Nonprofit Spotlight: Groundswell Conservancy

Posted by Samantha Haas on Friday, July 17th, 2020 at 11:37am.

Groundswell Conservancy began as a collaborative effort with the city, county, university, local nonprofits, and individuals nearly 40 years ago to protect Wally Bauman Woods (part of the UW-Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve) from condominium development along Lake Mendota. Since then, this Madison-based nonprofit has continued using a partnership mentality to permanently preserve hundreds of other special places throughout Dane County and the seven surrounding counties. 

College students with the Prairie Partners ecology restoration summer internship program crew remove invasive species at Patrick Marsh near Sun Prairie. Photo by Ben Jones.

One of more than 50 land trusts in the state, Groundswell Conservancy often consults the Dane County Parks and Open Space Plan to be more proactive than reactive when preparing to purchase or accept donations of land or conservation easements. Heidi Habeger, Director of Major & Planned Gifts at Groundswell, said it’s important to act quickly, because these opportunities are often difficult to come by and can take considerable time to come to fruition.

“We don’t have enough lands, and once it’s gone it’s gone. It’s very hard to convert that back to a green open space,” Heidi said. “We’re part of the big picture of local land protection, and our vision is a world filled with green spaces where communities thrive.”

Groundswell’s impact reaches far beyond protecting tracts of land. These green spaces play an important role in our economy, tourism, and history as areas for people to learn about nature, recreate, farm, and help with restoration work. “So many people don’t have access to land here in Dane County because it is so expensive,” Heidi said. “We have started to use our land protection tools to try to help others in the community and provide equitable access to nature.” 

Several local initiatives have been strengthened due to Groundswell’s land protection and program support. For example, Groundswell has partnered with Madison Audubon, Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, and Friends of Cherokee Marsh to hold a Prairie Partners ecology restoration summer internship program since 2012. College students are paid to remove invasive species at rotating sites and learn from different partners and experts -- often resulting in landing local jobs (like Tony Abate who is now Groundswell’s Community Conservationist). 

In addition, Groundswell has provided land security and an investment for Robert Pierce, a longtime fresh food activist and farmer, at Pasley’s Swan Creek Farm near the Town of Dunn. Robert is building up the soil and applying for organic certification at that site, as well as running two programs: Program for Entrepreneurial Agricultural Training (PEAT) and Farming After Incarceration Release (FAIR), which provide mentorship and economic opportunities for youth and formerly incarcerated adults to get training in urban agriculture. 

Youth participate in Robert Pierce's Program for Entrepreneurial Agricultural Training to learn about urban agriculture at Pasley’s Swan Creek Farm near the Town of Dunn. Photo submitted by Groundswell Conservancy.

When Groundswell acquired the Westport Farm near Waunakee, the nonprofit continued leasing to Hmong market and subsistence growers and will install a well this summer to provide them with a reliable water source. The pandemic forced many farmers markets to start taking online orders, and the Hmong farmers were unfortunately left out of the conversation because of language and technology barriers, so Groundswell pooled resources with the Community Land Trust and Linden Cohousing to create a Hmong farmers market for the public to attend from 3-6 p.m. Thursdays through October 15, 2020, at the 2000 block of Winnebago St on the east side of Madison.

A farmers market was created at Linden Cohousing for Hmong growers who lease Groundswell Conservancy’s land at Westport Farm near Waunakee. Photo by Ben Jones.

Normally, Groundswell holds one field trip per month from January through September, but these events have either been shifted to a virtual format (like the Earth Day virtual scavenger hunt), rescheduled to next year, or canceled because of COVID-19. Heidi said it’s still unclear whether the Black Hawk Ridge Trail Run fundraiser for Groundswell will happen this fall. 

Heidi, who has worked with Groundswell for 10 years, said the silver lining of the pandemic has been how more people are “getting outside to find solace on the land right now,” which has been especially evident with an increase of public use at Patrick Marsh Wildlife Area near Sun Prairie (featured in this video).  

“Hopefully they will remember how important that was and what that felt like to get out and how lucky they are to have all these wonderful spaces,” Heidi said. “And hopefully that will lead to more appreciation, a more heartfelt understanding for conservation and for having these places, and, hence, more support.” 

To support Groundswell, consider volunteering at one of their sites or making a donation. While land purchases are typically funded by grants, the nonprofit relies on support from individuals to make sure staff can maintain these partnerships, programs, and events. Learn more at

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