
“The rough-legged hawk and the red-tailed hawk. It is so fun to have a group of students in here and have them see them up close and be able to talk about their special adaptations and what makes them unique and what makes them, you know who they are, just taking a close look at their feet and their beak,” Lee says.
A path meanders through the MacKenzie arboretum - each of its 100-plus species labeled. Lee says staffers added another hook took draw kids - and adults - into nature.
“We have had each of the species GPS located, so if you were really after a black cherry, you could look in our arboretum guide; put the GPS coordinates into your GPS and go for a hike and find that black cherry,” Lee says.
As we round the bend, there’s no missing the maples. Tapping season is approaching. To guide the students, the center has encircled the prime specimens in shocking pink tape.
“So they’re with their guides and with their volunteer teachers and they’re actually using a brace and bit and they’re drilling the holes and they’re watching the sap come out and they’re learning all about that process,” Lee says.
This month 1200 5th graders will experience maple sugaring.
“Some of our groups have been coming here for 30 to 35 years,” Lee says.
Since my visit, DNR Secretary Kathy Stepp thanked MacKenzie volunteers and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation for their feedback, stating, “we have heard that environmental education and current programs at MacKenzie are important to continue.”
Ruth Ann Lee does not yet know whether her team will deliver that programming, but thinks blending environmental and outdoor skills education is compatible. MacKenzie educators have experimented with the approach - offering fishing clinics and archery courses.