When Janet Silbernagel grew up playing along the banks of the Sugar River, near the small Wisconsin town of Riley, she never imagined that she was following the footsteps of a legendary naturalist. Years earlier, Aldo Leopold had paced that same ground to do two things he loved—explore natural landscapes and hunt birds.
In 1931, while a CALS professor of wildlife ecology, Leopold had forged the Riley Game Cooperative, a unique arrangement in which farmers agreed to maintain the marshy lands along the Sugar River as wildlife habitat and hunting preserve. Eventually including 11 farms and some 1,700 acres, the cooperative came to influence Leopold’s ideas about managing private lands to support native populations of wildlife.
“It represented a unique partnership between town and country to cooperatively manage a landscape,” says Silbernagel, now an assistant professor of landscape architecture. “It’s an example of a different aspect of Leopold’s work, which is what makes it exciting as a place for environmental education.”
Silbernagel only discovered Riley’s Leopold legacy by chance, while browsing some of his old writings a few years ago. Now she hopes to raise public awareness of the area’s history to spark efforts to preserve it. Just 14 miles from Madison, the area faces encroaching sprawl from the city and its fast-growing suburbs, and land prices have risen steeply. Dane County has listed the area as a conservation priority in its most recent parks and open space plan, and the Natural Heritage Land Trust, a Wisconsin-based conservation group, has also done work in the area to encourage landowners to adopt conservation practices.
Silbernagel is aiding those efforts by meeting with landowners to discuss options. So far, there are more ideas than solutions, but the Riley native has plenty of reason to keep pushing. “It’s absolutely personal for me,” she says. “There are many beautiful, special landscapes around the state. This is one I feel I can contribute to on a personal level. I kind of feel like I owe that.”