DODGEVILLE — In Iowa County, Chuck Tennessen is considered a renewable-energy pioneer, working tirelessly to promote environmental initiatives over the past 20 years. His passion for the environment began as a child, growing up on one of many small dairy farms that dotted the countryside in rural Walworth County.
“My mom was a 4-H leader and I took a special interest in conservation, which 4-H has a piece of that,” Tennessen said. “So that was always a piece of who I am.”
He described being on the farm and roaming the countryside as a wonderful opportunity that also gave him a strong appreciation for the land.
However, it was when he met his wife, Karen, while studying at UW-Madison that he was able to explore the Driftless Area, venturing west of Madison to visit her sister who lived near Fennimore in Grant County. Tennessen was wowed by the area, but it would be a while before they made the lush, rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin their permanent home.
The couple married in 1975 and headed to Alaska; both had received teaching degrees from UW-Madison and thought someone would need a teacher in the Juneau area. They bought a pickup truck and drove north that summer, finding themselves teachers on an island in southeast Alaska.
“It was a ‘National Geographic’ opportunity,” Tennessen said. “And it certainly shaped my look on the environmental world.”
The Tennessens spent 22 years teaching in several small villages in the U.S.’s most northern state, starting a family of their own, as well. Teaching there was an experience, as the entire school, kindergarten through 12th grade, included only 60 students.
“We taught our children everything they knew but wanted to give them more opportunities,” he said of their decision to move back to the Lower 48.
The family would always come back to the Driftless Area to visit in the summers while living in Alaska, and they bought an old farmstead south of Dodgeville as an investment. The Tennessens lived in the old farmhouse while they built a new home on the property.
Chuck and Karen both found new teaching jobs, with Chuck in the Dodgeville School District and Karen in the Mineral Point Unified School District.
The Green and Healthy Schools Program, administered through a partnership among the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education, was just getting started in Wisconsin, and Tennessen worked with teachers to get it off the ground in Dodgeville. The program continues today, supporting and recognizing schools for nurturing healthy kids and sustainable communities through the reduction of environmental impacts, improving the health and wellness of the community and increasing environmental and sustainability literacy.
During that time, Tennessen also was instrumental in starting Sustain Iowa County, a grassroots organization that promotes resilience in the community and environment, especially in the areas of energy production and the use of resources. It was “a new idea” but attracted like-minded people who cared about the environment and got them together to talk about solutions.
“The Green and Healthy Schools Program and Sustain Iowa County really complemented each other,” Tennessen said.
He and members of the newly established Sustain Iowa County attended energy fairs and hosted their own. It was at an energy fair that they learned about Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a national organization focusing on climate.
Tennessen and others believed it would be a great offshoot of Sustain Iowa County, as the Sustain group could focus on local issues and the climate lobby group could focus on national issues.
The Iowa County Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby continues to meet monthly, with Tennessen serving as the group’s leader. At each meeting, a national speaker presents on climate via teleconference call, drawing a crowd to the meetings, depending on the speaker.
Feeling empowered by the energy of the local grassroots organizations, Tennessen met with Todd Novak, then-editor of The Dodgeville Chronicle, and asked if he could write and submit a guest editorial about environmental issues. Instead of saying no, Novak said Tennessen could have his very own column.
“That was the beginning of the ‘Earthbound’ column,” he said.
For the past five years, Tennessen has contributed the bi-weekly column to the local newspaper. It’s described as a column that “weaves fables of everyday life into the fabric of the global environment.” Popular topics include the work of humans in the natural environment and energy, although Tennessen draws inspiration for his column from many different places.
“Sometimes I’ll read something and think, ‘Now that is something everyone should know,’ ” he said.
Last summer, members of Sustain Iowa County, wanting to reach more people with their message, approached Tennessen about compiling his “Earthbound” columns into a book. While Tennessen wasn’t quite sure about the book idea, the group had a trick up their sleeve that would surely convince him to go forward: The book should include local student artwork that reflects each “Earthbound” story.
“That was the clincher for me,” Tennessen said. “We’re thrilled to have 60 different artists from kindergarten through high school featured in the book.”
Five art teachers in the Dodgeville and Mineral Point school districts set aside art from the school year to be considered for the book. Members of Sustain Iowa County looked over the nature-themed artwork, photographing art they believed would enhance the stories in the book.
Including the students meant a lot to Tennessen, who continues to work with students in schools to educate them on climate and the environment. Even though he has since retired, area districts allow him to bring his “Climate Change Game” into the classroom to demonstrate to fifth-grade students how the planet can change over 10,000 years of history.
“I can’t help but think some of those students who played the game, maybe it planted a seed for them,” Tennessen said.
Youth have a role in how the world will be shaped as time goes on, and Tennessen is optimistic they will support and make changes that will positively impact the environment and climate. He hopes they will understand the benefits of renewable energy and the need to promote and use them over fossil fuels.
“The younger generation has an interest, and they’re savvy,” he said. “The younger generation also trusts science more.”
However, Tennessen believes action needs to happen now, too.
“We’re in an energy revolution,” he said. “In California, they’re looking at lower carbon footprints and lower emissions — they are thinking way beyond. Wisconsin is sorely behind with the concept of doing things more environmentally friendly.
“Wisconsin will either jump on board to make it happen or other people will lead the charge.”
Good things are happening locally, though, with Tennessen highlighting a recent successful solar group buy that saw 32 new installations in and around Iowa County. Spearheaded by Sustain Iowa County, members worked with UW-Extension to organize one of the first rural group buys, allowing property owners a 25 percent to 30 percent discount on solar installation.
Many people wonder when another will be organized, and several counties have also held their own solar group buys, modeled after the one completed in Iowa County two springs ago.
“It’s a very exciting time,” Tennessen said. “Climate change is in front of us now, thankfully. And anything that can move us forward — solar, wind and battery efficiency — is by far less expensive than using fossil fuels.”