The state that helped shape the lives of environmental pioneers like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson and Gaylord Nelson is once again setting an example of sustainability in a unique way.
The Travel Green Wisconsin program, which was the first statewide sustainable tourism certification program in the country when it started in 2007, continues to be a model for how the tourism industry can both highlight its commitment to green and help educate the traveling public.
What exactly is Travel Green Wisconsin? It’s a process by which any business related to tourism – a hotel, state park, coffee shop, restaurant, attraction or travel resource – can assess its progress in greenness and sustainability and become certified for its commitment to reducing its impact on the environment. Championed by then-Wisconsin Department of Tourism Secretary Jim Holperin, it was developed in 2006 by the Sustainable Tourism Ad Hoc Committee.
“One of the advantages of our program is that it’s housed in the Department of Tourism, whose mission is marketing,” says program manager Shelly Allness. “We provide members with this service and a marketing edge for their industry and our state.”
The certification process begins with a self-assessment application. The business or organization rates itself according to a checklist that includes communication and education, waste reduction/recycling, energy efficiency and conservation, water and wastewater management, air quality, and purchasing practices. Applicants must earn at least 30 points from the checklist, which is reviewed by an independent third-party vendor hired by the department.
More than 300 Wisconsin businesses are already certified, and that number is expected to grow with a revised fee structure being implemented this year. The initial application fee is $95, with a renewal of $75 every two years. Benefits include being listed on tourism industry websites and in social media as a green business, as well as use of the Travel Green Wisconsin logo.
According to the U.S. Travel Association, 79 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves environmentally conscious, and 44 percent consider environmental impact to be important to them when planning travel. “At the same time, 56 percent of travelers are skeptical of what companies tell them about their green practices, so third-party certification is very important,” Allness says.
“We’ve been certified more than two years,” says Judy Halma, who with husband Ron owns The Franklin Street Inn bed and breakfast in downtown Appleton. “We’ve had people comment about it both while they were here and when they made their booking. One person was in town to give a speech about being green. Others saw the plaque – it’s on the end table in our front foyer – and asked what it meant. They said they supported the idea, and would be back.”
The Halmas, who are both teachers, take their environmental responsibility seriously.
They currently have a full page of green tips on their website, and are working on a new site that will show the Travel Green Wisconsin framework and exactly how they have earned their points.
Fourth-generation farmer Dave Meuer of Meuer Farm, west of Chilton in Calumet County, recently applied for certification for his 180-acre beef, strawberry and corn maze farm destination.
“I heard about it in January at the (Wisconsin) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Conference, and immediately thought the certification made sense, because we were already doing it,” Meuer says.
Because of techniques like underground drip irrigation, terracing, wastewater management and local purchasing, Meuer Farm totaled 48 points.
“Our mission is to teach people about agriculture, where their food comes from, so we have several stops on our 45-minute wagon ride to educate and explain what we do,” Meuer says.
Being green has long been a part of the Washington Island Ferry Line’s operations in northern Door County. “When you live on an island, you need to be aware of waste streams and how that impacts the environment. We fish and swim just a quarter-mile from here, so it’s important to keep the island clean,” says Hoyt Purinton, the Line’s president.
“The marine transportation business is seen as somewhat industrial, so customers sometimes ask about the Travel Green plaque, but a two-minute conversation can clear away their concerns.”
The company’s four ferry vessels have averaged about 200,000 one-way passengers and 70,000 one-way vehicles per year over the past 10 years.
“We’re regulated by the Clean Water Act, so we must have zero-discharge into the lake,” Purinton says. “We’ve repowered two of our engines, use a biodegradable and non-chloride-based ice melter, switched to low-sulfur diesel, and reuse waste oil in our shop, for example.”
Wisconsin’s pioneering effort has even been recognized internationally. Last fall, a delegation from Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism visited Alaska, San Francisco and Wisconsin to learn about their sustainability certification programs.