Aldo Leopold’s legacy springs to life at award-winning nature center

Of all the creative ways the Aldo Leopold Nature Center fulfills its eco-friendly mission — and the list is long, with both low-hanging fruit and cutting-edge sustainability efforts represented — one deceptively simple feature seems to sum up what the center is all about.

The theater screen in the ALNC’s Orientation Center serves as the backdrop for the organization’s educational movies, and when it’s not being used expressly for that purpose, it can be raised to allow passive solar in or, on hot days, lowered to block sunlight out.

In a sense, that modest movie screen is a microcosm of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center’s goals. The ALNC’s mission is, in the words of Leopold himself, to “teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands.” But its explicit educational mission is buttressed by a wealth of sustainability features and practices that help the center — with a main campus in Monona and a smaller facility in Black Earth — serve as a role model to other local businesses and the public at large.

Brenna Holzhauer

Those features and practices helped the ALNC snag the Sustainable Small Business of the Year trophy during the Business Sustainability Awards presentation at the Oct. 22 In Business Expo & Conference.

According to ALNC Director of Exhibits Brenna Holzhauer, who has spearheaded many of the center’s sustainability and educational efforts, the legacy of Aldo Leopold is well represented in nearly everything the center does.

“I think [Leopold’s] land ethic and his ideas of living lightly on the land are applicable even in the 21st century, and even as we talk about green buildings and facilities and all our modern technology,” said Holzhauer, “and I think if you look at it kind of holistically and think about how everything’s interconnected, it’s very applicable to all the things that we’re doing here.”

Of course, just because the Aldo Leopold Nature Center has an explicitly Earth-friendly mission, that doesn’t mean Mother Gaia can wave a magic willow branch and instantly turn the center into an exemplar of green business practices. Like any small business (the ALNC is a public nonprofit organization), it needs to work hard to keeps its business practices aligned with its ideals. In that sense, it’s in the same boat as every other small business in Greater Madison and environs.

“We don’t always think of ourselves as a small business, but we definitely are, and I think that’s actually one of the challenges that we’ve found as we’ve taken a look inward at our procedures and practices and tried to be more sustainable,” said Holzhauer. “We go out and talk about these environmental issues, but then when we sit back down in our office chairs, we’re faced with the day-to-day realities of working with a small budget and not having enough hours in the day to get all our jobs done, so sometimes the behaviors and the ideas weren’t there just because you get swept up in the day-to-day business end of things.

“So it was actually a little bit different approach for us to be a sustainable business rather than a sustainable nature center, so I think in the past year we’ve really committed to that.”

Sustainable success

The ALNC has approached its larger sustainability mission by making both dramatic and subtle changes to its facilities and practices. The center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, recently renovated its Monona facility, using state-of-the-art renewable energy systems and green-building techniques that relied on natural, salvaged, and recycled materials.

One of the most impressive features is the 17-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array that graces the center’s roof.

“It produces a significant amount of energy, and the neatest thing about it — we’re always involved in the education side of things too — is that we have a real-time solar dashboard hooked up to it,” said Holzhauer. “So we have our climate education center, which is full of exhibits that talk about fossil fuel usage and energy usage and what we can do to cut down on emissions, and then right there in our exhibit we have a real-time solar dashboard showing how many tons of carbon dioxide we’ve saved over the past couple of years, and so it really just draws that direct connection so people can see solutions in action.”



Along with the renovations to its Monona facility, the center also began looking at its business practices, zeroing in on several ways it could lower its environmental impact and shrink its carbon footprint.

“Before, anytime someone needed an office supply or a craft supply for a project, they’d make their own order or they’d run out and run the errand,” said Holzhauer. “We had smaller shipments with more packaging. But by communicating better and having more tailored office orders, we were able to order in bulk. We’re able to cut down on shipping, we’re able to cut down on packaging. So that’s just one example.”

But while it might seem as though a nature center named after Aldo Leopold, a local hero and an inspiration to environmentalists around the globe, would have an inside track on winning a Madison-based environmental award, that hardly diminishes the ALNC’s efforts.

The center has cobbled together a dizzying array of sustainability features and practices — including solar thermal; efficient heating, air conditioning, lighting, and appliances; motion-sensor lighting; sustainable food sourcing; and much more — and it only seems fitting that it be rewarded, in a small way, for its forward-thinking approach.

At the same time, says Holzhauer, the rewards come naturally — and, shall we say, organically — via the example the center sets throughout the community.

“Our educational mission feeds the sustainability that we do and all of our practices, and then all of our practices feed our educational programs, too, because we’re able to have a really holistic approach to how we teach,” said Holzhauer. “We can point out things all around us on our facility and on our grounds that are examples of exactly what we’re teaching about, so it all kind of ties together.”

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