In the days before Google Earth and 3-D computer modeling, Phil Lewis, a landscape architect, was building visions of the Wisconsin landscape to encourage planning and preservation of its distinctive cultural and environmental virtues.
Our Driftless Region was especially in his sights—part of his responsibilities as a state environmental planner and the reason why he was an inspiration for people, including me, in this area of the state. Lewis died July 2 at the age of 91.
His interest in the area was prompted by night flights over the region during his service as a navigator in the Air Corps during World War II. He once told me in an interview that the light patterns below suggested that the darkness of the Driftless was a “hole in the donut” and he realized that it would be an attraction to the ring of population that surrounded it — at the time some 16 million people.
His vision as a young landscape architect was that the state and region should plan to protect the features of the landscape both cultural and environmental that would attract the residents of “circle city” for recreation and other economic development—a message that he brought to the second annual membership meeting of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy held at Onalaska’s Cedar Creek Country Club in 1999.
Jay Fernholz, retired local landscape architect who took classes taught by Lewis and remained close to him ever since, said last weekend that much of what the conservancy has accomplished in its 20-year history reflects Lewis’s recommendations for land protection.
Lewis was recruited by then Gov. Gaylord Nelson to serve as the director of the State of Wisconsin Recreation Resource, Research and Design, Department of Resource Development, where he served from 1963 to 1965.
According to his obituary, Lewis became the founder and director of the University of Wisconsin’s Environmental Awareness Center. He had joint appointments with the Department of Landscape Architecture, Department of Urban & Regional Planning, and Extension. Lewis also served as chair of the UW Landscape Architecture Department from 1964 to 1972 and taught undergraduate and graduate design courses. He retired in 1995.
Lewis helped design recreation corridors in the state such as the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, which was depicted in a model in his lab when I visited him in 1990. He was able to point out the features of the 95,000 acre, 92-mile riverway as we walked next to it. He was also a pioneer in using transparent overlays to add the various features of a landscape.
In 2007, Sustain Dane, the organization that promotes sustainability in Greater Madison area, had asked me to comment on Phil’s work as part of a tribute to him. I responded that at the time MVC was being organized by a group of local citizens, his teaching was “on my mind... and has remained so since as we have accomplished some of the work he was advocating long ago.” I added, in response to another question, “His legacy is already assured in what has and will be accomplished in preserving and fostering the ecological health of our lands and communities.”
In 2013, Dane County named a seven-mile greenway the Lewis Nine Springs E-Way to honor the work on the project by Phil and his late wife Libby, who served for 26 years on the Dane County Parks Commission.
Lewis’s legacy proves that Gaylord Nelson made a good decision to recruit Phil Lewis to shed new light on how we look at our fantastic landscape and the methods to protect it. In the Driftless area, the challenges he saw from the lights of Circle City remain and Circle City has grown dramatically, amplifying the pressure on development. But there are a number of organizations using Phil Lewis’s patient methods to help the people of the region protect what they value.