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How lake lovers become lake leaders


Carroll Schaal

Pine tree overlooking edge of beautiful blue lakeA partnership between natural resources agencies and local citizen-run organizations helps protect our lakes.

The waters and beds of natural lakes and streams in Wisconsin are considered Public Trust property — they belong to everyone. There are more than 15,000 lakes in the state, providing plenty of opportunity for the public to get involved in helping to manage those bountiful resources.

Many of the state's laws and programs are intentionally designed to create public/private partnerships that enable citizens to play a central role in getting work done. There are laws that allow the creation of qualified lake associations and lake districts for the express purpose of raising funds and conducting projects to enhance, protect or restore lakes. There are cost-share programs that provide up to 75 percent of the cost of a project. There are volunteer programs where citizens monitor water quality and aquatic invasive species or educate boaters about the threats of AIS.

In these programs, the DNR provides technical assistance, support, supplies and sometimes funding, while relying on citizens to carry out much of the work. Partnerships between natural resources agencies and local citizen-run organizations are essential to effective natural resources management.

This has long been the mode of operation for the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership. The partnership seeks to join the technical and financial resources of the DNR, the educational capacity of the University of Wisconsin Extension and the organization of Wisconsin Lakes Inc., a nonprofit serving local lake groups and interests — all to empower local citizen-led lake management.

There are literally thousands of citizens serving as officers, board members, volunteers or staff for the state's 220 lake management districts and 500-plus lake associations, not to mention the counties, towns, cities and villages essential to maintaining and protecting these precious resources. However, few possess any formal training that prepares them for the host of complex issues they may face, whether it's managing algae or zebra mussels, seeking grants or recruiting and directing volunteers.

In 1998, to address the need for leadership in this realm, Wisconsin began a program called the Lake Leaders Institute. Its charge was to "proactively develop a pool of committed and prepared leaders who could assume leadership roles in the Wisconsin lakes and other statewide committees, countywide lake associations and watershed teams being organized by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources."

Today, the Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute is a statewide program that helps lake stewards gain a better understanding of lake ecology and how to work with state and local governments to ensure lakes get the attention they need. The training program enhances skills and broadens capabilities of people in our lake communities, champions effective and communicative collaboration, and fosters responsive and useful networks that support lake citizens.

The LLI is designed to assist in developing and enhancing both the technical and the people skills of citizen leaders. To date, more than 320 individuals have "graduated" from one of the institute's 11 "crews," and Crew 12 launched in May. A new crew is recruited every two years.

A "dream team" of lake professionals has given program organizers a hand in educating and motivating lake leaders. Instructors come from all walks of the lake world: academia adept in leadership development and citizen advocacy support; research limnologists; government officials; not-for-profit leaders; Native-American educators; technical experts from assorted natural resources agencies at the federal, state, county and town levels; private-sector lake-related businesses; and Extension outreach specialists, among others.

In addition to lake residents, participants may include staff from the DNR, UW Extension, county conservation and zoning offices, and private consulting. The mix of agencies, staff and citizens creates a unique dynamic that naturally fosters the collaboration and partnering necessary to succeed in today's environment.

How it works

To participate in the Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute, crew members must be nominated. Though they can self-nominate, it's much more effective and meaningful for candidates to be nominated by others who see their leadership potential.

Candidate nominations require a letter of recommendation and a detailed candidate application. The completed applicants are reviewed by committee and the top 30 are selected per class. Crew members must commit to attend and pay $300, covering about half the cost.

Instructors are mostly volunteer and venues are modest to help keep it affordable. Courses within each seminar are designed to create an atmosphere of openness, trust and camaraderie.

The training program consists of three two-day seminars in May, September and October.

  • Seminar I – Society and Environment: Philosophy & Ethics of Lake Management.
  • Seminar II – Aquatic Ecology & Watershed Management.
  • Seminar III – Organizations, People, Politics.
Several people looking on while a man in a boat takes a water sampleLake Leaders Institute trainees get a crash course on the science and ecology of lakes.

The first session focuses on building a sense of camaraderie exploring values, ethics, perceptive communications, what leadership means and the philosophy and history of Wisconsin lake management. The second session is a lakeside crash course on the science and ecology of lakes, how humans impact lakes and the basic building blocks of a lake management plan. It includes an afternoon in pontoon boats learning how water quality, habitat and fish and aquatic life are measured. The final session focuses on organizations, people, politics and the law.

Graduation from the Lake Leaders Institute takes place at the Aldo Leopold shack on the grounds of the Aldo Leopold Foundation near Baraboo. There, graduates share a commitment statement describing how they will use their leadership skills to enhance the community in which they live and become active participants in protecting in partnership our legacy of lakes in Wisconsin.

Advanced training and awards

In addition to the regular LLI sessions, single-day advanced training sessions are offered to graduates in odd-numbered years to continue to keep leaders inspired and connected. Topics for these programs cover timely issues on the cusp of new techniques or roll out new programs being offered by the state. Even after nearly 20 years, these advanced training sessions are attended by members from all the past crews.

Evaluation surveys show high levels of satisfaction with what participants learn in the program, but almost everyone mentions the personal connections they made as equally valuable. Roughly three-quarters reported becoming more confident and more active in local lake management affairs and in their ability to influence decision makers.

Several LLI graduates have been inspired to run for a local elected office and, in terms of meeting the original goal, the board of Wisconsin Lakes also has been well-stocked through the program.

In 2009, the Lake Leaders Institute received a national award for outreach and education from the National Fish Habitat Board, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among hundreds of nominees, the institute was chosen by the board for its "extraordinary commitment to fish habitat conservation, science and education."

Carroll Schaal is the Lakes and Rivers Section Chief for the DNR's Water Quality Bureau.


Who should be a lake leader? Anyone interested in stretching their mind and exploring new ideas about lakes, and the management of the human use of lakes, is welcome to apply for participation in the Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute. For information, including details on how to nominate yourself or someone you know, visit Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute.


The graduates of the Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute are making a difference, and the success of the program is a testament to their talent and hard work. Here's a look at the accomplishments of some previous crew members.

Group of smiling people posing for cameraLake Leaders Institute graduates from Crew 5 shown near the Leopold Shack.©UW-EXTENSION LAKES

Cathie Erickson — Erickson was a member of Crew 8 and currently is serving as president of Wisconsin Lakes, a nonprofit conservation organization that advocates for lakes statewide. She is a retired attorney and is involved with numerous community organizations in northwest Wisconsin, such as the Washburn County Lakes and Rivers Association (WCLRA), Shore Owners of Stone Lake, and Stone Lake Community Wetland Park.

"After Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute, I was better able to understand not only the science of lake ecosystems, but also the social and legal frameworks of lake management," Erickson said. "The friendly atmosphere and beautiful locations only sweetened the experience. I would highly recommend it to all lake residents and water resource professionals who care for our lakes."

Carol Lebreck — Representing Bony Lake in Bayfield County, Lebreck was a member of Crew 6. After LLI training, she became a director on the Board of the Wisconsin Association of Lakes and also was inspired by what she learned about the relationship between wood in lakes and fish production.

A lifelong angler, she spearheaded a large wood reintroduction project on Bony Lake in Bayfield County involving half of the riparian property owners. So far, more than 1,000 feet of shoreline has been completed, much of it with whole trees thinned from a pine plantation on the back of her property.

Scott Porter — Representing Turtle Lake in Walworth County, Porter was a member of Crew 5. After completing the LLI curriculum, Porter returned to his lake association and worked with lakeshore owners to implement positive change in how they manage their shorelines. Because of the individual contacts he made through the institute, virtually all of the Turtle Lake shoreline property owners have improved their lake management practices.

Nancy Hill — Hill was a member of Crew 3. Following graduation, Hill became executive director of the Green Lake Association in Green Lake County. She initiated the Revitalization of Shoreland Vegetation Project (RSVP) that encourages regeneration of shoreland vegetation through educational efforts targeted at property owners and businesses that provide property management services to lakeshore owners.

The association partnered with the Green Lake Sanitary District — whose executive director, Charlie Marks, also is an LLI graduate — to help manage the fish-rearing facility purchased by the district. This ensures that fish will remain available for stocking Big Green Lake.

Both Hill and Marks have been instrumental in the creation and support of the Green Lake Conservancy Foundation, which has established eight conservation preserves around what is the deepest natural lake in Wisconsin.

For details about the conservancy and its efforts, visit Green Lake Conservancy.