How Lake Lovers Become Lake Leaders

Post by Carroll Schaal, Lakes and Rivers Section Chief for the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau; adapted by Sara Fox, UW-Extension

The waters and beds of natural lakes and streams in Wisconsin are considered Public Trust property – they belong to everyone. There are more than 15,000 lakes in the state, providing plenty of opportunity for the public to get involved in helping to manage those bountiful resources.

Many of the state’s laws and programs are intentionally designed to create public/private partnerships that enable citizens to play a central role in getting positive work done. There are laws that allow the creation of qualified lake associations and lake districts for the express purpose of raising funds and conducting projects to enhance, protect or restore lakes. There are cost-share programs that provide up to 75 percent of the cost of a project. There are volunteer programs where citizens monitor water quality and aquatic invasive species or educate boaters about the threats of AIS.

A partnership between natural resources agencies and local citizen-run organizations helps protect our lakes. Credit – DNR Files


In these programs, the DNR provides technical assistance, support, supplies and sometimes funding, while relying on citizens to carry out much of the work. Partnerships between natural resources agencies and local citizen-run organizations are essential to effective natural resources management.

This has long been the mode of operation for the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership. The partnership seeks to join the technical and financial resources of the DNR, the educational capacity of the University of Wisconsin Extension and the organization of Wisconsin Lakes Inc., a nonprofit serving local lake groups and interests – all to empower local citizen-led lake management.

There are thousands of citizens serving as officers, board members, volunteers or staff for the state’s 220 lake management districts and 500-plus lake associations, not to mention the counties, towns, cities and villages essential to maintaining and protecting these precious resources. However, few possess any formal training that prepares them for the host of complex issues they may face, whether it’s managing algae or zebra mussels, seeking grants or recruiting and directing volunteers.

In 1998, to address the need for leadership in this realm, Wisconsin began a program called the Lake Leaders Institute. Its charge was to “proactively develop a pool of committed and prepared leaders who could assume leadership roles in the Wisconsin lakes and other statewide committees, countywide lake associations and watershed teams being organized by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Today, the Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute is a statewide program that helps lake stewards gain a better understanding of lake ecology and how to work with state and local governments to ensure lakes get the attention they need. The training program enhances skills and broadens capabilities of people in our lake communities, champions effective and communicative collaboration, and fosters responsive and useful networks that support lake citizens.

The LLI is designed to assist in developing and enhancing both the technical and the people skills of citizen leaders. To date, more than 320 individuals have “graduated” from one of the institute’s 11 “crews,” and Crew 12 launched in May. A new crew is recruited every two years.

A “dream team” of lake professionals has given program organizers a hand in educating and motivating lake leaders. Instructors come from all walks of the lake world: academia adept in leadership development and citizen advocacy support; research limnologists; government officials; not-for-profit leaders; Native-American educators; technical experts from assorted natural resources agencies at the federal, state, county and town levels; private-sector lake-related businesses; and Extension outreach specialists, among others.

In addition to lake residents, participants may include staff from the DNR, UW Extension, county conservation and zoning offices, and private consulting. The mix of agencies, staff and citizens creates a unique dynamic that naturally fosters the collaboration and partnering necessary to succeed in today’s environment.

How it works

To participate in the Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute, crew members must be nominated. Though they can self-nominate, it’s much more effective and meaningful for candidates to be nominated by others who see their leadership potential.

Candidate nominations require a letter of recommendation and a detailed candidate application. The completed applicants are reviewed by committee and the top 30 are selected per class. Crew members must commit to attend and pay $300, covering about half the cost.

Instructors are mostly volunteer and venues are modest to help keep it affordable. Courses within each seminar are designed to create an atmosphere of openness, trust and camaraderie.The training program consists of three two-day seminars in May, September and October.

Lake Leaders Institute trainees get a crash course on the science and ecology of lakes. Credit – UWEX Lakes

The first session focuses on building a sense of camaraderie exploring values, ethics, perceptive communications, what leadership means and the philosophy and history of Wisconsin lake management. The second session is a lakeside crash course on the science and ecology of lakes, how humans impact lakes and the basic building blocks of a lake management plan. It includes an afternoon in pontoon boats learning how water quality, habitat and fish and aquatic life are measured. The final session focuses on organizations, people, politics and the law.

Graduation from the Lake Leaders Institute takes place at the Aldo Leopold shack on the grounds of the Aldo Leopold Foundation near Baraboo. There, graduates share a commitment statement describing how they will use their leadership skills to enhance the community in which they live and become active participants in protecting in partnership our legacy of lakes in Wisconsin.

Advanced training and awards

In addition to the regular LLI sessions, single-day advanced training sessions are offered to graduates in odd-numbered years to continue to keep leaders inspired and connected. Topics for these programs cover timely issues on the cusp of new techniques or roll out new programs being offered by the state. Even after nearly 20 years, these advanced training sessions are attended by members from all the past crews.

Evaluation surveys show high levels of satisfaction with what participants learn in the program, but almost everyone mentions the personal connections they made as equally valuable. Roughly three-quarters reported becoming more confident and more active in local lake management affairs and in their ability to influence decision makers.

Several LLI graduates have been inspired to run for a local elected office and, in terms of meeting the original goal, the board of Wisconsin Lakes also has been well-stocked through the program.

In 2009, the Lake Leaders Institute received a national award for outreach and education from the National Fish Habitat Board, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among hundreds of nominees, the institute was chosen by the board for its “extraordinary commitment to fish habitat conservation, science and education.” 

With the help of the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership, the LLI should hopefully continue that commitment well into the future.

This entry was posted in Lake Leaders, Lakes Partnership. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.