By Dennis McCann
It was only as fitting as it was widely expected by friends that one of Lowell Klessig’s last acts before his death in August would be to permanently protect his beloved 80 acres of farmstead and woodland near Highbridge in Ashland County with a conservation easement. His life’s work and his heart’s passion had been in environmental stewardship and the rustic property he had called “The Un-Hilton” was the beneficiary of both that labor and love.
However, his goal was not to preserve the onetime Finnish homestead as a static site. Klessig, whose wife, Christine, called her husband a “philosophical farmer,” had long valued such property not only for its innate aesthetic values but also for the human connections that were inevitably present.
Thus, the easement Klessig drafted prohibits subdivision or industrial or commercial use, but allows for the former orchard, pastures or hayfields to be made productive again if the landowners, in this case his two sons, should ever want that. They and their guests can also use the land for hiking, skiing, hunting, fishing or studying nature, pursuits the land has offered to Klessig and others in the past.
Kim Bro, Klessig’s longtime friend and member of the board of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy, the agency to which Klessig granted the easement, said the move was wholly in keeping with Klessig’s understanding of the human side of environmental protection.
Klessig believed “that land was not just a decoration,” said Bro, “that land has productive qualities. It wasn’t, ‘ain’t this pretty, I’m just going to set it aside.’ It’s ‘yes, it’s pretty, but it’s also going to be put to work.’”
Klessig, 69, died Aug. 8 of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare disease that affects one in a million people. A member of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy since 2004, Klessig made it a priority to complete the easement before his death.
Klessig acquired the 80-acre Poppe family homestead, complete with 1910 Finnish dove-tail corner log home, more than 35 years ago when he worked as deputy director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. He later worked as a Lake District Specialist for the UW-Extension, helping lake property owners across the state develop stewardship plans and lake districts. His first conservation easement was granted for property he and Christine owned at their home in Amherst in Portage County, but he maintained his connections to Ashland County, sharing “The Un-Hilton” with friends and family and, further, sharing his belief in land stewardship.
Bro said Klessig was bothered by the increasingly commercial celebration of Christmas so he developed a personal holiday more suited to the land, the annual Fall Colors Festival that combined a half-day of work followed by the tapping of a keg and meals cooked on the wood-burning cast iron cook stove.
“He would invite hundreds of people, and the ones who took him up (on it) he would always make room for,” said Bro. Lodging was on cots or in tents or teepees and often the work included improvements on the original log home, which was served running water from a spring just uphill from the house. Klessig’s favorite spot on the property, though, was a granite outcropping known as “the perch,” which overlooked the Penokee Hills and where he and Christine celebrated their wedding.
In describing the conservation values that merited the property a permanent easement, Klessig included protecting wetlands and streams, forests and natural wildlife habitats and related qualities. But Bro said it was important for him to leave open the possibility of future use of agricultural acreage because it was not enough to protect only its scenic beauty and history.
“It’s really part of what he loved about the place,” Bro said.
“It is comforting,” said his wife, Chris, “to know that this loved and cherished piece of the Wisconsin Northwoods will be protected for future generations.”