Bridging Wisconsin’s Political Divide


Former Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles stands to the left of Governor Tommy Thompson at the annual Fishing Opener on May 1, 1992. Governor Knowles is responsible for establishing Wisconsin’s annual Governor’s Fishing Opener.

When decision makers work across political party lines, conservation wins. Look at Wisconsin’s history. In 1989, the Stewardship Program, now named for Republican Warren Knowles and Democrat Gaylord Nelson, was passed with bi-partisan support. The program is responsible for protecting more than 500,000 acres of Wisconsin’s most beautiful and diverse land – land we can now enjoy for hiking, hunting, bird watching and other recreation. Consider the Great Lakes Compact, passed in 2008. Republicans and Democrats successfully negotiated the Compact, knowing that we needed a way to protect our Great Lakes from other thirsty states and countries looking for fresh water.

The Wisconsin way used to be the national model – Democrats and Republicans working together to solve problems. But something has gone terribly wrong in the last few years and our new norm of dug-in, nasty partisanship is tearing our state apart. A recent poll indicates that Wisconsin is arguably the most politically polarized state in America.

“While I recognize the need for global support for the environment, I have always thought that the slogan ‘Think Globally, Act Locally,’ is an important plan of action for everyone.”

– Warren Knowles, Wisconsin state Senator and Governor

In talking to voters, candidates for office,elected officials, members, and even our own friends and family, it’s clear that Wisconsinites are ready – very ready – to move past the political tumult and partisan divisiveness that have defined our state for the last several years. It’s time to find our way back to the non-partisan roots that made us a forward-thinking, productive, even emulated national leader.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is 100% committed to recapturing our state’s nonpartisan conservation legacy and getting back to a no-nonsense, get-‘er-done, style of politics.

Protecting our natural resources is the issue that can heal our state for this simple reason: As Wisconsinites, nothing unites us more than the land itself. Look at the language and experience that all of us share:

  • “Up north” brings to mind summer vacations at lakefront cottages or cold fall mornings tracking deer;
  • We’ve all swatted the Wisconsin state bird – the mosquito – whether it’s while traipsing through the woods, bringing the cows in from the back 40, or having a dinner party in our own backyards;
  • We wax nostalgic when we drive through rolling farmland and when we return year after year to our favorite camping site;
  • Whether we’ll admit it or not, we’ve all stopped to snap photos in front of the giant fiberglass fish, moose, or hodag that dot our highways;
  • And, of course, we ALL drink water – often from a bubbler!
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.”

– Aldo Leopold

Natural resources define us in Wisconsin. We reconnect with family and friends by hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, and boating. Some of us spend our free time in a deer stand while others spend it in a kayak. Some of us snack on venison while others munch on granola. On cold winter days you can find us out on the ice fishing for walleye or skiing in the Birkebeiner. Some of us drive pick-up trucks to our cabin while others ride bikes through the rolling countryside. The thing that unifies us is our love of the opportunities that Wisconsin’s natural environment provides.

And then there is our rich conservation history. What other state can brag that many of the country’s greatest conservationists called Wisconsin home? Our beautiful state anchored and inspired:

  • Aldo Leopold, author, scientist, ecologist, forester, and environmentalist, who learned and lived his land ethic in his beloved Central Sands.
  • Warren Knowles of River Falls, an avid hunter and fisherman who compiled a long list of conservation accomplishments as Governor. He helped to form the Department of Natural Resources, expanded the Outdoor Recreation Act Program to a $200,000 million program, and led efforts to clean up pollution in Wisconsin rivers and streams.
  • Gaylord Nelson, who hailed from the tiny town of Clear Lake, but left a huge mark on Wisconsin as a Senator and Governor and on the world as the founder of Earth Day.
  • Millie Zantow of North Freedom, a name you may not know, but whose ideas you experience every day, as she is the mother of plastics recycling.

Aldo Leopold and Gus hunting in Adams County

Our conservation forefathers (and mothers!) worked with thousands of other Wisconsinites to build the foundation for Wisconsin’s proud non-partisan conservation history. We owe it to them to first repair that foundation – and then keep building.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters was founded on the principle that our natural resources should not be used as a political pawn. No matter who is in charge of the Legislature, no matter who the Governor is –we must work together to protect our water, land and air.

Initially it will take baby steps: looking for common ground policies that decision makers on both sides of the aisle can support. But over time we can build on that, identifying people from both political parties to run for office who care about conservation and are willing to work across party lines to get things done. Given enough time and attention, we know this approach will work. In fact, we’re already seeing small victories using this strategy.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters leads the way by:

Engaging diverse constituencies in civil conversations

“With the formation of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Wisconsin’s environment found its political voice.”

– Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin Governor, U.S. Senator, State Senator, founder of Earth Day, and former Honorary Chair of Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, at the organization’s founding in 2002

Sustainable solutions begin with civil discourse and civil discourse begins between individuals. Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters engages individuals of all viewpoints and political persuasions, from the grassroots level to elected officials. This approach works because it’s real. We are hunters, fishermen, moms, executives, paddlers, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, and more – united in our earnest commitment to science-guided natural resource protection.

Operating with complete transparency and integrity

When it comes to protecting air, water, and the natural places that make Wisconsin so special, we set the bar high. We expect decision makers from both sides of the aisle to clear that bar. Our positions are always publicly available and widely distributed – no “gotcha!” politics from Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. Our positions are based on science and represent the consensus of the larger conservation community.

It’s about natural resources, not politics

We avoid partisanship and political bickering by using the issues to link the science to the policy and the politics. Our primary interest is – and will always be – the issues that affect the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the places where we live, work, and play.


Gaylord Nelson pictured in at the Apostle Island National Lakeshore, which he is credited with creating.

We know that restoring a nonpartisan approach to natural resource protection won’t be easy, but we also know that our shared love of Wisconsin’s lakes, rivers, woods and prairies serves as a powerful foundation. It’s time to turn that love for Wisconsin into real solutions for Wisconsin’s environment.

We are encouraged that every day, more individuals who share this goal join Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. They are offering their vision, their financial support, and the gift of their time to help Wisconsin once again realize its own potential. We are a league of like-minded individuals from incredibly diverse backgrounds working to protect what makes Wisconsin great. It will take all of us working together to get it done. I hope you will join us today.

Join the Conversation

  • Have you have found yourself at the intersection of politics and conservation?
  • What was your experience?
  • What is your advice for how to use conservation to heal Wisconsin’s current political divide?
  • What is your vision for how Wisconsin’s natural resource decisions will be made in the future?

Email us at to share your thoughts and get plugged into next steps.

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