STEVENS POINT – It’s a little early for the cardinals to herald spring, but if you’re looking for any signs, here’s one: The Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame has announced three new inductees, with ceremonies slated for April 19.
This year’s inductees include a familiar name, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, and two other conservation stalwarts, Arlen Christenson, longtime law school faculty member at UW-Madison, and Gordon Bubolz, an Appleton attorney and businessman for whom conservation was a passion.
The Conservation Hall of Fame, based here in Stevens Point, has been around since 1983 and has inducted more than 100 conservationists from all walks of life. Having served the organization as its biographer for a decade and, until recently, as a member of the group’s board of governors, I’ve continued to be in awe of the work of so many conservation heroes in Wisconsin. The likes of Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Gaylord Nelson were among the first inductees, but those who came after embraced the same conservation ethic.
Waukesha County native Falk, who’s still fashioning her personal legacy, has made impacts across the spectrum, from environmental law to public policy to mentoring young leaders. As Dane County executive, she included land and water stewardship among her priorities, including establishing a conservation fund that has preserved more than 10,000 acres of land for its ecological, economic and recreational values. The field of environmental law was just gaining stream when Falk became co-director and general counsel for Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade (now Clean Wisconsin) in the 1970s. She won key legal battles in vital cases, including one on the state’s environmental impact statement law. She then gave 14 years of her life to serving as a state public intervenor in the Department of Justice.
A lot of people called it the “citizens’ public intervenor,” because that’s what it was, an office within government that advocated for the people. She did so in litigation and public policy time and again on a wide range of natural resources issues. The position was eliminated by former Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1995. Falk also served as a regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama Administration and ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for governor in 2012. Friends and colleagues invariably cite Falk’s ability to bring people together to achieve common goals. Now that’s rare.
Falk's and Arlen Christenson’s stories are intertwined. A longtime member of the UW-Madison Law School faculty, he played a key role in helping to shape the Public Intervenor’s Office. Colleagues say he’s a visionary who was at the cutting edge of emerging environmental laws that protected natural resources and the rights of citizens to be involved in decision-making. Christenson also had a big hand in the creation and support of Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit law center that stepped into the void when the public intervenor’s office was eliminated. He’s credited with mentoring hundreds of attorneys now working across the country on environmental law. The Amery native was also a founder of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a nonprofit that advocates for wise land use and transportation policy.
Bubolz is an intriguing figure in state conservation history, a throwback to the era when politics didn’t so sharply define commitment to environmental causes. The attorney, businessman and Republican state senator has been dead since 1990, but his work isn’t forgotten. He was a conservative lawmaker who pushed for welfare reform and limits on state spending while at the same time calling for water and air pollution regulations and a sales tax to purchase and preserve wilderness lands and river headwaters. Going up against the Fox Valley paper industry, Bubolz endured criticism and threats when he called for regulating pollution on the Fox River. Family members remember that for a time his daughter needed a security escort to and from school because of threats. The Fox would end up becoming one of the nation’s most costly Superfund sites.
If Bubolz were alive today, he might be most proud of his work as the founder and leader of Natural Areas Preservation Inc., a nonprofit that worked to set aside natural areas. His legacy there includes four nature education centers, three wildlife areas, two county parks and High Cliff State Park. He’s quoted as saying of his work: “That which we do for ourselves dies with us. That which we do for others lives on.”
Induction ceremonies will be live and held virtual. For more information click here.