A park with a plan

Donation gives new public space and a future plan
A park with a plan
Photo by Nikki Hansen
Steve Morton donated his property to the Dane County Parks System.

Steve Morton gazes out from the exposed sandstone bluff overlooking his family retreat, 25 miles west of Madison, and draws in a breath of fresh May air.

“Honestly, I don’t think you can find a better view anywhere,” says Morton, 84, a philanthropist who has taken private-public land conservation to a new level. “You can just sit here and enjoy the quiet without hearing any motors or gunshots.”

Now, through Morton’s generous gift of land and funds for its upkeep, the public can enjoy the same type of serenity at Morton Forest, the newest addition to the Dane County Parks System.

For years, Morton had planned to donate the 114 acres of hilly woodland at the intersection of Reeve and Fesenfeld roads in the village of Mazomanie. With no children of his own and as the lone surviving family member, he wanted to make sure the land was permanently protected.

“I never liked real estate developers,” says Morton, a retired chemist, lifelong bachelor, accomplished musician and nephew of former U.S. Rep. Thomas Amlie, who was a member of the Progressive Party representing Wisconsin 1st Congressional District from 1931 to 1939.

As a younger man, Morton enjoyed countless hours at the farm and was especially fond of the Sunday cookouts where politics and nature were often at the table along with the hamburgers and potato salad. Later, in 1976, Morton published a book, titled “Water Pollution: Causes and Cures,” as Americans began embracing the environmental movement.

Morton inherited his family’s property in 1982 following the death of his father, Walter, a longtime economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His mother, Rosalie Amlie, died three years later.

In 1999, as part of his estate planning, Morton decided to donate the property to Dane County as parkland. It seemed like the perfect way for the public to enjoy a respite from city life as his family had.

But Morton didn’t stop there. Realizing that local government was increasingly cash-strapped for park maintenance, Morton in 2014 established a $240,000 endowment with the Madison Community Foundation to provide $10,000 annually for upkeep of the property.

Finally on Jan. 1, 2016, the entire parcel–which was assessed at $622,000 and taxed at $11,000–was deeded to Dane County. While not the largest property donation in terms of acreage in county history, it came with dedicated funding for maintenance.

“Steve is an incredible philanthropist,” says Dane County Parks director Darren Marsh. “The fact that his donation comes with an endowment is critical. He knows what it takes.”A park with a plan

Funding with Foresight

With taxpayer dollars for parks at a premium, more individuals are realizing that just giving away their land often isn’t enough. Finding a way to generate operational dollars is becoming the new model for lasting conservation.

Longtime Dane County Parks Commission member Bill Lunney and his wife Judie Pfeifer understand this new reality and are involved with three endowments through the Madison Community Foundation.

The largest is the Friends of Dane County Parks Endowment, which now stands at $400,000 as a result of hundreds of personal and corporate donations. Endowments offer the benefit of a permanent supply of money because the initial investment is never spent.

Interest generated by the endowment will be used to support the various friends groups and volunteer efforts.

Lunney and Pfeifer have established their own family endowment for parks, trails and natural resources. The idea is to commit money to support aspects of parks not covered by county tax dollars.

They are also involved with a smaller endowment set up for the Capital Springs Recreation Area south of Madison along Lake Farm Road.

“We have 14 different friends groups that are doing some of the work that Steve’s endowment is doing, but his personal contribution for one park sets a high standard for support,” says Lunney.

Others are also providing private funds for Dane County Parks, Lunney notes.

The late Marcella Pendall established an endowment for the Waunakee area’s Friends of Schumacher Farm, the county’s first friends group. Anderson County Park near Oregon benefits from both an endowment fund and a “spend down” account that will eventually disappear. And land donors, like the Woodburn and Hitchcock families, have provided funds for Donald County Park near Mount Vernon.

Bob Sorge, president of the Madison Community Foundation, says his organization is thrilled to work with those looking to support area parks via permanently restricted endowments.

“These assets are invested with a goal to provide returns over time that cover grants made from the fund, expenses of the fund and inflation,” Sorge says. “The goal is to maintain the ‘buying power’ of the fund over time.”

A Reluctant EnvironmentalistA park with a plan

Morton Forest last October held its official “grand opening,” attended by County Executive Joe Parisi and other participants whose vehicles were parked along both sides of Reeve Road for hundreds of yards.

“Steve could have sold the parcel for a whole bunch of money,” Parisi said at the time. “Instead, he left it in perpetuity to the residents of the county. That says a lot about who he is.”

Indeed. Morton has long been active in charitable giving in the community. He established scholarships for undergraduate students of chemistry, music, human ecology and economics at UW-Madison.

Morton earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at UW-Madison in 1962 and moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he taught at Otterbein University. He returned to Madison in 1967 to work on various scientific projects, including at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, before retiring in 1992.

On a recent drive on U.S. Highway 14 to Mazomanie to visit the property, Morton offered his thoughts on a variety of topics–from the soaring cost of tuition at his alma mater (he says there are too many highly paid administrators) to the success of the Badgers basketball team (he still holds season tickets). He’s taken two dozen river cruises in different parts of the globe, many with his longtime significant other Rochelle Stillman.

Among his favorite subjects is the outdoors. But Morton doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist: “I have never liked that term. I’ve always thought it had a feeling of superiority that comes along with it.”

While Morton now only occasionally hikes to the top of the bluffs on his former property–he uses a set of Exerstrider poles for walking around the lower portions–he remains active. He owns a condo in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and counts himself as a “lifelong intermediate” downhill skier.

Cross-country skiing is allowed at Morton Forest, although there are no plans to groom the trails. Hunting is prohibited apart from limited bowhunting as needed to control the deer population.

The main draws are the passive recreational activities, including hiking, bird-watching and snowshoeing.

Window on the Driftless

“From my perspective, this land really highlights the topography of the region,” says parks director Marsh. “It’s a gateway to the entire driftless region.”

The Driftless Area, sometimes known as the Paleozoic Plateau, is a region unique to the upper Midwest and noted mainly for its deeply carved river valleys. While primarily in southwestern Wisconsin, it also includes areas of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois.

Elevations range from about 600 feet in the Mississippi River Valley to 1,719 feet at Blue Mound State Park. The region’s peculiar terrain is the result of its having escaped the last advance of the glaciers 13,000 to 26,000 years ago, with the term “driftless” referring to the lack of glacial rock deposits, or “drift” as it’s known to geologists.

There’s no shortage of challenging climbs at Morton Forest, which has been called a hiker’s paradise for its steep topography. The trails are shaded by a mix of hardwoods, including legacy oaks more than 100 years old. There are now two scenic overlooks on either side of Reeve Road constructed with another $15,000 donated by Morton: One lookout sits at an elevation of 833 feet, the other at 1,046 feet.

But aside from a cabin, garage and two overlooks, there are no other human-made structures, and that is how Morton wants to keep it.

“It’s not a picnic spot, but a place to enjoy some peace and quiet,” he says.A park with a plan

Walter Morton, Steve Morton’s father, purchased the property in 1953 with the sole intention of using it as a weekend getaway within an easy drive of the family home in Madison’s University Heights neighborhood. The initial sale came via two 40-acre parcels from the estate of George Reeve, who had died a year earlier.

The sale price was $2,350 and the taxes were $100 at the time. There was no plumbing or electricity. A cistern for roof runoff provided water and a windmill powered a simple well.

The Morton family soon began cutting numerous paths through the woods using a walk-behind weed and brush cutter. White pines were later planted on top of the hill behind the house, with water carried by hand up the hill to get them started.

More improvements followed. The Mortons added a front porch to the old house, and in 1962 another 40 acres were added along Fesenfeld Road. In 1968–around the time the nationwide ecology movement started–electricity was finally brought to the home and a separate garage soon followed.

But life at the farm began to change following the death of Morton’s parents. The old house that had created so many memories burned to the ground in 1989. While officially listed as an electrical fire, Morton is convinced someone broke in and partied there, given the strange beer bottles found amid the ashes.

“We’d had a lot of break-ins over the years,” he says.

The current house, which still has an electric well but no indoor plumbing, was built on the original farmhouse site, but Morton admits a lot of the memories perished with the fire. He is hoping the new cabin can be converted into a visitor center and the garage turned into a youth education facility as the endowment continues to provide more funding.

“Money is so tight these days,” he says. “The county can barely afford to keep up the properties they have.”

Marsh would welcome it if more outdoors-minded people followed Morton’s model. It’s certainly nice when land is donated for parks or natural areas, but finding maintenance and development money is always a challenge.

“Steve’s endowment has allowed us to move forward quickly on things we couldn’t afford otherwise,” says Marsh. “We’ve been able to hire local contractors for the work and put some of that money back into the community.”

What Morton likes best is that he can now visit the property without having to pay taxes or worry about mowing the grass. And he’s thrilled others can share in the beauty of the forest land that bears the family name.

“It was getting harder for me to maintain,” he says. “I’m glad the public can enjoy it the way our family did for all those years.”

Mike Ivey is a writer in Madison. He writes the Footloose blog for madisonmagazine.com.