Conservation's Friend: Wisconsin's Mary Lu Dooley
Mary Lu Dooley could, in some ways, be compared to Scarlet O'Hara. A spunky character, even in her 80s, Mary Lu is a strong and independent lady with an incredible past. Some say she scared the death out of the folks at the local Farm Services Agency office whenever she walked through their door because she wouldn't take no for an answer when it came to looking out for the well-being of her land. When she got an idea in her head about doing something beneficial for wildlife on the family farm, Katie bar the door!
And yet bubbling to the surface, under what could be perceived as a tough disposition, she still has a little bit of mischief and adventurous spirit mixed in for good measure. When you cut through all of the surface clutter, you find a woman whose love for the family farm runs deeper than the roots of the prairie oaks living on the land that her father bought in 1919.
Now to some, 100 acres of Southern Wisconsin prairie may be a far cry in both size and distance from Miss Scarlet's Terra, but the lifetime connection and love that Mary Lu shows for her family farm would have made old Gerald O'Hara - Scarlet's fiery Irish father - darned proud! Just as he told Scarlet that "It will come to you, this love of the land. There is no gettin' away from it." Love of the land did settle in Mary Lu's heart and still flourishes there after more than 85 years.
From the very beginning Mary Lu was a child of the land. She was born on the family farm in 1924, and in fact you might say the land itself served as a midwife to her mother. Well over nine months pregnant, her mother decided that enough was enough and it was time for that baby kicking inside her to see the world! So out to the barn she went and hitched plow horse to buck board. Across the back field she went, bouncing over the prairie, who knows how many times, in an attempt to induce her own labor. Believe it or not the tactic paid off! Within 24 hours Mary Lu made her appearance, and a lifelong conservationist was born. The bouncing buck board experience may have been auspicious.
When she talks about her land, you see how much pride and responsibility she has in owning this little piece of prairie. Her father sent her down the path of living an outdoors lifestyle by taking her on fishing trips to local lakes. Hunting is something she took to on her own as her father didn't hunt. She readily talks about hunting pheasants around the farm and has a story about missing a giant white-tailed buck when her arrow flew harmlessly over his back down near the unnamed creek that divides the property. Her love of the outdoors even took her to new adventures away from home, her favorite was catching a 150-pound sailfish off the coast of Florida during the 1940s!
One hunting story she is particularly fond of took place right on the farm and involves two young neighbor boys whose mother forced them to invite Mary Lu on a pheasant hunt. Now as you can imagine, the last thing two independent teenage boys with new shotguns want tagging along on their big day out was a girl! But, since they were going to be hunting on her farm, they reluctantly agreed. So, with her trusty golden retriever Rain Check at her side and her favorite little side-by-side 410 Whippet shotgun in hand, purchased with money earned shearing sheep, Mary Lu joined the hunt. Not 10 minutes in, up jumped two big roosters, that by chance, happened to cross flight paths at just the right time. With one crack of the little shotgun, both roosters folded up and old Rain Check brought them, one by one, to Mary Lu's hand. With a hidden smirk, she wished the boys good luck and headed for home leaving them flabbergasted. Out shot and out hunted by a girl! Lord, hope their friends wouldn't find out or they'd never hear the end of it! Decades later, she still laughs at the thought of the look on those boys' faces.
Throughout her very active life, Mary Lu found herself away from home. After a stint in the US Marine Corps from 1944-1946, she went to college and got a degree in law and a Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin- Madison, which was quite an accomplishment for a young woman growing up in the 1940s. She traveled around the world, owned other properties and was engaged six times (once to a Pulitzer Prize winner), but never married. And through it all, despite all her worldly adventures, "home" in Mary Lu's mind was the family farm in Wisconsin. It was her safe haven and where she kept all of her most valued possessions. When it tragically burned down in 1976, most of the mementoes and recorded history of her life in the form of photos and letters went with it.
Despite the heartbreak that life can sometimes cause, remarkable people can be counted on to continue doing remarkable things. And the love that Mary Lu has for the family farm made her do what may be the most remarkable thing she ever did in her life. She gave it to Pheasants Forever!
As a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologist, Brain Buenzow runs a program that pays local landowners a modest trespass fee to open their land to public hunting. Over the years, this program grew to where it now includes over 10,000 acres of privately owned land in a checker board pattern within six townships open to public hunting. In working with these conservation- minded landowners, Buenzow formed dozens of good relationships. He has often served as a quasi-property manager and worked with landowners to convert their properties to permanent grasslands with Wisconsin Pheasant Stamp funds. He has also regularly counted on his home chapter, the Rock River Valley Chapter, for additional help.
It was under such circumstance that he got to know Mary Lu. By his own hand, he converted 35 acres of her farm to native prairie. He tended to that prairie over the years with mowing and prescribed burns, all at no cost to Mary Lu. She built up a trust in Buenzow that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would someday result in what he considered to be one of the most meaningful accomplishments in his career.
Several times over the years, Mary Lu mentioned to Buenzow that she would like to do something that would keep the family farm from ever being developed, provide good wildlife habitat and keep it open for the public to enjoy. Doing so was something that she referred to as providing herself with "ecological comfort" - doing what she felt was "the right thing." And because she saw the good things Buenzow did for her land, she suggested to him that she would like to donate it to the state.
Now, after a 30-year career with the DNR, Buenzow knows how the system works and how to get things done! He also has a passion for pheasants. Buenzow's motto, "if it's good for birds, we'll find a way to get it done."
It was then he had a chat with Mary Lu: Instead of giving the land to the State, give it to Pheasants Forever! Buenzow explained the benefits to the organization in being able to leverage the value of such a gift (worth almost $400,000) to tap into both state and Federal grant programs that would allow PF to permanently protect even more lands using the value of the Dooley farm as collateral. In addition, her gift will be one of the largest contributions in Wisconsin to PF's Grassroots Conservation Campaign, providing the type of leadership that would likely compel and challenge others to make similar gifts.
Being the resourceful woman that she is and seeing how her own donation could be turned into much more, Mary Lu quickly realized the compounding benefits of the idea. In the fall of 2009, the deal was completed and the land that is so obviously special in her heart was gifted to Pheasants Forever.
And just as she wanted, Mary Lu's land continues to provide valuable habitat for wildlife. It is also leading to the permanent protection of even more acquisitions that would not be possible without her gift. To date, plans are already underway to use the Dooley farm to acquire matching funds from both the Wisconsin Knowles- Nelson Stewardship Fund as well as a North American Wetland Conservation Act grant. Eventually, Mary Lu's 100-acre gift will help to protect several hundred additional acres of permanent wildlife habitat and provide public hunting and other outdoor opportunities.
In addition, through Farm Bill programs that PF works relentlessly to foster in Washington, D.C., the Rock River Valley Chapter has begun to restore the actively farmed portions of the property back to native prairie. The small creek that divides the land is also getting some attention through an Environmental Quality Incentive Program agreement with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Old Gerald O'Hara said that "Land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts."Mary Lu just might agree with that statement. Thanks to her gift and the work of Pheasants Forever, Wisconsin PF now knows of at least one piece of ground in Wisconsin that will indeed be wild forever.