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Ice Age National Scenic Trail

Description: One of eight national scenic trails in the United States, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a 1,200-mile walking/hiking trail that traces Ice Age formations across Wisconsin. The National Park Service (NPS) administers the trail in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (IAPTF). Approximately one-half of the trail is completed and open to public use in segments from 1 to 40 miles long.

The concept for the trail began in the 1950's when Ray Zillmer, a Milwaukee resident, proposed that an Ice Age Glacier National Forest Park be established along the entire length of the moraines marking the furthest advance of the last glacier in Wisconsin. An avid hiker, he proposed a continuous footpath as the central feature of the park so that visitors could explore and enjoy the glacial landscape.

In 1958, a group of Wisconsin citizens established the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation to promote the creation of a national glacial park. As the effort to obtain Congressional authorization of the park gained momentum, volunteers were already at work building the first segments of the future Ice Age Trail in Kettle Moraine State Forest. Today, the IAPTF organizes and coordinates local government and private sector involvement in efforts to create, support and protect the trail, including fund raising, recruitment and training of volunteer trail builders/maintainers.

In 1971, IAPTF's efforts resulted in the creation of the nine-unit Ice Age National Scientific Reserve administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in cooperation with the NPS. While the nine Reserve units contain only portions of the glacial park proposed by Ray Zillmer, the Federal legislation authorizing the Reserve specifically recognized the efforts of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation to create a continuous footpath linking these areas, but offered no Federal assistance.

By 1975, volunteers were successful in establishing major segments of the trail. Congress recognized the national significance of the trail in October 1980 by authorizing it as a National Scenic Trail (NST). In cooperation with the other parties, NPS completed a Comprehensive Plan for Management and Use of the Trail in September 1983. The plan identified the DNR and the IAPTF as cooperators in the long-term effort to develop and manage the trail.

Today, the NPS has overall administrative responsibility for the trail and provides technical and limited financial assistance to cooperating public and private partners. NPS conducts or contracts for trail route planning, environmental compliance, and land protection activities. It prepared and published a "Handbook for Trail Design, Construction, and Maintenance" to guide the efforts of its partners. The NPS provides all of the signs needed along the trail to implement the sign plan in the Handbook. It provides tools, equipment, and materials needed by the volunteers and Challenge Cost Share funding for projects benefiting the trail. The NPS works closely with Federal and State agencies to ensure that public projects do not adversely affect the trail and its planned route. NPS staff for the trail is 2.5 FTE plus part-time administrative support.

Changing land uses along the trail route and increasing development pressure made it obvious by the mid-1980's that a permanent right-of-way for the trail needed to be preserved. Consequently, the IAPTF began purchasing trail lands in 1986 with privately-donated funds. The Wisconsin Legislature also responded to the need to protect the trail by designating it Wisconsin's first State Scenic Trail in 1987. The legislature assigned the DNR the responsibility for coordinating the involvement of State agencies in the trail and cooperating with the NPS and private interests in planning, acquiring, developing, and maintaining the trail. Three years later, the legislature enacted the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program to provide a fund to assist in acquiring lands for the trail. It is administered by DNR.

When Congress authorized the trail, it prohibited Federal Agencies from spending funds to acquire lands for the trail. However, the language in the law does not prohibit the spending of Federal funds, granted for this purpose, by a state or local unit of government or a non-profit organization. Beginning in Fiscal Year (FY) 2000, Congress has annually appropriated funds from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund for acquisition of lands for the trail. To date, Congress has appropriated about $9 million for Ice Age Trail land acquisition.

The DNR manages segments of the trail on approximately 70 State-managed park, forest, wildlife, and fishery areas. It leads the effort to acquire lands for the trail using Federal and State funds. DNR staff participates in and sometimes lead the trail route planning process. Staff also conducts master planning for the trail on its properties. The DNR provides financial assistance to the IAPTF as well as technical assistance and support to its volunteers through its statewide network of trail coordinators and individual land managers.

The IAPTF leads the effort to recruit, organize, and train the volunteers who build and maintain the trail. Its staff and volunteers participate in trail route planning and advocate for trail development and protection with local governmental and civic leaders. With NPS Challenge Cost Share funding, they train volunteers in proper design, construction, and maintenance of the Trail through the Foundation's Mobile Skills Crew. The Foundation maintains the most comprehensive website for the trail and publishes maps and a Companion Guide for trail hikers. It promotes the development, protection, and use of the trail through its website and various public contact events. It has developed and maintains a Geographic Information System, producing maps for hikers, planning and management of the trail, and for the acquisition of trail lands. The Foundation supports the DNR effort to acquire trail lands and directly acquires some parcels. To support these activities and augment public funding assistance, it raises private dollars for the trail. It carries out these efforts with 7 full-time staff plus part-time administrative support.

Today, there are three major interpretive centers along the trail located in units of the Ice Age Reserve - Interstate State Park, Chippewa Moraine State Recreation Area, and North Kettle Moraine State Forest. These facilities were designated and constructed with special Federal appropriations. They are owned and operated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Interpretive signs and exhibits along the trail are being developed by partners with assistance from the NPS' Challenge Cost Share Program.

Geographic area covered: The 1,200-mile trail meanders through 31 counties in Wisconsin, from Potawatomi State Park in Door County to Interstate State Park in Polk County. The trail generally follows the terminal moraine and other glacial landscape features.

List of partners and relationships: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation, and the National Park Service. The NPS has cooperative agreements with each of the other two partners providing significant financial support for their work on the Ice Age Trail and Ice Age Reserve. Other partners that participate in the trail by developing and managing specific segments, include the U.S. Forest Service; state, county and municipal park and forestry departments; conservation, civic, and youth organizations; and private volunteers and landowners.

Accomplishments to date: Approximately 600 miles of the trail have been completed and are open to the public for walking, hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Selected segments are also open to bicycling and snowmobiling in the winter.

With financial support from the NPS, the IAPTF established a Mobile Skills Crew in 2001 to train volunteers and volunteer crew leaders on how to build high-quality, low-maintenance, sustainable trails. New sections of the trail are built to standards established in the Handbook for Trail Design. Existing segments that do not meet the standards are being upgraded. In FY 2004, volunteers contributed approximately 87,000 hours of labor to build, maintain, promote, and monitor the trail.

Working with State, local, and private partners, the NPS has been successful in securing the construction of grade-separated trail crossings of major highways.

Congressional appropriations to the NPS for administration of the trail have grown from $60,000 in FY 1987 to $569,000 in FY 2005.

Key success factors:

  1. Thousands of dedicated volunteers.
  2. Many generous private landowners that allow the Trail to cross their land in absence of sufficient funds or authority to purchase the lands.
  3. Cooperation from many Federal, State, local, and private agencies and individual land managers.
  4. Frequent, close communication and coordination among the partners.
  5. Diligent planning of the trail route through an open public process that involves all relevant stakeholders and potentially-affected landowners.
  6. Increasing Federal funding which enables the NPS to stimulate and support an increasing level of participation by partners.
  7. Since 1994, the trail has received $9.9 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund grants and over $567,000 in from the Challenge Cost Share Program.


  1. Federal Agencies not having the authority to spend funds to purchase lands for the Trail, even from willing sellers.
  2. The slow rate of Trail route planning due to limited staff and financial resources.
  3. Working within the operational and policy framework and culture of the NPS which is designed around traditional park units that have legislated boundaries, full acquisition authorities, and onsite ranger and resource management personnel. There are frequently no clear answers on how to proceed and NPS Ice Age Trail staff, along with its key partners, must "invent" their way through the tasks needed to develop and manage the Trail.
  4. Staying aware of all the issues and opportunities that occur along the expansive trail.

Most important lessons learned to date:

  1. Be careful to respect and balance the individual autonomies and interdependence of the trail partners.
  2. Realize and admit that with limited resources the partners cannot do everything. Some opportunities will be lost and there is nothing to be done except to remain forward focused.
  3. Time is the greatest enemy and most valuable asset in completing the trail.

What would you do differently next time:

  1. Encourage sponsors of the trail legislation not to promise Congress that the trail could be established without any need for Federal land acquisition.
  2. Commit sufficient resources to complete all trail route planning within 10 years of trail authorization. The first Federal funding for the trail did not occur until 7 years after authorization, and then only $60,000.

Suggested resource materials(related to the case study):

  1. NPS website:
  2. IAPTF website:
  3. NPS informational brochures for the Ice Age NST and the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve.
  4. NPS comprehensive management plan for the trail.
  5. Ice Age NST "Vision Statement and Attributes" adopted by NPS, DNR, and IAPTF.
  6. Ice Age National Scenic Trail-Handbook for Trail Design, Construction, and Maintenance
  7. Various Memorandums of Agreement, Cooperative Agreements, and trail policy documents available from the superintendent.
  8. Ice Age Trail Companion Guide published by the IAPTF.

For more information:

Name: Tom Gilbert
Affiliation: Superintendent, Ice Age National Scenic Trail
Phone/Fax: 608-441-5610/608-441-5606
Email/website: /

Name: Brigit Brown, State Trails Coordinator
Affiliation: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Phone/Fax: 608-266-2183/608-663-1283
Email/website: /

Name: Christine Thisted White, Executive Director
Affiliation: Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation, Inc.
Email/website: /

Partnership category(ies) (check all that apply)

Fundraising _X_; Capital Improvements__; Facility Management __; Trails_X_; Design __; Program Delivery __; Visitor Services __; Tenant Organizations __; Concessioners __; Natural Resources Management/Restoration _X_; Cultural Resources __; Education/Interpretation _X_; Arts __; Information Services __; Transportation __; Mutual Aid __; Fire Management __; Planning _X_; Tourism _X_; Community Relations _X_;

Other __X__ Partnership management

Prepared by: Thomas L. Gilbert Date posted: 4/18/05
Phone: 608-441-5610

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