Conservation in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Conservation in Wisconsin

The People who Shaped the Movement

Conservation in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeIncrease Lapham

Increase Lapham Examines a Meteorite, 1871

Increase Lapham examines a meteorite found in Washington County, Wisconsin, 1871. View the original source document: WHI 1944

In the 1850s, concern for the natural world became a popular issue. Newly urbanized Americans were aware of the importance of nature as an economic, aesthetic and spiritual resource. They were convinced that industrialization endangered natural resources. Concerned Americans founded wildlife and land conservation initiatives. By the turn of the 20th century, Wisconsin had become one of the United States's leaders in conservation work.


Increase Lapham is considered the founder of Wisconsin's conservation movement. He arrived in Milwaukee three days before Wisconsin became a territory in 1836. Lapham kept careful records of the environment that served as models for other conservationists. While Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh were advocating similar concepts in New England in the 1850s, Lapham began to argue for an ecological attitude toward the Wisconsin frontier. In 1855 he urged the state legislature to authorize a natural history survey before more of Wisconsin's native species became extinct. He also warned of the devastation of state forests, fifty years before it became a national issue. Lapham's 1867 book, "Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin" was the first to stress the importance of natural resources.


EnlargeBlack and white waist-up studio portrait of naturalist, conservationist and writer John Muir.

John Muir, 1899

Waist-up studio portrait of naturalist, conservationist, and writer John Muir. View the original source document: WHI 3948

The same decade Lapham published his book, Wisconsin's greatest environmental philosopher was doing farm chores near Portage. Though he would be most famous for his years in California, John Muir spent his formative years in Wisconsin. The Muir family immigrated to the United States from Scotland. Before he attended the University of Wisconsin in 1861, Muir spent every day working from dawn to dusk on his family's farm outside Portage. When he was allowed a short break from the plow, Muir roamed the surrounding fields and woods.

Muir also invented an alarm clock that tipped his bed up and dumped him on the floor in the morning at a set time. He showed his "early-rising machine" at the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair. Muir wrote that his years in Wisconsin's outdoors prepared him for his later wilderness ramblings.

State Parks

Lumberjacks swept across central and northern Wisconsin in the 1850s. The first state parks were created to save Wisconsin's forests from the lumber industry. Legislature approved "The State Park," a 760 square mile area in northern Wisconsin, in 1878. But the state owned only 10 percent of the land and the population was too small to support the project. Lumber barons who opposed the park were the primary power brokers in the region. The state eventually sold two thirds of the land to private interests in 1897.

La Follette

Legendary Wisconsin Progressive politician Robert La Follette led the fight to protect Wisconsin's natural resources from economic exploitation. La Follette worked closely with University of Wisconsin geologist and president Charles Van Hise. Van Hise chaired the State Conservation Commission, provided conservation advice to Teddy Roosevelt and wrote the first textbook on conservation in 1910.


The Menominee practiced forest management for centuries, even once logging became a major source of income for the tribe in the 19th century. Unlike much of the state, the forests on the Menominee reservation were not clear-cut and burned. The Menominee are known worldwide today for their sustainable forestry practices, maintaining forest land on 220,000 of their 235,000 acres.

Learn More

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 5 and 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "State Parks History" Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; "John Muir Exhibit" Sierra Club]