The Friends of Scenic Lodi Valley


 A Reflection


 Tom Heberlein


In April 1995 the new owner of the building at 609 N. Main Street cut down two ancient burr oak trees. The destruction of these trees brought a public outcry, letters to the editor, and a public meeting. At this meeting broad public interest in protecting and improving the scenic beauty of the community was manifest.  About two dozen possible members were identified from the meeting participants and letters of invitation were sent out. With in a month an organization established.

Other historical documents

2005 10-Year Anniversary
2004 Newsletter
2005 Membership Report
2006 Membership Report
Donations to the Library

The by-laws established a “bottom up” organization with teams formed to deal with problems.  The first two teams were a Tree Team and a Sign Team. The teams were to dissolve when the problem had been solved (or when the Team simply gave up in frustration). The head of the organization was called the “Coordinator” and the steering committee was to be made up of elected representatives and team leaders. Teams could basically create themselves without approval of the steering committee. The steering committee was to maintain the organization, but the real action was to come from teams. By June 10, 1995 we had 47 members or supporters and more than $1000 had been run through the Friends checking account by early July. Two years later on January 1 1997 this had dropped 23 members but grew to more than 50 households or individuals by 2000.

Thomas Van Biersel took over the leadership in July of 1995. Friends of Scenic Lodi Valley[1] was selected as the name.  “Scenic Lodi Valley” was adopted several years later by the Lodi Enterprise and put on their masthead. The valley was probably always scenic, but the “Friends” gave it the label that sticks. Defining our community and environment as scenic may be one of the lasting contribution of the Friends.

Friends as Newcomers

For the most part, the leadership and key actors in the Friends of Scenic Lodi Valley were newcomers rather than long-term residents. Van Biersel was from Belgium and worked at a consulting firm in Madison when he became the first Coordinator. The second Coordinator then President,[2] was Elizabeth Thomson, a UW professor who had moved to Lodi in 1986. The third President was Bill Herman who had moved into Lodi from Ashland and succeeded Thomson when she left for a job overseas, just as Thomson succeeded Van Biersal when he moved out of town to take a Post Doctoral position. Bill and his wife Patti who became a key figure on the Lodi Reads Leopold Team, had been in town barely a year when they were drafted for leadership roles. Key team leaders such as Kevin Hinckley, Bill and Kathy Pielsticker, Gail May and Tom Heberlein were all new comers to the community. The Friends were not entirely newcomers.  Key leaders such as Don Thistle and Adel Van Ness were Lodi natives with well known family names. The man that cut down the trees came from an old and well known Lodi family, and early on the conflicts over trees was framed as a newcomer vs. old timer conflict.

Trees: From Conflict to Consensus

The Friends initially focused on trees. Kevin Hinckley formed the Tree Team. This team sought to reduce confrontation both by celebrating trees and by focusing on public rather than private trees. The Tree Team over the years would be the most successful and in some ways most perfectly characterized the team concept.  Lodi became a Tree City every year between   ??  and  ??     . This was not just a name but reflected planting trees along Highway 113, taking a tree inventory and most dramatically strengthening the public infrastructure for trees. The Tree Team wrote successful grant proposals. The Team worked through the city to make sure that public employees knew how to prune and care for trees. Trees were on the public agenda. The ultimate measure of success here was when the Team Leader found out about a conference on trees and alerted the city only to find out that the Director of Public Works and other city employees had already signed up for the conference.

Signs and Politics

The Friends did more than measure and plant trees. Along with the Tree Team in 1995 Gail May took on the role of Sign Team leader. The council was proposing a sign ordinance that would seriously hurt the scenic beauty of Lodi. The Friends had established a telephone tree—back in the days before wide spread e-mail. On short notice they could and did get representation at any city council or board meeting. The work of this team was successful and a new and sign ordinance was passed in 1995? The team dissolved. The enforcement of this law has suffered as the Friends have moved on to other issues and some of the most flagrant violations have not been enforced by the city.

The Friends as a group and individuals began to take the issue of zoning variances seriously and followed the paper to see when routine requests were made to change zoning. Up until this time zoning in Lodi was seen as simply a recommendation until someone had a better idea for how to use the property. Members insisted that the zoning code be followed. This came to a head when the brother of the business owner who cut the initial trees bought a small house on Portage street and cut down all of the trees on the lot. He then came to the city to ask for a rezoning from single-family residence to a triplex. The request, which typically would have been routinely approved, was turned down.

Members of the Friends were also active supporters of the new historic city hall and showed up repeatedly at city council meetings to support progress on this project. A proposed sub-division on wet lands north east of Lodi was also successfully opposed by members of the Friends.

Friends as Leaders

Some leaders became members of the Friends. Paul Fisk, mayor during much of this decade, became a member of the Friends. Several council members were also members. A number of the most active members of the Friends were tapped for public service. Kevin Hinckley became head of the Parks Commission succeeding Ted Goeres, patriarch of the family, which had had the most significant impact on Lodi in the 80 years since his father helped found the Lodi Canning Company. This put Kevin on the City Planning Commission. Adele Van Ness became the city clerk. Members of the Friends were picked to serve on the Zoning board.


From the beginning the Friends tried to keep a high profile, by placing advertisements in the Lodi Enterprise (“A word from a Friend”).  Early in June1995 we published an “My Favorite Tree” booklet reprinting the columns from a Lodi Enterprise contest in 1977.  Enthusiastic members of the new organization marched in the 1995 4th of July Parade around Thomas Van Biersal’s antique car. While other groups passed out candy, we passed out tree seeds.  A booth for the Friends was also set up at the Lodi Fair that summer.

Club House Ecology

Shortly after becoming the Coordinator, Thomas Van Biersal and his wife Susan bought the Mills Block building in down town Lodi. Half of this became a café and the other half bar and pizza parlor. This location gave a place for the members of the Friends to congregate socially. Team meetings were held there and Lodi Reads Leopold held their first evening reading at the Mills block. Dropping in at the Mills Block would usually insure a conversation about some Friends activities. Van Biersals sold the building. In 2003 John Gorton opened up the Lodi Coffee Roasters in the same location that again came to serve the same function.

Building Infrastructure and Moving On

An explicit goal of the Friends was to deal with a problem/issue/opportunity and move on. The Tree Team was probably the most successful in this mission. Over the years, city ordinances, practices and board memberships had changed. By the time this team dissolved, the city was basically taking care of the city trees.

Don Thistle headed the Ice Age Trail team and worked heroically to bring the trail to town and to establish new sections of trail; Don’s long history in the community diffused the insider-outsider conflict of trail expansions. When the Ice Age Trail had its own local constituency to establish the Lodi Valley Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Don and others from the Friends stepped aside and the team dissolved.

An historic building which had most recently been a doctor’s office at 218 S. Main Street had been donated to the Ice Age Trail.  They did not have the staff to fill it nor the money and labor to support it. In 1999 the Friends formed a team and did the remodeling (taking out 3 sinks, sanding the floor, repainting the entire building and tuck-pointing the brickwork). The Friends also developed the parkland just to the south of the building. When the Ice Age Trail was ready to use the building the Friends moved out.

One Person Teams

The Friends also gave a platform for individuals to initiate actions. Allison Seaton fought hard (and successfully) to retain the Merrimac Ferry under the auspices of the Friends. She also initiated the highly successful rain garden associated with the expansions of Highway 113 on the south side of Lodi. Other members in building a highly successful and innovative project joined her. Lodi Reads Leopold, an annual community event to read A Sand County Almanac on the first weekend of March, was started by an individual and only became a Team effort four years later.

Less Successful Efforts

Two teams formed, failed to achieve their objectives, and dissolved. The first was a team to try to save the trees on Highway J that were in the right-of-way west of Lovering Road. The county kept threatening to cut the trees. In 1996 the adjacent land owners—Jane and Steve Manke formed a team, got over 700 signatures to preserve the trees, but they were felled in a great community controversy. I believe this team was unsuccessful because we did not go directly to the county highway committee but instead let our county board representative speak for us.

Gibraltar Rock is clearly the crown jewel of the Scenic Lodi Valley. Its management and public use have been in limbo for years as the county fails to take any action. A public meeting was held and more than 30 people, including a number of elected representatives, attended. The energy and enthusiasm of the meeting led to the formation of a team. The team was dissolved by the steering committee after several years of inaction.

Relations with Other Groups

The Friends membership showed a large overlap with the Old House Lovers. This latter organization was largely social and composed of owners of the older homes in Lodi. The members came together to share ideas about restoration and visit each other’s homes.  The Friends, in some ways, became the political or active arm of the Old House Lovers. The bimonthly meetings of the Old House group became a time when members of the Friends could get together to discuss projects and strategies. Members of the Old House Lovers wrote grant proposals and took on historic projects under the framework of the Preservation Committee of the Lodi Valley Historical Society.

Working with the Department of Natural Resources

A proposal to cut pine trees at the Lodi Marsh Wildlife Area sparked a meeting and the emergence of the “Lodi Marsh and Prairie Team under the leadership of first Kathy Pielsticker and then Bill Pielsticker. The DNR had virtually no money or staff time to manage this 1100-acre area, so the Friends took it on. The most visible results were litter picks up and beautifying the three parking lots. The Friends also joined with the Ice age trail to cut and burn red cedar in an Oak Savanna restoration. Several grants for  the maintence of  the Dane County Airport restoration adjacent to the public land were given to and administered by the Friends. The Friends also administered grants for shocking and assessing the trout stocks in Spring Creel

Lodi Looks Different because of the Friends

The office at 218 S. Main Street was cared for and restored. The park to the south of it was maintained and trees planted. Trees all over town and particularly on the north entrance to town were planted and maintained by the tree team. The Lodi marsh is a much more welcoming area. The Ice Age Trail comes into and crosses Lodi. Spring Creek will soon become a canoe trail to Lake Wisconsin.

Support for Local Groups

The Friends became the institutional basis for Boy Scout troop 592 and the Venture Crew.

[1] I believe that Tomas Van Biersal came up with this name. It was being used  by June 2, 2005

[2] We needed later to change the title to President as the organization was modified to meet state requirements for tax exempt statues.