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SPECIAL SECTION: A milestone for Friends Groups


With a little help from our Friends

Janet Hutchens

Family walking across stones near shore of Lake Michigan, silhouetted against sunsetFriends Groups have provided support for Wisconsin state properties so families can enjoy places like Welcker's Point at Peninsula State Park.

As a young member of the Girl Scouts, my troop mates and I were nurtured by two great leaders, seasoned outdoors women keen on sharing their love of nature with eight squirrely girls.

We learned all about how to survive in the great outdoors. These lessons included how to build a campfire and light it with one match, how to set up a tent, how to cook over a campfire and how to lash sticks together to make a table.

This was all great fun, but one of my favorite things to do when the campsite was set up and the foil dinner was eaten was to sing songs around the crackling campfire under the starlight with my best friends. One of our favorite songs was about friendship: "Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold."

As the hands of time have turned, I've come to realize friendship isn't about one or two special people in our lives, it is about building a community and continually growing the constellation of friends who provide support along our path. We add new friends as we go while hanging on to those friendships made long ago.

That's how I approach my work coordinating the Friends Group program for the Wisconsin State Park System. There is always room for one more friend to help support our vast system of jewels across the state.

At the DNR and the Wisconsin State Park System, we greatly value the wide variety of contributions from innumerable individuals who have been friends with us for 30 years or more, sharing their time and talents. We can't wait to create more friendships to help make our future even brighter.

So come along with me by the bright shining light of the moon and learn more about how you, too, can become a friend of the Wisconsin State Park System.

Friends of MacKenzie Center selling syrup at Maple Syrup FestivalFriends of the MacKenzie Center sell syrup as a fundraiser at the annual Maple Syrup Festival.

The making of Friends

Each year, Friends Groups provide thousands of volunteer hours and dollars to help support Wisconsin's state parks, forests, trails and recreation areas. The combined efforts of motivated volunteers have helped to promote and expand recreation opportunities that in turn enhance the economic opportunities for surrounding communities.

The expressed mission of Wisconsin's State Park System is: "To protect and enhance the natural and cultural resources of our Wisconsin State Park System properties while providing high quality recreational and educational opportunities and programs. "It is only through our valued partnerships with volunteers and friends that we can fully achieve this purpose.

Dave Weizenicker, former director of the DNR's Bureau of Parks and Recreation, wrote meaningfully about park system volunteers in the inaugural Friends Group handbook in January 1990.

"Many individuals and organizations have worked to help the park system from its beginning in 1900. They have given land, equipment, money and a wide variety of volunteer services. They've conducted interpretive programs; served as campground hosts; built shelters and observation towers; planted trees and prairies; and provided facilities to better serve the public," Weizenicker wrote. "Without this help, the park system would not be what it is today."

The creation of the handbook and formal recognition of Friends Groups was the culmination of an extensive process of policy development by dedicated staff. The intent was to establish a consistent method for developing partnerships that would allow groups to raise funds, recruit volunteers and leverage additional resources to benefit an individual property. It provided a means to offer additional services to visitors above and beyond what state funding resources could support.

"In recent years, many of our friends have found they can better help their favorite park by forming a formal organization with that purpose — a Friends Group," Weizenicker wrote at the time. "The Department of Natural Resources encourages the formation of Friends Groups by entering into formal agreements with groups that meet the standards approved by the Natural Resources Board."

The ability to do this was officially authorized with the policy on Friends Groups — NR 1.71 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code — which was enacted by the Wisconsin Legislature on Aug. 1, 1989. At that time, 26 organizations were already working with the DNR to support increasing visitor services and needs at properties. A handful of these groups had been operating as far back as the 1960s and '70s.

Records show that in 1989 there were six Friends Groups with written agreements in place, seven concession corporations and 13 additional groups working toward joining the program. This new partnership program was designed to help efforts grow statewide and "clearly define the purpose, applicability, objectives and organization of our Friends Groups," Weizenicker wrote in a letter to all groups in September that year.

"The purpose of this rule will ... establish Friends Groups as the lead volunteer group for a property or program and define them as non-profit corporations organized solely to support, assist and promote the mission and activities of Department properties, facilities and programs," Weizenicker had noted in a January 1988 Natural Resources Board agenda item on the topic.

The program also was designed to enable recognized Friends Groups to provide financial support directly to a specified property to enhance facilities, acquire land, expand recreational opportunities, provide programs for visitors and support education efforts at the property.

Men helping young children in kayaks on shore of lakeLake Wissota State Park near Chippewa Falls is one of many spots where the Friends Group offers summertime boat rentals.

At your service

Today, there are 63 Friends Groups, in addition to concessionaires, that support state parks, trails, recreation areas and forests in countless ways. In 2018 alone, 1,337 Friends volunteers provided 37,847 hours to the state park system. In addition, Friends Groups provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and in-kind services to help enhance park system properties.

Friends Groups and property staff work closely together to develop shared goals and put them into action. By engaging community members as volunteers, properties can develop new and improved recreational experiences and visitor services.

Fundraising efforts by Friends Groups are key to the process including matching grants, donations, concessions and special events. Projects range in size from painting picnic tables or building an accessible fishing pier to raising money for a large multimillion-dollar nature center. No matter the size of the project, each Friends Group activity has a great impact in enhancing the experience for millions of state property visitors.

Friends Groups work behind the scenes to provide many of the services visitors come to enjoy when at a Wisconsin State Park System property. Visitors look forward to stopping by a concession stand for ice cream on a hot summer's day or buying a souvenir to remember the fun they had on vacation. Campers often depend on the convenience of purchasing a bundle or two of firewood as they enter a campground or when they stay for an extended getaway.

At several properties along the water, visitors can launch a canoe and explore a lake or paddle along a designated water trail in a kayak thanks to rentals provided by Friends. Even adaptive kayaks and beach wheelchairs can be found at some locations to enhance the experience. Trail passes may be purchased at a depot along the bike path as a convenience for cyclists headed out on a day trip.

These services are valued, but it may not be readily evident that a Friends Group made up of dedicated volunteers has made that experience possible. Each property and associated group have a unique set of goals, but a common thread is the passion shared for providing the best visitor experience possible.

"For 30 years, our Friends Group program has shown us that partnering with passionate citizen-powered groups can create a positive impact on the services and opportunities we can provide to millions of visitors who enjoy our properties," said Ben Bergey, Wisconsin State Park System director.

"I encourage everyone to join me in thanking each and every Friends Group member who has given their time and talents to enhance the Wisconsin State Park System."

Janet Hutchens is the DNR's Friends Group and Volunteer Coordinator.