The first Director of Schmeeckle, Ron Zimmerman, is retiring at age 66 after 37 years in the position. His time with the reserve has been marked with the progress and struggle of turning a piece of land into a self-sustaining economic entity.
Zimmerman shared his experience at Stevens Point as the people he knew became the names of buildings and what he called, “becoming one of the old guys.”
When he first stepped onto campus as a student in 1967, the College of Natural Resources was in its infancy and formally named the Dept. of Conservation. Zimmerman became the Assistant Director and eventually Director of CWES, Central Wisconsin Environmental Station, in 1975. Along the way, he befriended notable campus names such as Lee Dreyfus and Daniel Trainer before accepting the position of the first Director of Schmeeckle in 1979.
Zimmerman was given the task of transforming an abandoned farm into a natural area that could be accessible to everyone. While learning to understand the reserve’s personality, he kept in mind the reserve’s priorities of maintaining native communities found within the central Wisconsin area, allowing education and research, and availability for recreation.
The first hurdle for the reserve was funding. The university’s budget only provided one paid position, a Director, but with the help of work-study money, Zimmerman assembled a group of students capable of changing the reserve.
They purchased a wood router, bought some wood, and began putting up signs to explain the use of the land to the community. At that time, the visitor center was only a house that was purchased by Schmeekle Reserve. Slowly, addition after addition, the house became the building it is today.
With Zimmerman’s efforts, Schmeeckle Reserve eventually expanded as the group began making signs for various buyers; county parks, national parks, even residential properties. Zimmerman also increased profits of the reserve by offering interpretation consulting from local to international scenic areas. As a professor of Nature Interpretation for thirty-five years, Ron was able to develop a successful team of coworkers around him.
One of those coworkers, Mike Gross, first worked with Ron at CWES thirty-eight years ago. Together, they developed the university’s Environmental Education and Interpretation program.
“Ron is a gifted speaker, teacher, and entrepreneur,” Gross said, “Schmeeckle Reserve wouldn’t be what it is today without him.”
As the community and university embraced the reserve, its use and wear increased.
“There was an emphasis of transforming the reserve into a place where the public and community can interact with nature. The downside is that an area can be loved to death, creating a desire to add land” Zimmerman said.
When a small budget limited the ability to maintain staff and purchase land, Zimmerman approached the Student Government to survey students’ interest in paying a student fee for the benefit of the reserve. The response was positive and, decades later, the reserve is 280 acres with more prospective growth.
After working with the university for forty years, Zimmerman is retiring but looks forward to the future of Schmeeckle. The recently established “Friends of Schmeeckle” group allows for further fundraising beyond the university’s budget. He hopes the reserve can obtain more of the Moses Creek watershed to further protect the wetlands, his favorite spot within Schmeeckle.
Jim Buchholz, Assistant Director of Schmeeckle for the past fifteen years, was appointed Interim Director until someone for a permanent position is decided.
Buchholz explained that Zimmerman was a “mentor and visionary” to him throughout his undergraduate and graduate work at Stevens Point. He hopes to continue Zimmerman’s ability to unite groups with the reserve, such as the Green Circle Trail and the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.
While living at home near Sunset Lake, Zimmerman anticipates working with “Friends of Schmeeckle.”
Zimmerman’s parting word to students is “Dream big. We all tend to limit ourselves… When I had to stick my neck out and do something that nobody had ever done before, I was amazed by the number of people who would come to my aid, the funding available out there, and the things that you never would see accomplished.”