Mother Nature’s advocate: Sauk County conservationist earns statewide recognition

April 2, 2019

Growing up in an island country off the southeast coast of Africa, Serge Koenig spent much of his childhood outside.

Whether he was hunting, fishing or playing with his friends, Koenig savored nearly every waking moment in the woods, forests, rivers and plains of Madagascar.

That continued after he moved to the United States. Koenig, who now lives in Baraboo, attended middle school and high school in Antigo, but his real classroom was the outdoors.

Those youthful experiences helped Koenig forge a bond with Mother Earth that would come to define his life’s mission, and ultimately produce lasting change in the community he serves. Koenig has worked for Sauk County as a conservationist for the past 24 years.

“It just made sense for me to protect the things that I love,” Koenig said. “I decided I wanted to follow that line of work. It just fit.”

With a calm and gentle demeanor, Koenig has built lasting relationships with local farmers and helped install modern conservation practices on hundreds of farms. Through conservation easements, he has helped protect miles of stream banks through the county.

Those contributions and others recently earned Koenig recognition as the Wisconsin Land and Water Resources Association’s 2019 Outstanding Conservation Employee. He received the honor March 14 at the nonprofit group’s annual awards banquet in Lake Geneva.

Walking the walk

“We all talk the talk,” said Sauk County Conservation Manager Melissa Keenan. “But many of us do not walk the walk like he does.”

For Koenig, it’s not enough to simply collect a paycheck and go home. He wants to be effective, and those who work with him say he consistently goes beyond the call of duty.

A perfect example came several years ago when Koenig recognized a shortcoming in his ability to communicate with farmers. He never had experienced life on a dairy farm, and wanted to know what it was like. So he decided to volunteer.

For weeks, Koenig woke up early each morning and helped milk cows at local farms before heading to his day job at the county’s Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department in Baraboo. For the last several years, Koenig also has helped at a local beef farm.

He credits those experiences with helping him see things from a farmer’s perspective.

In 2015, something dawned on Koenig about his work to promote rotational grazing throughout the county. Despite his best efforts to convince farmers of its benefits, few had adopted the practice.

With rotational grazing, farmers periodically move livestock, allowing sections of pasture to rest, regrow and replenish their nutrient stores.

Healthier soil prevents erosion. The land is able to drink the water, so there’s less runoff into rivers and streams. It also improves pasture yields, which is a boon to farmers.

Koenig found that it was easy for him to explain the environmental benefits of rotational grazing, but he struggled to get farmers to buy in on the idea that it also would help their pocketbooks.

“We’re trained to be conservationists, not financial advisers,” Koenig said. “But we were never going to get anywhere unless we delved into that realm.”

Koenig started working with a professional in agricultural finance to get a better understanding of farm budgets. The knowledge he gained helped him communicate more effectively, and convince farmers that rotational grazing would benefit their bottom lines.

In his first 20 years, Koenig only managed to convert about 300 acres countywide to rotational grazing. Boosting his financial literacy was like turning on a light. By the end of this year, Koenig expects to have converted about 2,300 acres. He has since taken that approach statewide, offering training to his colleagues in other counties.

Root causes

“He is our go-to guy when it comes to training events,” said Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association Executive Director Matt Krueger, adding that Koenig engages with conservation professionals statewide through regular speaking engagements, new employee training and civic organization presentations.

Koenig’s colleagues describe him as a jack-of-all-trades in the field of conservation. He plans, surveys and designs conservation practices, completes soils investigations, helps with outreach and education events, and coordinates annual stream monitoring efforts.

When he’s not working, Koenig can be found coaching youth basketball, volunteering in his children’s classrooms and mentoring at-risk young men.

He said within the last few years, the focus within the field of conservation seems to have shifted from managing the symptoms of environmental problems to addressing their root causes. Koenig has devoted his life to that mission, and said that’s what keeps him energized.

“I believe in the cause of natural resources protection,” he said. “You can see with your own eyes, things aren’t the way they should be in our streams, lakes and soils. So there is a need for protection. And I guess I’m just extremely motivated to get it done.”