Ridge and Swale: A Story of Conservation
Published by Door County Pulse, Craig Sterrett – April 19th, 2023
Filmmakers tell stories of those who fight for the land
For many people, to visit Door County is to fall in love. The peninsula’s remarkable wild and rugged landscape attracts and captivates scores of visitors, and many hold it close to their heart. If you’ve strolled along a rocky lakefront bluff or discovered a delicate wild orchid in the woods, you understand.
But there can be peril in holding something too closely. Although tourism is the lifeblood of Door County’s economy, human pressures threaten the very beauty that brings people here.
Fortunately, there’s another story unfolding in the area, and it’s being shared through a new Peninsula Filmworks project called Ridge and Swale. It tells the story of conservation in Door County – a remarkable history of the steps taken to protect the character of the county and, in turn, how those steps have shaped it. It’s the reason those bluffs and orchids are still out there, waiting to be discovered.
The filmmakers say it’s a story that needed to be shared.
“It’s a passion project,” said David Eliot, the project’s producer. “A lot of people complain about all the new development. We thought there was an opportunity for a story that [acknowledges that] there is a lot of development, but boy, there is a lot of conservation, too – the amount of space [protected] and the history of the people who had the foresight to set aside these natural places and preserve them for future generations. It seemed like a really great story to tell.”
Ridge and Swale is scheduled to be released this year on Earth Day, April 22, with a special public showing. The docuseries will also be available for viewing online.
The filmmakers had planned and researched the project for years, before formally undertaking the bulk of filming in 2022. Director Brett Kosmider said he hopes the film inspires future generations to become involved in protecting the county’s resources – or at least pay attention to what’s at stake.
“I think it’s presumed that Door County’s open spaces will always be there,” Kosmider said. “When you look around, you see the bucolic countryside. Whether it has ecological value or not, it’s the character of Door County, and it’s quickly disappearing.”
Thanks to community conservation work that has spanned decades, however, many places are now protected forever.
Ridge and Swale explores the people and places behind Door County’s conservation and education success stories, detailing entities such as Peninsula, Newport and Potawatomi State Parks; The Ridges Sanctuary; and The Clearing Folk School.
“There are all sorts of interesting stories that I’ve spent the last few years digging into and researching,” Kosmider said. “When you are finished watching it, I hope you will have a greater appreciation of what it took – what people had to do before us to make sure these places were saved for the future generations.”
Kosmider said that although many of the places featured in the film are well known, when you dig beneath the surface, there are some surprising and fascinating stories.
For example, Ferdinand Hotz was a diamond merchant who was once the largest landowner in Door County. Although he amassed large holdings, he preserved them in a natural state, and after he died, his family sold a huge, largely undeveloped property to the state of Wisconsin. The parcel included more than 10 miles of shoreline that’s now known as Newport State Park.
“That’s why we have a state park – from [Hotz’s] ethic,” Kosmider said. “He was a diamond merchant, but he was a conservationist as well.”
Conservation efforts have sometimes faced opposition. Kosmider said there were residents who opposed all of the county’s state parks, and there was one – Grand Traverse Islands State Park – that was championed but never developed. Still, many preservation efforts persevered.
Peninsula State Park was founded in 1909 with the goal of providing recreational opportunities. Kosmider said the park’s creation was driven by legendary landscape architect and planner John Nolen, and championed by state Assemblyman Thomas Reynolds of Jacksonport, who recognized the need to protect the land for posterity.
“Places like Door County would get snapped up by the ultra-rich for their private playgrounds,” Kosmider said. “[Peninsula State Park] was seen as a way to allow the common person to enjoy the land and take a vacation.”
Kosmider said vacations were a new concept in the early 1900s.
“Peninsula State Park was created just for that, so people could come here,” he said. “Perhaps they didn’t have the means to buy 80 acres on a lake, but they could come up here and go camping.”
Recreation was the early focus of preservation efforts, but a shift took place during the 1930s. On land that’s now The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor, a Milwaukee botanist recognized rare orchids and began leading tours. In 1937, the property became Wisconsin’s first land trust.
Andy Gill, executive director of The Ridges Sanctuary, said his organization is proud to be featured in the film project. He said during the 1930s, people recognized the unique habitat and the beauty of The Ridges, and they organized a grassroots effort that led to the property being saved.
“I’m a little biased, but I do think it’s one of the best conservation stories that we have in Wisconsin,” Gill said. “It’s one of the reasons that all of these conservation organizations are able to exist today. The start of the conservation movement from an organization basis really got started at The Ridges, and we’re really proud of that history.”
Julie Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Door County, said her organization was also excited to support Ridge and Swale.
“When we spoke with Peninsula Filmworks about this program, we were all in,” she said. “If we don’t support and take care of our environment and natural resources, they will not sustain who we are as a community and as a visitor economy. It’s just very important.”
Gilbert said Door County’s natural and business resources have been stressed by the large influx of visitors who sought to get out of urban areas during the pandemic. In response, Destination Door County launched efforts such as Care for Door County, a campaign that includes cultural, quality-of-life and eco-focused initiatives.
“We have worked very hard in being extremely mindful in how we can balance the visitor experience, as well as our residents’ [needs] in order to be sure that everybody can enjoy the beauty and the natural resources that we have,” Gilbert said.
Destination Door County is intentional about attracting “high-value” visitors who want to become part of the community, Gilbert said.
“The people who come here, many of them have been coming here over generations,” she said. “Second- and third-time, fourth-time visitors, they also see their impact and want to take care of the place that we call home because they love it as much as we do.”
Kosmider said that visitors have long played an important part in protecting natural areas, and he expects that to continue.
“If we close the doors to Door County, in my opinion, we’ll have a greater chance of losing these special places because we won’t have that awareness,” he said. “With awareness, people can say, ‘I want to help preserve this place. How can I help?’”
Eliot agrees. He said that although there’s a perception that visitors have destroyed the county, visitors have also played a critical role in preserving natural places.
“A lot of [conservation] came from people who came up here on vacation and realized, ‘Boy, we had better protect this before it goes away,’” Eliot said. “There is always the potential here of loving things to death, and in some respects it is happening, but at the same time, there are people who came to Door County because they loved it, and they worked to preserve it, too.”
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