By Neil Heinen

I was never a dog person. There were no dogs in the house when I was growing up. Any mention of a pet elicited the same response from our father: "You have ten brothers and sisters. You don’t need a pet." More likely he meant there was no room for a pet, but the argument was going nowhere in any event.

However, I married a dog person. Big time. Our first dog entered my life within months of getting married and there’s been at least one sharing our home ever since. And thus a dog person I have become.

For the last maybe ten years, our dog park of choice has been Prairie Moraine County Park on County Highway PB in Verona. Our current dog, Baguette, a ten-year-old Bouvier des Flandres, approaches each visit to the dog park like a ten-year-old kid approaches a trip to Disney World. The simple sound of the leash being removed from the closet starts a happy dance that is nearly uncontrollable. Once in the car she can contain herself for perhaps two or three miles tops. And then the rapture envelopes her. It starts with a sort of high-pitched moan, then escalates into a yip, then a full-out bark, and finally a combination of all of the above in an ecstatic release that has on occasion driven me to ear plugs. I don’t know what we, and she, would do without Prairie Moraine County Dog Park.

Dane County's park system is one of the defining natural wonders of life in Madison and its surrounding communities. Most of us just sort of know and take for granted that a county park, historical/cultural site, wildlife area or wetland is approximately fifteen minutes away from just about anywhere. But when you see it laid out on a map, and there’s a terrific one on the Dane County website, you can really see how important the county park system is to the place we live.

It stretches from Iowa County to Jefferson, from Columbia to Rock and Green. It's a chain of public green spaces that both links and defines the communities that make up Dane County. It's an incredible network of lands big and small, hilly and wet, wild, conserved and forested. And what strikes me as so interesting and wonderful about this intricate necklace of nature are the different constituencies that feel so connected to these places.

Community gardeners, bikers and hikers, disc golfers, exercise enthusiasts, people with disabilities, bird watchers, picnickers and dogs all lay claim to one or more of the 12,000 acres of parks trails and natural areas that are part of the Dane County Park System. We would not enjoy the quality of life we have in Dane County, including all the wonderful urban amenities so vital to so many of us, without this system. It's as important as our lakes and our city and municipal parks, and yet it suffers from disproportionate levels of support.

Financial support for the County parks comes from a combination of county and state funds, user fees and generous private donations. But government funding has been static, private donations inconsistent and the need to protect and manage the parks has gone up. There are an impressive fourteen Friends groups working to support the parks, but it's not enough and they could use more help and coordination.

A group of smart, caring folks have started the Friends of Dane County Parks Endowment Campaign. The campaign will provide a permanent and growing stream of revenue to support needed park programs and existing parks friends groups. And from now until the end of the year the Madison Community Foundation will match one dollar for every two raised up to $50,000. You can find out more at either the Dane County Parks or Madison Community Foundation websites. Baguette’s so excited, she can hardly bark.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

Read more of his columns here