Introducing Travel Green Wisconsin

The mattresses are made of organic materials, as are the sheets and towels. Breakfast menus contain whatever is in season, and locally grown ingredients are a priority.

Solar panels heat water. Radiant heat insulates floors. If travelers could be persuaded to lose their interest in whirlpool baths, we’d really be on a roll.

Madison’s Arbor House and Bayfield’s Pinehurst Inn at Pikes Creek are among the 40-some Wisconsin businesses, so far, whose owners want the green light to label themselves as environmentally friendly.

The new Travel Green Wisconsin pilot program involves Bayfield, Door County, Madison and Rhinelander. It is the first such effort in the nation, a joint project of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative and the state Department of Tourism.

Although Bayfield (in an electronic newsletter) already contends that it “boasts the greatest number of participants in the state,” that is jumping the gun. No one in Wisconsin has yet gotten the go-ahead to use the program seal on business materials.

John Immes, Wisconsin Environmental Initiative executive director, expects that to change within the next month, and for Travel Green Wisconsin to be a statewide program by early 2007.

“It’s about doing business differently in the state,” he says. “It’s a new expression of the Leopold ethic” in conservation. Or the Gaylord Nelson ethic; it is appropriate for this discussion to take place as the late U.S. senator’s holiday, Earth Day, approaches.

John and wife Cathie for 12 years have operated Arbor House (www.arbor-house.com, 608-238-2981) as an environmental inn. He is a former Hyatt chef and beverage manager, with a degree in environmental studies. She developed the Arbor House business plan as a part of her MBA work.

“We were looking to start a green business that also would be a very high quality hospitality experience,” John says.

Next to Arbor House is their Plough Inn, one of the oldest homes in Madison. It used to be a tavern and stagecoach stop in 1853. In the two buildings are eight rooms for rent, some named after environmentalists, and nightly rates are $110 to $230. It is a smooth and spacious blend of recycled woods, custom-made and antique furnishings (innkeepers describe the latter as “the ultimate form of recycling”).

The B&B has a dry sauna and sunroom. There are sweeping views of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, which is across the street, plus access to mountain bikes and a Lake Wingra canoe pass. The inn also has an environmental resource center, movie and book library with fireplace.

Guests get a beverage upon arrival, and a dessert near bedtime, as well as breakfast. So sustainability, the innkeepers argue, does not mean doing without creature comforts.

“I’m never satisfied,” John says of his sustainability efforts. On his list of upcoming projects is the addition of a green roof over a four-season porch, an estimated $2,000 investment.

In Bayfield are kindred spirits, Steve and Nancy Sandstrom. The owners of Pinehurst Inn (www.pinehurstinn.com, 877-499-7651) are converting a 1982 Mercedes into a “veggie vehicle,” one that runs on vegetable oil.

Steve works at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College, so the couple’s commitment to conservation is about more than their B&B, which is 1885 country estate filled with sandstone, maple and pine design.

Eight rooms are for rent, including three in the Garden House addition, and rates are $110 to $185. There is a sauna, and the property has hiking trails.

“When we added the Garden House five years ago, we made it a green building project, which took this to a whole new level” of environmental commitment, Nancy says. The project was about smart investment as well as conservation.

Adding solar panels to heat water “may appear more expensive at the outset, but it pays for itself in a relatively short period of time” and then becomes a money saver. The Garden House has rooms big enough for meetings and retreats, as well as the bedrooms.

Yes, there are whirlpool baths at both the Bayfield and Madison inns. They are big enough for two in some rooms, and it’s hard to not offer this amenity because of consumer demand.

“The rooms with the whirlpools are the first to get booked,” Nancy observes. “But we are very tuned in to our water usage, and have a state-of-the-art septic system. What we’re putting back into the ground is cleaner” than what is average in rural areas.

Travel Green Wisconsin, she says, needs to be more than a rubber stamp for business owners who see marketing value in this seal of approval.

“The businesses that want to be involved, in our area, say ‘keep it tough, make it meaningful’.”

John Imes says the focus will be on continuous improvement, environmentally, and fostering “the eco-preneurial spirit.”

“We have this heritage: Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Gaylord Nelson, Sam Johnson,” he explains. “Now it’s time to ask what the next generation of all this will look like.”

He hopes a “green festival” will coincide with Milwaukee’s Irish Fest this summer.

For more about Travel Green Wisconsin, consult www.travelgreenwisconsin.com or 608-280-0360.