Nature Conservancy volunteer Gary Gates learned about the benefits of controlled fire at an early age. Both his father and grandfather burned their fields in southwest Wisconsin, where Gary was born. After his family moved to rural Dane County and when Gary was 12 years old, he started assisting his father with field burns on their small vegetable farm.
Today, Gary is one of the Conservancy’s most dedicated prescribed fire volunteers, assisting the Conservancy on every burn we carry out.
A retired Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, Gary and his wife Pam have been long and generous supporters of The Nature Conservancy. When he retired, Gary began helping the Conservancy and other organizations with prescribed fires. He also helps out in many other ways — pulling invasive species like garlic mustard in the woods, planting prairies and maintaining nature preserves across the state.
As the leader of the Spring Green Prairie volunteer crew, Gary traveled to the preserve four to five times a week in winter 2007 to clear 15 acres of red cedars, which were invading the prairie and shading out native grasses and wildflowers. Since 2007, the crew has continued to go out once a week. This intrepid group of volunteers is undeterred by cold weather, once showing up on a winter day when the temperature was 26 degrees below zero!
When not volunteering for the Conservancy, Gary can be found collecting cans while riding his bike to various Madison locations. Since he started the project in 1987, Gary has recycled about 1.6 million aluminum cans worth $30,000. He donates the money to non-profit organizations including environmental groups like the Conservancy. Gary was featured in the Wisconsin State Journal’s “Know Your Madisonian” column for his avid can collecting
While his volunteer and can-collecting efforts take up a large portion of his time, Gary also enjoys hosting his many grandchildren at his home and maintaining the large yard surrounding his house.
When asked about the current environmental situation, Gary’s conversational and upbeat tone becomes very serious. He’s concerned about environmental degradation and believes that controlling population growth will be important in saving our planet’s plant, animal and human populations.
“Over the years, Gary has participated in more than 150 burns for The Nature Conservancy and many more for other organizations,” said Hannah Spaul, the Conservancy’s director of land management in Wisconsin. “But Gary’s commitment goes far beyond the fun and excitement of burning. He helps put in fire breaks and maintain our equipment, and he is always ready to come back the next day to assist with the important, but not as exciting, tasks of mopping up and monitoring after the burn. His commitment and dedication of time to conservation is unparalleled and humbling.”