Ice Age Trail: Progress, long way to go

The Ice Age Trail, now 66 years old, has come a long, long way, but it still has a long way to go.

At latest count, 698 miles of the 1,200-mile trail has been developed into more than 100 permanent segments. That includes four segments in Washington County.

Last year was a banner year for the popular trail. At the end of a ten-year effort, Sen. Tammy Baldwin succeeded in placing the Wisconsin-only trail into the National Park Service (NPS). It is one of 11 such national trails in the United States.

Baldwin also succeeded in placing the North Country Trail into the National Park Service. That trail includes 220 miles that passes through four counties in northwest Wisconsin.

The completed parts of the Ice Age Trail are blazed with small, yellow markers that guide hikers and cross-country skiers along the designated route.

The progress over seven decades has been wonderful, but there are still 502 miles to be finished. Fifteen miles were completed in 2023, cause for celebration. At that rate, though, it will take 33 years to adorn the whole scenic trail with yellow markers.

Much of the work has been done by volunteers who are organized into 19 chapters of the Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA). They could use a lot more help and funding to get to the goal of 1,200 miles.

One of the biggest obstacles across the state and in Washington County, home to two land trusts, is the resistance of private landowners to hikers on their properties.

At a recent meeting of the Cedar Lakes Conservation Foundation (CLCF), Sarah Moore, its stewardship coordinator, depicted some of the unfinished segments needed to connect the completed trails in the Cedar Lakes part of the county. Hikers must to walk several miles on local roads where the gaps remain.

It was good to learn from her that CLCF is consulting with IATA on connecting routes.

It is understandable that private owners would be uncomfortable with hikers in their backyards. Yet a lot of the land between segments of the trail is far from residences. Hopefully, CLCF and IATA will be able to persuade owners to donate either a small right-of-way or grant a trail easement for their lands. The historic hand-shake agreements don’t stand the test of time as ownerships change.

A generous spirit on behalf of public welfare is needed to finish our national scenic trail, a testament to our glacial history 10,000 years ago. Did you know it was three miles thick?

With NPS help, additional segments or easements could be purchased with public funds. Our congressional delegation needs to support that cause. If ever a project were bipartisan, this is it.

The history of the trail started with Ray Zillmer, a private citizen lawyer who hatched the Ice Age Trail Foundation in 1958. Congressman Henry Reuss advanced its standing in 1980 when a bi-partisan Congress created the National Ice Age Scenic Trail. Those two men rank right up there with Aldo Leopold, Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Gov. Warren Knowles as champions of a land and fresh water ethic in Wisconsin and the nation. These leaders led the way in conserving a small portion of Wisconsin’s 48 million acres for public use.

That certainly has played out over time with the use of the Ice Age Trail, even though it is only 58% complete. Moore reported that the latest count on trail users was 2.3 million hikers in 2019. It is a tourism boon; two-thirds were from out-of-state.

Total usage increased sharply during the height of the Covid pandemic in 2020 – 2021. The trail was an escape from mandated isolation in people’s homes.

The Ice Age Trail Alliance witnessed an unprecedented number of trail enthusiasts joining in 2020, as new memberships jumped to 625. Many new hikers experienced the trail for the first time and vowed to do their part to keep it going.

Wisconsin is fortunate to have more than 40 other state trails, such as the Eisenbahn Trail in Washington County, the Ozaukee Interurban Trail and smaller ones like the Riverwalk in West Bend.

One more factoid: One “through-hiker” counted 2,248,526 steps on his eight-week trek in 2013.

The abundance of local trails is especially good for old-timers like my wife Kine (pictured left) and me. Hiking is low impact, as opposed to many other physical activities. We use segments of the trail as often three times a week.

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