Leopold Legacy Center near landmark shack

We are surrounded by wood: a cherry hardwood floor, a red maple ceiling, white oak doors, a black locust deck.

But most of the panels, posts and beams are pine – Leopold Pine, a reference to the thousands of evergreens planted by the legendary environmentalist in the 1930s and 1940s, in what is today the Leopold Memorial Reserve, northeast of Baraboo, between the Wisconsin River and I-90/94.

The new $5 million Leopold Legacy Center, on the reserve’s eastern edge, will open on Earth Day, April 22. It is about one-half mile from The Leopold Shack, a national landmark, revered worldwide because of “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold’s 1949 ode to conservation and respect for the land.

“The Shack is an engaging place but it doesn’t receive people well,” says Wellington “Buddy” Huffaker, executive director of The Aldo Leopold Foundation. “This helps us provide a bookend to the experience.”

Inside, a visitor center of modest size contains interpretive materials and a PBS-produced video, to acclimate travelers to Leopold’s work and land ethic. Outside will be a three-season classroom, to teach conservation principles and coach volunteers. The topic could be using a chainsaw properly, dealing with invasive species, managing a prescribed prairie burn.

Environmentalists and work parties will meet here. Researchers will use the center’s library materials. Administrative offices also are a part of the 14-acre complex.

“We don’t envision ourselves as a tourist destination, per se, but Leopold’s life and ideas really need to penetrate a wider circle of people,” Huffaker says.

What is not wood is glass – skylights that invite sunshine indoors, windows that frame a towering grove of trees.

“Only seven sticks of wood are not from here,” Huffaker says, with a hint of exasperation, regarding the building construction. He points to a septet of trusses in the administrative wing and shrugs. “Long story,” he says.

Throughout are timbers that are sturdy and smooth but full of knots and blemishes. Had this been a traditional house project, many of the wood planks would have been deemed unusable, only because of their appearance. “We’re suggesting a new aesthetic,” where natural flaws have character value.

“It’s been very different from going to the lumber yard and saying ‘this is what we need’ and ‘if we run out, we’ll just get another pallet.’”

The harvesting of trees from the Leopold Reserve also is woodlands restoration; the forest is thinned so the remaining trees can thrive. Stone for fireplaces and the exterior is either from a nearby quarry or reclaimed from a Madison project.

“We wanted to robustly and efficiently use these precious materials that are available to us,” Huffaker explains, but the foundation also addresses energy issues in an aggressive manner.

A goal is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification at the platinum level, the highest level of sustainable design possible, and a distinction not yet earned for any building in Wisconsin.

What does this mean? “It’s a net zero building,” Huffaker says. “We will produce as much as we’ll consume in energy” because of a rooftop of solar panels, underground “earth tubes” for building ventilation, geothermal heat and other conservation measures.

“We have a lot of experience in LEED certified construction,” says Gregg Tucek, project manager for Oscar J. Boldt Construction, based in Appleton, “but from day one we were breaking new ground on this project.”

The designer is Kubala Washatko Architects of Cedarburg, whose specialty is environmentally friendly buildings.

The foundation’s intent is to open the new center to the public on Thursdays through Saturdays, with tours at 1 p.m. (reservations advised) and self-guided touring.

Visitors are welcome from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 22 for tours, seminars and remarks by several speakers, including Nina Leopold Bradley, daughter of the environmentalist.

Huffmaker says there is a growing interest in Leopold’s life and philosophy, based on an increase in Leopold book sales, and “exponential growth” of citations of Leopold’s work and writings.

“If we had seen a decline, I don’t think we’d have thrown ourselves into this effort,” he says.

The foundation’s Land Ethic Campaign has reached $7.25 million of its $7.75 million goal. For more about Aldo Leopold Foundation projects and programs: www.aldoleopold.org, 608-355-0279. The Leopold Legacy Center is at E13701 Levee Road, two miles east of the roads intersection with Hwy. T.

Sunday is the last day to cast your vote at www.wondersofwisconsin.com, to help determine which destinations in the state are Wonders of Wisconsin. The website also will be the place to see winners of the competition. Prizes will be awarded, at random, to some of the people who cast a ballot.