In Partnership with the Planet

Posted on April 1, 2022 by Grace Olson

Honoring Earth Day Every Day 

“The Earth is what we all have in common.” —Wendell Berry

On April 22, 1970, rallies led by political leaders and celebrities took place across the United States. The sole purpose was to raise awareness about a mission that ended up transforming how humans view themselves in relation to our planet. 

It was the inaugural Earth Day that put into motion a worldwide movement now encompassing 174 countries with an estimated 1 billion people being involved in activities related to the cause.

Environmentalism, protecting the environment, can seem like an unattainable, unbudgeable goal.

But it’s no exception in the Fox Cities: small ripples make big waves.

1000 Islands Environmental Center

Debra Nowak, Director/Naturalist at 1000 Islands Environmental Center in Kaukauna, doesn’t use the word environmentalism often. She simply prefers the accuracy of stewardship: “the job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property.”

In this case, she and her team’s “something” is the community.

“That is not to say that environmentalism needs to be perceived in such a big way or that we don’t need activism to solve environmental issues, but I like to use the word stewardship, or environmental stewards,” she reflects. “To me this better describes the role that the average person can play by protecting the natural environment through sustainable choices, responsible use and conservation focused actions.

“It starts with awareness and goes through steps of understanding and then attitudes, or a set of values and feelings of concern, before we can get to the point of having the skills needed to contribute toward stewardship. People typically won’t protect something that they don’t understand or value.”

1000 Islands Environmental Center provides the public a place to enjoy trails for recreation like hiking and snowshoeing, but also the opportunity to learn about natural resources and good conservation practices. The Nature Center includes live animals, interactive educational displays, a Fox River arrowhead collection and native animals.

Many public programs are free and field trips remain low-cost, and focus on a wide range of topics directed toward a variety of attendees from preschool age to senior citizens.

“One of my favorite topics that we educate about are bald eagles,” Nowak says. “Human actions caused our nation’s symbol to be on the brink of extinction. As a society, we also learned from those mistakes and took the necessary steps to protect eagles and their habitats so that their populations could recover.

“Conservation practices don’t always come from laws. They can easily come from individuals making better choices in their activities. The simple act of using lead alternative ammunition when hunting or tackle when fishing can have a great impact on the future of our wildlife, like the bald eagle.”

Another favorite is the aptly named “Goat Project.” Working with partners Mulberry Lane Farm, the Kaukauna High School environmental science class and the public, 1000 Islands Environmental Center uses goats from the farm to manage invasive species.

“Like many local natural areas, our Conservancy Zone struggles with invasive plants that have drastically changed the landscape over the past few decades. In our efforts to find new, environmentally friendly ways to manage invasive plants, we decided to think outside the box,” Nowak says.

“The goats eat all of the vegetation in small browsing areas… repeated browsing stunts the growth of the unwanted plants, giving native plants a chance to become established, either through natural reproduction or planting efforts… it has also become a huge tool for spreading awareness and education for native plants.”

Nowak urges that such awareness of the natural world and resources should begin at a young age, likening it to the experience of introducing books to young kids to encourage a lifelong love of reading.

“It can be as simple as taking walks through the woods. Making those first experiences fun and enjoyable helps set the stage for their interest in the natural world to grow,” she says. “The excitement of a toddler catching a crayfish in the creek or seeing a deer in the woods for the first time are great core memories for them to build upon… I credit all of the amazing parents, grandparents, teachers and other adults who make guiding our next generation into nature a priority.

“There is nothing like spending some time outside, whether on a camping trip, going for a walk on a trail, or sitting in a local park to clear your head, destress, and improve your mood. For those reasons alone, it is important for us to care about conserving the natural areas around us.”

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Fox Valley Sierra Group

Penny Paiser-Wilson has always been passionate about animals, sustainable living and protecting the natural world. For her, environmentalism is made up of individual decisions made every day.
“What we eat, what we purchase, how we live and how we interact with literally everything around us,” she explains. “It is a way of life rather than some social movement that we participate in on the weekends.”

The Fox Valley Sierra Group, in which Paiser-Wilson is Group Chair, celebrates 40 years in 2022, and is the local branch of the statewide Sierra Club. Their shared mission “is to explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out those objectives.”

They accomplish much of their goal in awareness by bringing community members together and sharing information.

“One of our major roles in dealing with conservation issues and concerns is education,” Paiser-Wilson says. “The Fox Valley Sierra Group has a rich history of offering information sessions and meetings on at least a monthly basis so that members and the community at large can stay informed about issues impacting the environment in northeastern Wisconsin.”

Topics of concern range from political to wildlife. Paiser-Wilson explains:

  • Water quality as it relates to lead pipes, CAFOs and other agricultural runoff, PFAS and other industrial contaminants
  • Issues of sustainable energy sources including proposed relicensing of the Point Beach nuclear power plant and the USPS plan to buy mostly gasoline powered delivery trucks from Oshkosh Corp
  • Wildlife and land protection including the proposed golf course within the Black River Forest/Kohler Andre State Park and other sales of public land, the recent wolf hunt, proposed crane hunts and other bills coming up before the Wisconsin Senate sporting heritage small business and rural issues committee as well as advisory issues coming before the Wisconsin Conservation Congress
  • Political concerns such as gerrymandering and a recent lawsuit by Wisconsin manufacturers and commerce that would greatly weaken the state’s spill law and have wide-ranging consequences for various governing bodies and citizens groups to prevent or correct environmental problems

Although local environmental issues certainly did not stop during the global pandemic, popular outings for the Fox Valley Sierra Group did.

“We were unable to hold our very popular Earth Day hike on the Loop the Lake Trail in 2020, 2021 and again in 2022,” Nowak says. “We have been unable to host outings or in person meetings although we have continued our educational offerings via zoom.

“We are looking forward to restarting our in-person outings very soon,” Paiser-Wilson says. “(They’ll) include informative field trips to key areas under threat as well as numerous trails and locations where participants can gain a greater appreciation and enjoy the beauty of the natural resources so abundant in northeastern Wisconsin.”

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Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust

When Kayla Rouse, Board of Directors for Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust, thinks about environmentalism, she looks to the distant past and starts with the basics. She recommends others do the same to understand the core of the cause.

“Nature has processes that are designed to maintain the health of our local resources. 3.8 billion years of nature’s R&D continue to deliver ‘basics’ we depend on daily. Nature is very smart! Preserving natural lands enables those processes to continue creating the ecosystem services we depend on daily,” she says.

“Clean drinking water, clean air, healthy food, outdoor spaces to exercise, beautiful views that help improve mental health, etc… We are nature. Humans are not separate. We are intricately connected and reliant on nature to live.”

It’s in that spirit that the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust (NEWLT) was founded in 1996. A nationally-accredited 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, they’ve worked to preserve more than 6,000 acres of natural land: forests, wetlands and miles of shoreline.

The group does so through conservation agreements with private landowners (limiting future development and preserving the land forever), through outright purchase—creating public preserves open to the public for recreational use, and through donations of land.

“Preserving natural land improves quality of life for everyone, now and in the future,” Rouse says. “Forests maintain air quality. Watershed lands along rivers and streams maintain water quality and filtration for clean drinking water. All natural lands provide habitat for wildlife, opportunities for children to learn in nature and places for people to enjoy the outdoors. The world has lost 70% of biodiversity in the last 40 years. Our goal is to protect the high value places we have left.”

Local examples include Guckenburg-Sturm Preserve on Stroebe Island in Neenah.

“This marsh and surrounding floodplain forest is one of the last pristine cattail marshes along the Lower Fox River,” Rouse explains. “There used to be thousands of acres of this habitat on our river to filter water as it flowed to Lake Michigan. Now surrounded by the urbanization and industry of the Fox Valley, this forest and marsh still serves as a filter of soil and water, creating clean drinking water for residents and healthy water flowing into Lake Michigan.”

NEWLT also has several preserves in Brown County, including one of Rouse’s favorite: West Shore Preserve in Green Bay.

“It provides spawning habitat for Northern Pike. In the summer, it is dry and you would never know that when spring comes, these coastal wetlands will be wet again, which is critical for pike ‘fry’ to grow big and strong before they head into the Bay. This land supports an annual cycle these fish depend on every year!”

Like most environmental organizations, education plays a large part in NEWLT’s ability to contribute to their cause.

The group regularly hosts informative conversations about land and wildlife, and annually organizes a “Land Fest” picnic and hike to help facilitate learning about the land trust. Everyone is invited to visit NEWLT’s public preserves (find a list at

“We all have a connection to nature. Whether you enjoy hiking, hunting, bird watching, or going for walks, we all need the opportunity to get outside to see, smell, touch and feel the world around us,” Rouse says. “As we build a better balance between the needs of humans and the rest of life on earth, we gain benefits for all life. It advances equity, justice, and regeneration for a better future.”

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