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Jerry Viste: The Conscience of a County

Since 1968 Jerry Viste has served as executive director of the Door County Environmental Council, acting as the conscience of the peninsula in matters of natural resources – including air, land, water, and living creatures – all while raising a family and running a multigenerational dairy farm in Nasewaupee.

Viste’s interest in nature developed in a natural way. “As a youngster growing up in the county and walking to school,” he said, “I learned more on the way than I sometimes did during the morning [classes].

“You see what’s going on.” He saw birds, sometimes a “shypoke” (crane) in a swamp, and he enjoyed the fresh smells of spring.

When he was in high school, he and a friend would ride around Northern Door on a motorcycle, singing in harmony while visiting natural attractions such as Europe Lake and Three Springs.

Jerry Viste

The child becomes the father of the man, William Wordsworth wrote, and such was the case with young Jerry Viste. After college, a three-year stint teaching in a one-room school, and service in the military, he returned to his home farm, and undertook a mission to protect the quality of life not only for his own family, but also for everyone who resides on this ecologically fragile finger of land.

Jerry Viste’s role as an environmental activist began in 1980 when a proposed coal fire plant targeted his Nasewaupee farm as an ash disposal site. He joined the newly formed Door County Environmental Council (DCEC) and served on its the board of directors. The ill-conceived project was blocked through the combined efforts of the group, and not only did Viste remain with the organization, but in 1986 he became the executive director, a position he held until his retirement last February.

Under his tenure the DCEC has achieved an impressive record of environmental protection accomplishments, but “the formation of the Land Trust was most significant,” Viste said. While he takes pride in the creation of this entity, he gives credit to the assistance of attorney William O’Connor and of ecologist James Zimmerman.

The Trust website explains that “the Door County Land Trust is a completely local, non-governmental, non-profit organization whose mission is to permanently protect lands that contribute significantly to the scenic beauty, open space and ecological integrity of Door County.”

Through donations of land and easements, and through outright purchases, the Trust now protects and manages more than 6,500 acres of land in locations ranging from Washington Island to Southern Door, and includes forests and wetlands, shorelines and islands, and the scenic open spaces of old fields, meadows, farms, and orchards.

Door County Land Trust preserves are open to the public for nature-based recreational activities. As the county continues to experience development and the population of residents increases, the protected land remains available for the enjoyment of all people who live or visit here regardless of their economic status, subsequently creating a widespread awareness of the peninsula’s natural resources.

Viste regards hiring Dr. James Zimmerman in 1987 as a consulting ecologist for the DCEC to be another important action on his part. “Earlier I had dismissed him!” Viste laughed, but is now thankful that he changed his mind.

Zimmerman was a well-known ecologist at UW-Madison who had been a student of Aldo Leopold. He was famous for his knowledge of and deep concern for the plants and animals of Wisconsin. During his work in Door County he stressed the importance of wetlands in protecting groundwater aquifers as a refuge for endangered plant and animal species. In the past swamps had often been regarded as wastelands waiting to be reclaimed with landfill for future development.

He created maps of the county documenting natural resource areas, now an important guide in wise land use planning and in the avoidance of potential ecological disasters.

But perhaps Jerry Viste’s greatest accomplishment was knowing the limitations of his knowledge and continually bringing to Door County people whose expertise extended beyond his own, educating not only himself, but passing information on to the people who make the peninsula their home.

When Viste announced his retirement as the DCEC executive director, Eileen Andera and Carol Sills published an article in that organization’s newsletter detailing the many environmental achievements that he had accomplished during his tenure. For example, he informed the public of the harm from phosphorus and nitrate runoff, the importance of smart growth planning, the need for recycling, the usefulness of rain gardens, and the threat of cladophora.

He educated the population regarding not only wetland protection, but also the importance of sustainable farming, of maintaining clean drinking water, of the connection between all living things in our vulnerable ecosystem.

He has worked to protect fish spawning sites, to control invasive fish species, and to counter the threat of water diversion from the Great Lakes.

The Wisconsin Stewardship Network said under Viste’s direction “the uncompromising stature of this organization [the DCEC] gained statewide reputation as a leader in the field of resource conservation and protection.”

And this is the legacy that Jerry Viste leaves behind him, not only for his family but also for people who live in Door County and those who visit from elsewhere. At age 81 he has earned rest in a rocking chair on a front porch, but that will not be his life. He has spent too much time serving on agencies and testifying before commissions to assume a sedentary lifestyle. Instead, he is working on his autobiography, on mapping local farms, and his own genealogy.

Robert Merline, a past DCEC board member, sums up Viste’s contribution: “Jerry worked tirelessly to encourage appreciation of Door County’s rare and unique character and never stood down when it came to their defense.

“He was instrumental in broadening environmental awareness,” Merline continued, “and in securing protections for this gem of a place.”

For more information about Viste’s life and work, visit dcec-wi.org.