By Bryan Pierce (Former NWLT Executive Director)
The Northwoods Land Trust lost a great conservationist and friend when Dan Wisniewski passed away on April 16th at the age of 73. Dan was an exceptional individual who truly exhibited extraordinary commitment to Wisconsin’s land conservation movement. That commitment included everything from the most local land protection efforts, to county, state and even national level conservation initiatives.
Dan held a series of positions in state and local government for 35 years. He served on the staffs of three Wisconsin governors, including four years as Chief of Staff for Governor Tony Earl. Dan was instrumental in encouraging the support of each of the governors for a host of conservation programs including maintaining the authorization and funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
Governor Jim Doyle appointed Dan to be Executive Secretary for the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) where he served for five years before retiring. At BCPL, he was responsible for the management of about 80,000 acres of forests and wetlands in northern Wisconsin.
Dan was always exceptionally savvy, and was well aware that some of the last remaining old growth forest tracts and pristine wetlands owned by BCPL could be threatened. He shared that concern at a meeting of conservation partners hosted by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin in August of 2004. That meeting is where I first met Dan and where he also became acquainted with the work of the Northwoods Land Trust.
Dan agreed to join the NWLT board of directors in 2005 and quickly became the chair of the conservation committee which evaluates and recommends approval of all of NWLT’s conservation projects. He stated that “being on the NWLT board has given him the opportunity to be an active part of conservation at a most basic, grassroots level, helping people preserve the land they love.”
When Dan started on the board, the land trust had just completed its 7th conservation easement and had protected a total of about 174 acres of private lands with about 1.5 miles of natural lake shorelines. Since that time Dan helped shepherd conservation projects to reach a current total of over 13,600 acres and 72 miles of lake and river shorelines permanently protected on well over 100 successful projects.
Among these projects are two critical old-growth sites NWLT acquired directly from BCPL to ensure their lasting protection – a 40 acre old-growth white cedar parcel with nearly 1,000 feet on the Deerskin River in Vilas County, a popular trout stream, and most recently a 129-acre tract of old-growth hemlock/hardwood forest in Iron County with over 870 feet of natural frontage on Sack Lake, a DNR-identified “wild lake.” These purchases are just another way Dan was able to help permanently protect some of the “best of the rest” of remaining natural area quality habitats in northern Wisconsin.
Dan also volunteered his assistance with the Friends of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, served on the Dane County Parks Commission, was appointed to the Wisconsin Stewardship Advisory Group, and helped at local, state and national levels with Trout Unlimited. Dan’s efforts were recognized with lifetime achievement awards from Gathering Waters: Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts and from the Wisconsin Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Dan loved the rustic cabin he constructed on Spring Lake in Vilas County in the spirit of Aldo Leopold. He spent many days exploring the land and waters of the Northwoods, especially with a fly rod. His passion for trout fishing was well known. He made it his personal mission to get me out of the NWLT office each summer to fish the Deerskin and other trout waters.
Our hearts go out to his wife, Fran DeGraff, his five children and other family and many friends. We have all lost a great role model, conservation leader and friend. He truly made a positive, lasting impact in the Northwoods and far beyond. We will all miss him dearly.