Bio: Gary Werner

Gary Werner

Partnership for the National Trails System: 29 Years

In 1958, when Gary was 10 years old, his father read “My Boyhood and Youth” by John Muir and connected with the Sierra Club in San Francisco. There was no organized Sierra Club activity in Wisconsin, but he was encouraged to meet with other members and start organizing activities. This led to many weekend hikes in the hills and hollows of southern and central Wisconsin and canoe trips on the many quiet and whitewater rivers throughout the State. Gary’s’ father served in the Marine Corps in the south Pacific during World War II, and, for him, hiking was more like a march following a compass course. For Gary’s mother, it was an opportunity to linger and appreciate the myriad wildflowers blooming in the spring. Gary’s challenge as a youngster was to both keep up with his father and linger and explore with his mother. He learned cross country navigating skills from his father and the delights of watching for all the small and delicate creatures that make up the beauty of our world from his mother.

Gary’s family took summer vacations to the West throughout the late 1950s and 1960s visiting national parks – Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, and the then “in the making” North Cascades – with hiking a featured activity. They also visited lots of ghost towns, mostly in Montana, to satisfy his mother’s fascination with these relics of past dreams. Their national park visits always included the campfire talks given by rangers and hours absorbing the exhibits in the interpretive centers. All of these experiences deepened Gary’s interest in geography and history – his two favorite subjects during grade school – which years later found a practical expression in his work with the national scenic and historic trails.

Gary Werner, right, inducts past PNTS Board President Leo Rasmussen nto the National Trails System Honor Roll during the Oviedo, FL PNTS Conference in 1997.

Gary’s first recollection of what would become a national scenic trail was during a Sierra Club canoe trip on the Mecan River in 1962. Some of the people were talking about an Ice Age Trail proposed to meander through Wisconsin. There was a good deal of speculation and poring over maps about where this trail was or was intended to be. Intrigued, his father contacted the leading proponents of this ambitious project and soon was leading them on hikes to scout a route for the trail through south central Wisconsin. Scouting hikes led to workdays building and marking the Ice Age Trail. Gary’s father was an active leader in the organizations working to create and sustain the Ice Age Trail and the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve for the rest of his life. With the “trail” that he blazed and an affinity for the National Park System, the National Forest System, the land preservation work of The Nature Conservancy, and the environmental activism of the Sierra Club instilled by both of Gary’s parents, it was natural for him to follow in their footsteps as a way of living.

Gary Werner received a USFS door knocker from Chief Christiansen at Hike the Hill 2020.

Gary was fortunate to be the first full-time employee of the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation, working for a dozen years organizing and guiding volunteers in trailmaking and working with local, State, and Federal agency planners to create the plans to weave the — by this time – Ice Age National Scenic Trail into the official geography of Wisconsin.  His experience of environmental activism in the Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 1970s prompted Gary to join activists from The American Hiking Society and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in the early 1990s in organizing the “Committee of 17” – leaders of the then 17 national scenic and historic trails – to lobby Congress for adequate funding and staffing support for these trails. He had the great privilege to serve the National Trails System community for 29 years as the Executive Director of the Partnership for the National Trails System (retiring in 2020). This joyful activity enriched his life through the many opportunities it afforded to meet, be inspired by, and work with scores of dedicated trail activists in public and private service to our nation. When not volunteering on the trail, Gary and his wife, Melanie, enjoy biking and visiting farmers markets in Madison, WI.

“It was wonderful to work with Deb Salt, Rita Hennessy, and Jaime Schmidt and to be continually inspired by the creative ways they guided their federal colleagues in finding more resources and methods to sustain our national trails. Before them and with them I had the joyful privilege to work with Steve Elkinton, Jim Miller, Jonathan Stephens, Nathan Caldwell, and Christopher Douwes, all inspiring in their dedication to public service on behalf of our National Trails System,” Gary said. “This happy work we have all engaged in continues as the trails lead ever on…”

PNTS Board President Barney Mann, left, and TLC Chair RG Absher, right, present a quilt of all 30 national scenic and historic trails to Gary Werner, far right, during his retirement reception at Hike the Hill in 2020. Photo by Kathy DeCoster.