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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Remembering Cliff Germain

Cliff Germain at the surprise dedication of a new State Natural Area in 2002.

Among Wisconsin’s many experiments and accomplishments in conservation, was that of protecting a full array of natural areas representing our native landscape. It began formally in 1945 when the state Conservation Commission accepted a motion by member Aldo Leopold to establish a Natural Areas Committee. It continued when the commission created a State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas in 1951, to protect natural areas for their research, education and esthetic values—the first such program in the nation. This agency evolved into the State Natural Areas program, which today protects 694 sites covering over 407,000 acres, and remains a model for other states and provinces. It took hundreds of volunteers and professionals from dozens of organizations and agencies to accomplish this, from early ecologists such as the University of Wisconsin’s Leopold, John Curtis and Norman Fassett, to educators, donors, land managers, bureaucrats and modern conservation biologists—united by a love for the earth and to fulfill Leopold’s adage that “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering”.

A central figure in this story was Clifford Germain, who grew up hunting and fishing around Merrill, WI. Upon returning from the Army after WWII, he attended UW-Madison, was introduced to the science and ethics of conservation by these same professors, and changed his major from engineering to zoology.  After graduation in 1949, he worked for the Wisconsin Conservation Department as a game biologist until 1966 when he was hired as the agency’s first ecologist, and director for a new Scientific Areas program. Cliff’s thoughtful, gentle manner, dedication, and northwoods roots served him well, as he advocated the program and its holistic purpose among the public and within the agency, where it was often resisted by traditional fish, wildlife and forest managers. Alliances were made with organizations like The Nature Conservancy; the Natural Areas Association was formed; and funding was secured for land purchases and for a small staff of young experts devoted to understanding and protecting the natural world. A cadre of these naturalists conducted systematic searches for native plant-animal communities, county by county, according to the classifications of Curtis and his grad students, as summarized in the 1959 classic Vegetation of Wisconsin.

By the time Cliff retired in 1986, the WCD had been reorganized as the Department of Natural Resources, and his program had been redubbed State Natural Areas, which included 50,000 acres among 211 sites. In the ensuing decades, the accelerating growth in knowledge and understanding initiated by Cliff, his mentors and colleagues, and spurred by digital technology, resulted in widespread acceptance of the SNA program, more complex ecological data and community classifications, and advances in natural areas management.

When Cliff was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 2014, he thanked his teachers young and old. He credited the people who came before him, those who followed, and his family. When he died last month, family suggested that to honor him, we read A Sand County Almanac.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation honors the work and memory of Cliff and Dave Foreman, devoted champions of “things natural , wild, and free.”