Wisconsin leads earth-friendly tourism efforts

When Kelli Trumble exuberantly addressed visitors about “my bee-YOO-ti-ful state” recently, her words were an ode to an elite quartet of Wisconsin natives.

She spoke proudly of conservationists Aldo Leopold and John Muir, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson and Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of organic architecture (structure design that blends respectfully with nature).

“We have a long history of caring for our small corner of the world,” said Kelli, the state’s secretary of tourism. Her audience, from as far away as Australia and Chile, were in Madison to plot a future in which tourism flourishes, but not at the expense of the environment.

The International Ecotourism Society, which has pursued ecologically responsible tourism since 1990, chose Madison as its North American meeting site this year. That happened, in part, because TIES conference site Monona Terrace (a Wright design that overlooks Lake Monona) was the first in the nation to earn LEED-EB (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Existing Building) silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Academics, tour operators, consultants and reps from U.S. and Canadian national park systems had plenty to say about the growth and challenges of ecotourism.

Wisconsin already is at the forefront of discussion and strategy because of Travel Green Wisconsin, a business certification program described by workshop moderator Abby Rome of Maryland as “one of the most comprehensive of programs” that exist nationally.

Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Florida, California and Michigan also have ecotourism certification programs, but they are smaller and/or tend to involve just lodging, which is about one-half of Wisconsin’s certifications.

The new Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, near Baraboo, has become the 100th business certified as eco-friendly by Travel Green Wisconsin. The facility – used for research, workshops and teaching – is one-half mile from The Leopold Shack, a national landmark and longtime symbol of the namesake environmentalist’s land ethic.

USA Today travel writer Laura Bly recently wrote about the Leopold center and Wisconsin’s other earth-friendly efforts, describing the state as the first “to market itself as a green vacation spot.” During lunch with her in Madison a couple of months ago, she expressed mild surprise that a Rust Belt border state would make such aspirations a priority.

We were at the casual Café Soleil, where staffers were among the throng who convinced Laura that all the eco-talk has depth and substance. Even the café’s mayo is homemade, most ingredients come from local farmers and 98 percent of its bakery products are organic. Composting and recycling are priorities; customers are rewarded for bringing their own coffee mug.

Café Soleil was a stop during Liz Wessel’s Urban Farm and Food Sampler, a Madison tour offered in conjunction with the TIES conference. Liz, whose Green Concierge Travel business was mentioned in USA Today, designs urban and remote eco-travel itineraries.

Her other tour stops: Marigold Kitchen, the Williamson Street Grocery Co-op and the state Capitol lawn, for a picnic with purchases from the midweek Farmers’ Market downtown.

Statewide, eco-progress involves tough challenges.

“Grassland birds are in a serious decline, and the prairie chicken is the keystone species,” says Sharon Schwab of the Gold Sands Resource Conservation and Development Council, Stevens Point. Only 1,200 prairie chickens remain in Wisconsin, and more wildlife preserve acreage is needed to ensure the survival of this bird.

“We have to partner with so many more people to make this happen,” Sharon says. “That’s one thing I’ve learned” from attending the TIES workshops.

Her area’s annual Prairie Chicken Festival, during Earth Day weekend, sneaks visitors onto the “booming grounds” of the bird, to witness the species’ rare mating dance at dawn. It is a creative way to connect tourists to the cause of preservation, but Sharon says more is needed.

Elsewhere, connections are made in other ways. North of St. Louis, operators of the 2-acre R Pizza Farm have divided their land into eight slices, and each is devoted to one organically grown pizza ingredient (such as tomatoes, herbs, wheat for the crust, pigs for sausage, cows for cheese).

This field trip is a way to teach children that pizza involves more than a freezer and oven. They eat a slice of pizza with fresh ingredients, at the end of their tour.

In 37 counties of northeast Iowa, the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area tells the story of agriculture in America. The 95 museums, businesses, parks and scenic drives are marketed as one product. A big package is the way to go, says Iowa tourism consultant Hans Peter Jorgenson.

“Being beautiful is not enough on its own,” he notes, “especially in Iowa, which is not looked at as a tourist destination.”

For more about:

TIES, based in Washington, DC: www.ecotourism.org, 202-347-9203.

Travel Green Wisconsin: www.travelgreenwisconsin.com, 608-280-0360.

Monona Terrace, One John Nolen Dr., Madison: www.mononaterrace.com, 608-261-4000. Tours occur at 1 p.m. daily.

Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, E13701 Levee Road, Baraboo: www.aldoleopold.org, 608-355-0279. It is open Thursdays through Saturdays, until Nov. 3.

Café Soleil, 25 N. Pinckney St., Madison: www.letoile-restaurant.com/aboutthecafe.html, 608-251-0500.

Marigold Kitchen, 118 S. Pinckney St., Madison: www.marigoldkitchen.com, 608-661-5559.

Williamson Street Grocery Co-op, 1221 Williamson St., Madison: www.willystreet.coop, 608-251-0884.

Green Concierge Travel, Madison: www.greenconciergetravel.com, 877-200-2844.

Golden Sands RC&D: www.goldensandsrcd.org, 715-343-6221.

R Pizza Farm, 25873 Hwy. 3, Dow, Ill.: 618-466-5950.

Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area, Iowa: www.silosandsmokestacks.org, 319-234-4567.

Coming in November, to a bookstore near you: “Renewing the Countryside Wisconsin: Stories of Sustainable Living, Working and Playing” ($39.95, UW Press), a magnificent collection of people and businesses, all at work to make the planet a better place.

For more about the project: www.renewingthecountryside.org, 715-394-8294.