By Tom Still
MADISON – Very few people have the luxury of choosing where they die, but Martin Hanson may well have been one of them.
Hanson, 81, was found dead last week outside his log cabin in the Chequamegon National Forest in northwest Wisconsin. The key word is “outside.” Hanson, who loved the outdoors like an adopted child, had been ailing and apparently fell while walking the grounds he treasured. Because his cabin lies about 10 miles from Mellen, the nearest town of any size, the chances of a visitor finding Hanson before it was too late were slim.
Conservationist, sportsman and political adviser, Hanson passed away surrounded by the things he valued most – the forest, the pond he fished when he wasn’t angling for bigger fish elsewhere, and the creatures big and small who roamed past his picture window almost on command.
Hanson was best known for his work to protect the Apostle Islands, the 21 islands scattered east of Bayfield and Red Cliff in Lake Superior. They became a national lakeshore in 1970 in part because Hanson, an aide to the late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson and later to U.S. Rep. David Obey, was President John F. Kennedy’s tour guide during a 1963 visit to the region. Hanson pointed out the sights to Kennedy from a helicopter as he planted the idea of bestowing “lakeshore” status on the islands. Later, Hanson helped organize the Friends of the Apostle Islands, which raises money for projects there.
Hanson was on hand for the early thinking behind Earth Day, which Nelson launched in 1970 as a way of drawing attention to the challenges facing the environment. Hanson later led a successful effort to reintroduce elk to the Chequamegon National Forest, where a herd continues to grow today, and devoted much of his time to filming the wildlife of the forest. The Martin Hanson Theater at the Northern Great Lakes Center in Ashland was named in his honor long before his death.
Hanson was a patient teacher to those who wanted to learn more. A winter fishing expedition with Hanson would likely involve casting for hours off the mangrove labyrinths of south Florida or Honduras, two places where everyone seemed to know “Martini” and his penchant for catching tarpon. On my first tarpon troll, I somehow hooked a 100-pound fish on its back fin, which prompted a 75-minute struggle to reel it close enough to the boat to claim victory. Hanson dropped everything he was doing to offer advice, blended with some occasional mutterings about the stubbornness of the tarpon and the ineptitude of the fisherman.
He was born into wealth into Chicago, where his father owned a furniture manufacturing company. The family’s recreation estate in the Chequamegon became Hanson’s home as he grew into adulthood – and he became the quintessential Wisconsin North Woods sportsman. Hanson was as active in politics as he was in conservation, often entertaining political figures at his cabin – and just as often drinking “a brown one” after the magic hour of 5 p.m. arrived.
Martin Hanson’s brand of conservationism wasn’t preachy and it certainly wasn’t politically correct, but it worked. The outdoors he loved returned the favor.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is co-author of “Hands-On Environmentalism,” a book on private conservation published by Encounter Books, New York.