2023 Conference: Gratitude, Inspiration, Determination

A photo of about 75 people grouped together and posing for the camera.

Reflections from Mike Carlson, executive director

In early May, Gathering Waters hosted more than 70 people at the 2023 Wisconsin Land Trust Conference in La Crosse. Land trust professionals and volunteers from across the state came together to network with peers and learn from experts.

The program covered a range of topics, including: professional and organizational capacity, centering equity in conservation, conservation funding, GIS tools and conservation planning, community engagement, criteria for land acquisition, and fundraising. There was also plenty of networking, fun outdoors, and delicious desserts.

Over the course of our two and half days together, three words came to mind for me: gratitude, inspiration, determination.


In conference sessions, I saw people engaged and interacting with one another. Some sat with laptops out, learning how to use an online mapping system for land trusts to identify  priorities for land protection and management. Others were deep in discussion about engaging with the wider community and how to be better ambassadors for their organizations.

It’s not easy for land trust staff and volunteers to take time out of busy schedules to attend a multi-day conference, so I’m grateful to each and every participant for seeing the value in this professional development and networking opportunity.

I can also attest to the enormous amounts of time, energy, and planning invested by our staff to line up speakers, prepare materials, and set up the meeting venue. Bringing people together for a substantive educational experience is not a small undertaking, and I’m so appreciative of their hard work and attention to detail.

The second word, INSPIRATION.

This was sparked by seeing so many land trust leaders together in one space – and the energy in the room was unmistakable.

Seasoned land trust staff engaged with younger conservationists to learn from one other. I heard fresh ideas blended with years of experience and wisdom, and witnessed new connections being forged within our community.

The third word that came to mind was DETERMINATION.

The conference was revitalizing and even exhilarating, but at times, it was also sobering. Even as land protection professionals were encouraged by their time together, the reality of ongoing threats to conservation was apparent.

Opponents of conservation are trying to undermine land protection at every turn.

This is not a time for us to pull back or keep our heads down. Instead, we need to continue to bring forward high-quality, high-profile projects—like Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs and Pelican River Forest—across the state. If we can shine a bright light on the value of these projects to local communities and the need to reform the legislative oversight for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, we will attract more supporters and make a stronger case for public funding for conservation in the future.

This is a fight worth having, and if we’re going to be successful, we need to keep up the determination I saw at the conference. We can do this, together.