Wisconsin: Your Next Conscious Travel Destination

What do you think of when you hear the following?:

  • Sustainable businesses
  • Organizations making a positive environmental impact
  • Connecting with and learning about the roots of a place
  • Culture and history

To me, these are all part of "conscious travel."

High Cliff State Park, Wisconsin
Photo Credit - Landon Martin

When people think of conscious travel destinations, Wisconsin isn’t often the first place that comes to mind. Cheese and That 70’s Show seem to be the most common associations, from my conversations with travelers around the world.

But, did you know:

  • Great environmental protection legends John Muir and Aldo Leopold both called Wisconsin home. Leopold is considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system. Muir is known as the father of national parks.
  • A Wisconsin brewery fought big national lobbyists and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure all beer labeled as "Organic" includes only organic hops.
  • Every year Milwaukee hosts a sustainable, earth-friendly music festival where 93% of the waste generated is reduced, reused or recycled.
  • Wisconsin is home to more than 2,700 miles of nature trails, winding through state parks, cities and wildlife areas.
  • Madison, the state's capital, hosts the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the United States all summer long.
  • The state has more than 15,000 lakes - great for family gatherings and water sports in the summer, and ice fishing in the winter.

This list is just a taste of what Wisconsin has to offer. In recent years, the state's tourism rates have grown considerably. It has been ranked #1 among Midwestern competitors in fun, family friendliness, uniqueness, affordability, outdoor recreation and welcoming atmosphere.

You may be wondering why I'm so passionate about Wisconsin. Truth is, about two months ago, I moved back to Wisconsin after a six-year hiatus: Four years spent in Chicago, one year at a retreat center in Northern California, and one traveling around the world.

I never thought I’d return to Milwaukee, my college town. But it’s been an absolute joy to rediscover what this city, and my state as a whole, have to offer. I've become a conscious traveler and decision maker in the place where I'm from.

Just over a decade ago, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism initiated Travel Green Wisconsin. The program focuses on promoting sustainable and environmentally-friendly business practices. It is the first of its kind in the United States. Today, more than 409 Wisconsin businesses and organizations are green travel certified.

Some of these Travel Green business and organizations include:

Milwaukee is Wisconsin's largest city. One of its big draws is its beer - it is the birthplace of Miller Brewing Company (now MillerCoors), after all. Dozens of small, local breweries call Wisconsin home, and many of them are at the forefront of sustainable production and business practices.

Lakefront Brewery played a key role in industry regulations in 2004 when big national brewers lobbied to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow hops not grown organically to be put in beer labeled and sold as “Organic.”

Lakefront partnered with several organic hops growers and petitioned that organic beer must have organic hops. There was a hearing on the policy, and today, all Organic beer is required to be made solely with organic hops.

Madison’s Ale Asylum was the first Wisconsin brewery to sign a declaration to fight climate change, joining with more than 50 other brewers nationwide in a commitment to “brewing with the climate in mind.” In addition, Ale Asylum produces about 20% of its electricity from solar energy, with shiny panels lining the roof of their Madison brewery.

Sustainable and environmentally-friendly business is just one aspect of conscious travel. Another is connecting with the environment itself.

Thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails weave their way through Wisconsin. One highlight is the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, one of only 11 national scenic trails in the United States. The trail winds over 1,200 miles through pathways created by an immense flow of glacial ice that passed through the state more than 12,000 years ago.

Wisconsin is a state of abundant farmland, with large-scale production and distribution of corn, soybeans and cranberries. Many people don't know Wisconsin is the nation's leading producer of cranberries).

Small-scale producers thrive here too, sharing their produce at places like Dane County Farmers' Market or natural food cooperatives.

Along with that, organizations like Growing Power and the Victory Garden Initiative manage urban farms, giving access and education to people in low-income areas who want to grow their own food, and connect with their community.

The Victory Garden Initiative has planted more than 3,500 garden beds around urban Milwaukee since its inception nine years ago. They offer educational programs at their urban farm, and Executive Director Gretchen Mead sees the farm's presence as a huge positive for the community.

"When I bring people to the farm it opens their eyes to a whole different reality,” said Mead when I spoke with her. "It’s important to engage people in more socially-based travel. It helps to boost economies, especially for low-income populations.”

Giving travelers the opportunity to make positive, conscious travel decisions is impactful in so many ways:

  • Local economies are boosted, specifically those businesses and organizations already working hard to do good.
  • Travelers are empowered knowing that their time and money are going toward something positive.
  • Change is encouraged when people choose to support sustainable companies and organizations. This shows local and state governments where their priorities lie based on where people spend their money.

Every purchase you make is a choice, a vote. We should stand by those choices.

While it is clear to me that Wisconsin has much to offer the conscious traveler, from sustainable businesses, to community-building organizations, to beautiful nature, it is important to acknowledge that not everyone in the state is prioritizing environmental protection and green initiatives.

In recent years, state legislators made changes to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, cutting general purpose funding for parks, eliminating many educator and scientist positions, and even initiating language changes on the department’s website to remove content that said humans and greenhouse gases are the main causes of climate change.

Governor Scott Walker has all too often sided with the interests of big business over the support of sustainable environmental policy.

Walker recently passed legislation that will exempt the Taiwan-based company, Foxconn, from certain environmental laws. Foxconn plans to build a multi-billion dollar flat-screen production factory in southeastern Wisconsin, and there are many concerns regarding the environmental protection of Wisconsin wetlands.

Conscious travel. Conscious living. To me, they are one in the same.

Every decision we make has the opportunity to benefit others. To help us become educated. To allow us to spread awareness.

So whether you're visiting somewhere new, or getting reacquainted with a place you thought you knew, take time to choose places, activities, and organizations that are doing good.