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A lifetime achievement award for a lifetime protecting State Natural Areas

Thomas Meyer is the recipient of this year's George B. Fell Award from the Natural Areas Association.
Katie Thoresen
Thomas Meyer is the recipient of this year's George B. Fell Award from the Natural Areas Association.

A note of transparency for listeners: the subject of this story is related to WXPR contributor Ben Meyer.

As we walk along an old road that’s been taken over by moss and other greenery, Thomas Meyer points out the unique natural features that makes Germain Hemlocks a special place.

“As we kind of kind of pick our way through the rocks here, you can see that almost everything is covered with something green,” said Meyer.

Meyer is a conservation biologist with DNR’s State Natural Areas program based in Madison. Germain Hemlocks is one of his favorite State Natural Areas.

Tucked between three lakes in Oneida County between Rhinelander and Minocqua, Germain Hemlocks is an old-growth northern mesic forest.

“Mesic meaning medium moisture. That’s a reference to the soil moisture here. When you’re in a place like this you start picking up on the ground is the diversity of mosses,” said Meyer.

Germain Hemlocks is just one of nearly 700 sites with the State Natural Area designation in Wisconsin.

Like State Parks and Wildlife Areas, State Natural Areas are protected lands.

With the other types of land, you’ll likely find trails, campsites, or other developments meant to encourage people to get out an explore.

While State Natural Areas are open to the public, you won’t find that kind of development on them.

“State natural areas fill a different niche. Our mission is to protect the best remaining examples of what Wisconsin’s landscape looked like 150, 200 years ago when the first settlers came to Wisconsin in the early 1800s,” said Meyer.

It’s a mission Meyer has dedicated his life to.

For more than 30 years, he’s worked for the DNR’s State Natural Areas program to protect these areas.

“A testament to the pleasure I get is that I’ve had the same job for 30 years,” he said. “I think that’s pretty unusual in today’s workplace to not move beyond what you got hired to do. It’s just a love of my life.”

During that time, Meyer has helped the program grow both its recognition and in the amount of land it protects.

In 1983, about 28,000 acres were designated as a State Natural Area. Now, it’s more than 400,000.

Meyer has also helped grow awareness of these sites working with PBS Wisconsin on its award winning “Wisconsin Scenic Treasures: Southern Vistas” program as well as second one that will feature places in Northern Wisconsin set to air next year.

Though Meyer says growing that awareness of the State Natural Area sites can be a double edged sword.

“Balance is a challenge, because you’ve heard the phrase ‘loving something to death’. We have a few natural areas in southern Wisconsin that have gotten to that point of being loved to death because they’re in locations and what’s unique about them have hit social media and then everybody comes and they tend to destroy the things they’ve come to see,” said Meyer.

That’s why you won’t find much development beyond a small gravel parking lot and sign that says you’re in the right place at most State Natural Areas.

While Meyer continues to work to protect these places he loves so much, a national organization also dedicated to protecting natural areas is honoring him and that work.

Last week, Meyer was awarded the George B. Fell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Natural Areas Association.

Named after the man who helped create the NAA, it’s the highest honor the organization awards.

“It’s certainly humbling and a great honor,” said Meyer.

What makes this award even more special to Meyer is his unique connection to it.

Thirty-five years ago, the first George B. Fell award was given to Clifford Germain. That’s Germain as in Germain Hemlocks, the place where Meyer met WXPR for this interview.

The State Natural Area was named in honor of the first ecologist and coordinator of Wisconsin’s State Natural Areas Program.

Katie Thoresen

Germain is also Meyer’s friend and mentor.

“He almost single handedly built the State Natural Areas program over a period of 30 years. During our 50th anniversary of our State Natural Areas program, we designated this place in his honor,” said Meyer speaking of Germain. “He, by the way, is 99 years old, still living in his own home in Madison.”

WXPR called up Germain to ask what he thought of his friend and protégé receiving the award he once did.

We didn’t record an interview, but Germain’s excitement of Meyer could be felt through the phone.

He congratulated him on the award saying he deserves it and he’s glad Meyer is getting the recognition. Germain even called WXPR back the next to list off some of Meyer’s accomplishments including the growth the State Natural Areas program.

Back in the forest named for his mentor, I asked Meyer what makes these State Natural Areas worth protecting.

His answer was nothing less than what you’d expect from a man who’s dedicated his life’s work to preserving them.

 “If one looks at what people value in life, if nature isn’t part of that, I think we’re all poorer for it,” she said. “What we’re trying to do with State Natural Areas is not protect your backyard wood lot with a couple of trees and two or three species of wildflower in the understory. We’re looking at trying to protect the whole wealth of Wisconsin’s biological diversity. All of its plants, its animals, fungi, from rare orchids to common things, it’s all part of the plan is to grab the entirety of Wisconsin’s ecosystem biological diversity for future generations.”

You can learn more about the State Natural Areas Program and find a site near you on the DNR’s website.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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