The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wants to transform an environmental education center in Poynette into a hunting and fishing training center, complete with shooting range, the agency announced this week.
The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which runs the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center with the DNR, said the changes would mean an end to the popular field trip destination known for its native Wisconsin animal exhibit, annual maple sugar festival and environmental education programs that drew about 16,000 Wisconsin students last year.
George Meyer, the federation’s executive director, said he learned Monday the DNR will end the group’s contract in August. Instead the agency will ask nonprofit and commercial groups to apply to manage the property and run hunting, fishing and trapping education programs there. Groups would have to fund the programming without state money and build a small shooting range for training.
“As we take a look at our statewide education plan, one of the things that was noticeably missing was the outdoors skills education center,” said Kurt Thiede, DNR land division administrator.
The change at MacKenzie, according to DNR officials, would be a way to reduce costs and create what the agency called a “first-of-its-kind” outdoor skills recruitment and retention center. Thiede said the state has been paying about $280,000 annually to run the center.
“We don’t see this as a big change other than the fact that we’re adding to the offerings at MacKenzie and we’re trying to do it in a sustainable way,” Thiede said.
Thiede said that any group chosen to run the center would have to offer environmental education as well as hunting education.
“It is that the primary focus would now be on promoting outdoor skills,” Thiede said.
Popular for school field trips
MacKenzie, which opened in the mid-1970s, has been a popular and low-cost field trip destination for area schools and is designed as a self-guided facility. Teachers are given literature before they arrive and can guide their class through the museum and trails. Dorms allow students to stay overnight.
“We would be devastated if .. the education and overnight opportunity disappeared,” said Mark Smith, seventh-grade teacher at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie. “(Students) get to have this amazing sleepover that’s basically integrated with all these learning opportunities outside. We have students who have never made a s’more before.”
For the past six years, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a friends group have run the center, where 22 species of live native Wisconsin animals are on exhibit.
“It’s one of two native live animal exhibits in the state of Wisconsin,” Meyer said. “That’s what makes it really unique.”
Meyer said the federation supports the outdoor skills training and would be willing to work with the state on a program held on weekends and during the summer, because it wouldn’t interfere with the current school-based environmental programming during the school year.
In a letter to the DNR this week, the federation and Friends of MacKenzie organization requested the agency reinstate the contract to operate the center until “a completed planning process with a robust community, school and stakeholder public input process and the education aspects of that new plan are up and running at MacKenzie.”
Thiede encouraged the federation to submit their own proposal for the outdoor skills center to be considered for a new contract.
From hidden gem to destination spot?
The DNR has struggled for years on how to best fund the center, Thiede said.
And while visitation has been good at MacKenzie, “we haven’t seen a great increase over time,” Thiede said.
“While hidden gems are great, what we really want to try to focus on is making MacKenzie a destination,” Thiede said, adding he hopes programs like the popular Maple Sugar Festival, which features a pancake breakfast and provides a history of maple sugaring in Wisconsin, continue.
Neil Bishop, president of the Friends of MacKenzie group that helps the wildlife federation run the center, worries what will happen if the DNR changes its focus from environmental education. He envisions the Maple Sugar Festival disappearing.
“We’re all extremely disappointed that they’ve decided to take this action,” he said.
Bishop also is concerned about what will happen to the wildlife exhibits, which include a mountain lion, grey wolf and bald eagle.
Thiede said the animals would be “cared for” however what that would mean — be it care at the current facility or somewhere else — is uncertain.
Rob Bohmann, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, supports the change at MacKenzie.
“The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation has done an outstanding job promoting general outdoor education at the MacKenzie Center over the years, but we see a tremendous amount of value for conservation in this new opportunity to concentrate educational efforts on outdoor skills related to hunting, fishing and trapping,” he said in a news release.