Heckrodt Wetland Reserve staff 2021

A special place right in town — Get close to wildlife at Heckrodt Wetland Reserve

A special place right in town

Get close to wildlife at Heckrodt Wetland Reserve

By Greg Seubert

MENASHA – It’s one of the Fox Valley’s best-kept secrets.

It’s also become a popular destination for nature lovers.

COVID-19 caused the Heckrodt Wetland Reserve in Menasha to close its nature center to the public last year. However, the reserve’s three miles of trails remain open to the public and have become a way for people to connect with the outdoors.

The reserve covers just over 91 acres, according to its executive director, Tracey Koenig.

“We’re an urban reserve, which means that we’re completely surrounded by developed land,” she said. “That makes for unique wildlife situations. We provide environmental education programming for the general public. We also provide some programs for special youth groups like scouts.”

Unlike other nature areas that can be miles away from the nearest community, the Heckrodt Wetland Reserve is located in Menasha at 1305 Plank Road (State Highway 114).

Its trail system, which is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, includes about a mile of elevated wood boardwalk that passes through a wetland area, as well as two miles of gravel trails.

Visitors will find several habitats, including forested wetland, open water and an open prairie built on an old landfill.

Close-up encounters with wildlife are common, director of education Luke Schiller said.

“You’ll see owls, goslings, frogs, turtles,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for families to see and experience wildlife.”

COVID-19 has had an effect on the programs the reserve can offer, according to Schiller.

“The best way to describe it is we have reimagined our excursion experience,” he said. “Now, we take the nature and the science to them, whether it be a child care facility, early childhood school or public or parochial school. That is the most efficient way to reach our youth.

“Normally, we’d have one naturalist to 30 kids,” he added. “Now, we’re doing one naturalist for 10 kids. Our financial commitment toward that staff is an investment that the reserve is making for our curriculum programs.”

Schiller and other Heckrodt staff made adjustments in order for the reserve to continue its educational programs.

“We’ve done grab-and-go kits for bird houses,” he said. “We’ve empowered our visitors to kind of take nature home with them. We’ve had a big Free Fishing Day event and provided tackle and experts. This year, we’re creating a free fishing kit where they’re going to get a free fishing pole and tackle. We’ve reimagined similar events and made it more personalized.”

Schiller said the reserve has made an impact on the Fox Valley, an area of more than 200,000 residents in Outagamie, Winnebago and Calumet counties that includes the cities of Appleton, Neenah, Menasha and Kaukauna; the villages of Kimberly, Combined Locks, Little Chute, Fox Crossing, Hortonville and Harrison; and the townships of Grand Chute, Greenville, Clayton, Buchanan, Freedom, Sherwood. Kaukauna, Vandenbroek and Woodville.

“I’m a resident of the Fox Valley and I can speak firsthand what this area provides for my family and me,” he said. “It is free, it is accessible, it allows my family to connect and experience nature throughout the seasons.

“Throughout this pandemic, we remember that nature is always there for us,” he said. “Instead of going out and doing that one nature experience a year, people remember that nature’s here, it’s free, it’s safe. As a whole, we’ve seen our foot traffic increase because families are taking advantage of our accessibility and the opportunity to connect and make memories here at the reserve.”

Director of development Chris Langenfeld oversees the reserve’s fundraising efforts.

“It has been a challenge, but the community has responded really well,” he said. “Our normal events our in-person and we had to cancel a couple of our largest fundraisers when covid first hit. We’ve reimagined how those are executed. We’ve done social distancing events and some grab-and-go events for fundraising.

“One of our biggest ones is called Picnic on the Prairie,” he said. “That used to be open to the public and we’d have 300-plus people show up. We had to downsize and limit that event. We had about 40 groups that could be here and we separated everybody and they got a place to picnic.

“Our numbers are down, which means that our revenues are down,” he added. “We have received some additional donations, which has been helpful. Donations are how we live and breathe. We get no government funding, no public funding. This community keeps this open.”

Koenig said the reserve’s short-term plans include reopening the nature center, which has been closed to the public since the third week of March 2020.

“We closed the doors and the following week, we all went home,” she said. “There is a plan to open the nature center, but we need to be very sure that distancing requirements can be met. We need to make very sure that none of our staff are potentially exposed and we’re still working on that. When the nature center opens, there will be a mask mandate to come into the building.”

When that happens remains to be seen, Koenig said.

“We figure that when we first open, it’ll be limited hours on limited days and limited amounts of the nature center,” she said. “The children’s playroom will likely not open right away because I have no idea how we’re going to sanitize that.”

“There is a lot of opportunity and we have a lot of space here,” Langenfeld said. “You can social distance yourself forward and backward. We do recommend masking where possible. Your level of safety is totally doable out here. Some people want to be close together, other people want to be masked and far apart.

“People have been coming out in droves just for that mental break,” he said. “Nature is a great mental health professional. Being outside is your best bet for being healthy mentally and physically.”

“The community has lost so much as a result of what they can’t do and we don’t want to take even more of that,” Koenig said. “Almost every time I walk, I run into someone who tells me how important this property has been to them throughout this whole crisis. They’re able to come here, relax and be outside. It’s become a regular part of their weekly or routine.”


Originally published in May 2021 in On the Water publication.