Back To Clips
A Society Gone Wild
By Chuck Nowlen
They have healers’ hearts, naturalists’ eyes, and their mission has always been a simple one: keep the wild in “wilderness.”
“We want to preserve Newport State Park as a very wild and natural place,” says William Scheckler, founder of the Newport Wilderness Society, the park’s official citizen-support group.
“There are plenty of other places in Door County where you can see at least some degree of compromise to tourism and development. … But our attitude is, ‘Hey, if we had wanted something like Wisconsin Dells, we would have moved to the Dells in the first place.’”
A common sentiment in Door County, perhaps, but the Newport Wilderness Society, which has grown from about a dozen to 250 members since its birth in 1985, is especially passionate, hard-working and unyielding in carrying it out.
If a storm blows a dead tree across one of the park’s nature trails, chances are good that a Wilderness Society scouting party will clear it away before it’s noticed by anyone else.
If a rogue, predatory plant threatens native foliage, society volunteers will quietly roll up their sleeves and fix the problem by hand, even if it takes two months of constant vigilance.
And if you don’t know a trillium from a tulip, you can get a user-friendly botany lesson through the society’s many interpretive brochures, slide shows, group hikes and presentations. Almost all of the group’s members are well-versed in Mother Nature’s best-kept secrets, as well as the park’s rich history.
Campsite clean-up details are a regular chore, and a Newport Wilderness Society volunteer greets visitors at the park’s main entrance from early spring through late fall.
Then there’s all the good, old-fashioned fun sponsored by the society over the years: candlelight cross-country ski parties, Labor Day pancake breakfasts and all the rest. The proceeds go directly to the park, occasionally as matching funds for state-agency grants, one of which, for example, turned the park’s once-ramshackle nature center into a modest but near museum-quality showpiece.
The result of all this is a rare ecological treasure, even for Door County: a 2,370-acre park devoted entirely to nature on its own terms – no snowmobiles, no playgrounds, no RV campsites, no mountain bikes, just a seemingly endless expanse of flora, fauna and soul-refreshing peace.
“To me, what sums our group up isn’t so much the big things that we’ve done, but rather people’s impressions and feelings about the park,” says Warren Dewalt, who in 1996 succeeded Scheckler as society president.
“When you go there on a clear night with a full moon, it’s absolutely striking how you can walk along Newport Beach and find virtually nobody. You don’t see a single darned light all along the lake. You’d think you were north of Hudson Bay somewhere. That’s hard to come by in Door County.”
Oh, yeah, all those tourists
It also might be something of a miracle, considering that Newport State Park, located on Lake Michigan near Door County’s tip, attracts more than 200,000 visitors every year.
“It’s a struggle to provide basic park operations with the budget we have,” notes Park Manager Michelle Hefty, who works with the group on an almost daily basis. “So a lot of the so-called little things the society does would otherwise tend to lose out.”
“The nice thing,” she adds, “is that both (park administration and the group) are very much on the same page. When it comes to basic operations, we both understand that the park needs to look elsewhere for resources. But with regard to just about anything else, the society’s assistance has allowed us to keep a lot of our programming and, in some cases, even expand.”
At the same time, even the similarly preservation-minded Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has been known to blink in the face of the society’s rock-solid philosophical resolve.
Several years ago, for example, the DNR wanted to change the group’s name to the Friends of Newport – in keeping with the agency’s policy for all state-park support groups.
The society would have none of it.
“There was a fair amount of negotiation, but we insisted that the word ‘wilderness’ be kept, and in the end that’s what happened,” recalls Scheckler, who, appropriately enough, is a preventive medicine specialist at a massive state agency – the University of Wisconsin.
“The idea of wilderness is totally essential to what we’re about. We didn’t want that to be diluted at all.”
Don’t even ask what would happen if some profit-minded developer wanted to cash in on Newport’s many natural selling points, either. Here, the Newport Wilderness Society is loaded for bear.
“There is tremendous development pressure in Door County, and while there is no imminent threat to the park, we do recognize the potential,” explains Dewalt, a former US Steel executive who originally retired to lead the Illinois Audubon Society.
“I think we’ve become quite a presence with regard to preserving the park, and that alone has probably dissuaded anybody from thinking otherwise about it. Our biggest impact might be that nobody has talked seriously about changing the park’s minimal-use designation for at least the last decade.”
Built on rich history
That fact would be heartening, indeed, to one of the society’s patron saints, Ferdinand Hotz, a wealthy, turn-of-the-century Chicago jeweler who once owned more than 1,400 acres of what is now Newport State Park.
According to Hotz’s grandson, G. Leonard Apfelbach, a retired physician and a Wilderness Society member, Hotz never hunted or disturbed the property, except to erect a log cabin that was moved in the 1980s to Sturgeon Bay. When he died in 1946, Hotz’s ashes were scattered over Newport’s Europe Lake.
“Organized religion did not play a large role in the family,” Apfelbach writes in an unpublished Hotz biography. “Spiritual satisfaction was achieved in walks through the forest and communing with nature.”
Apfelbach says of his grandfather now: “He would be very happy with what the Newport Wilderness Society is doing. They’re preserving everything he believed in.”
Scheckler, of course, didn’t know much about Hotz when he and his wife Rolliana first rented a summer cottage near the park in 1973. But the magic of the place soon charmed the Schecklers as well. Morning visits to the park became a family ritual. The Schecklers also were inspired by the purist mindset of the Ridges Sanctuary, located just down the road.
In 1980, the couple built a house near Newport’s boundary, and, Scheckler says, “It became sort of OUR park. We treasured every trail, every deer, every bird, every foot of beach.”
The idea for the Newport Wilderness Society was hatched three years later.
“We were up there one summer, trying to figure out why we were so fortunate and what we could do to share our good fortune with other people,” Scheckler remembers. “Eventually, we started talking about forming some sort of group. We figured that surely there must be others who felt the same way we did.”
The Schecklers broached the subject with then-Park Superintendent Harvey Stahl, who shepherded the idea through the DNR bureaucracy, knowing that in the past, proposals for a mixed-use Newport State Park had come up.
Coincidentally, the agency also was exploring the idea of formal contractual arrangements with state-park friends groups as a way of defraying costs.
“Even in the ‘80s,” Scheckler chuckles, “the DNR was thinking about budgets.”
Stahl soon gave the Schecklers a list of other residents who might help form the group, with valuable expertise from about a dozen people such as Bob Yeomans, the retired lawyer who prepared the articles of incorporation and bylaws, and Lee Traven, whose family helped found the Ridges.
The society became one of Wisconsin’s original state-park friends groups in July 1985, with the first official meeting held at the Schecklers’ new home. From the beginning, the society’s core vision of natural and historic preservation was non-negotiable.
“We all had the desire to maintain the park’s wild character,” Scheckler explains. “We also didn’t want to lose any of the wonderful history of the property, its history as a logging village, its steamship history and so forth.”
The society’s board of directors has met three times a year ever since, and an annual meeting draws a crowd every September. Membership, meanwhile, has been expanded and solidified by newsletters and other materials on everything from toxic mustard garlic plants near campsites to the onetime homestead of a local town treasurer who drank up the entire municipal budget in 1905. That homestead now is a focal point of Newport’s many “history loop” trails.
From here to eternity
These days, according to Scheckler, “the Newport Wilderness Society is beyond its adolescence as an organization; it’s well into young adulthood.”
Thankfully, though, it still retains a decidedly homespun character. Scheckler’s youngest daughter, for instance, designed the group’s official trillium-emblazoned membership patch.
Meanwhile, Dewalt hopes the organization will grow further, if not in number, then in policy-making clout.
He worries that a budget-strained DNR might be tempted to whittle down state support for Newport in view of the park’s minimal-use emphasis and the society’s habit of picking up any slack.
That, he says, would be a tragedy, especially if state money is instead diverted to more developed parks with a more obvious revenue potential.
“There’s already an increasing trend toward under-financing parks. The hope seems to be that friends groups will pick up what’s lost,” Dewalt says. “But the real question is how far it will go. When I was in Illinois, we used to hear about all the tremendous state parks in Door County. But I’m beginning to think we’re moving away from that position of leadership. And I think it might possibly be due to financing.”
He notes, for example, that proposals have been floated in the Wisconsin Legislature to move management of the state park system to the Department of Tourism. And, while the trial balloons have gone nowhere so far, they make Wilderness Society members nervous.
Funding for two of the group’s top priorities – a salaried, full-time park naturalist and an expanded nature center – would erase the jitters a bit, Dewalt says. Then again, tension has always been part of Newport State Park’s history, and the society’s determination has always risen to the occasion.
“The key is not to become complacent because you never know,” Dewalt says. “I mean, who could have predicted 10 years ago that Wisconsin’s state park system would be threatened by (the department of) tourism?
“So, no, a the present time there’s nothing on the horizon to reassure us that we’ll get the hundreds of thousands of dollars it’ll take to make the park what it really should be. At the same time, I think we WILL eventually get it – and, by God, we should.”
Back To Clips