“Our mission is to try to save the world”: Karen Oberhauser heightens sustainability at the UW Arboretum 

This article, by Emily Morton, is part of a series highlighting members of the Office of Sustainability’s Experts Database. In a collaboration with instructor Madeline Fisher’s course, LSC 561: Writing Science for the Public, students interviewed campus sustainability experts and produced short feature stories.

Karen Oberhauser in a blue jacket standing in front of a sunlit fieldThe landscapes and diverse plants and animals bring visitors to the UW Arboretum. But beyond its beauty, have you ever stopped to think about the buildings that keep it running?

UW Arboretum director Karen Oberhauser has. Over the past five years, as part of upholding the Arboretum’s Platinum Certification through the Office of Sustainability, she has spearheaded the implementation of sustainability practices in the buildings around the property. 

Focusing on refurbishing buildings might come as a surprise when thinking of protecting Wisconsin’s landscapes, but to Oberhauser these efforts fit perfectly within the organization’s three-pronged mission. Through caring for 1,260 acres, providing outreach and public education, and conducting and supporting research on land restoration, land management, and biodiversity, the Arboretum works toward creating a better informed, sustainable, and protected world. 

Whether it’s supporting UW researchers or providing guided hikes and other free public activities, their team aims towards existing sustainably. Or as Oberhauser says, “living now in a way that allows … all of the systems that support us to be there for future generations.”

A passion for sustainability has motivated Oberhauser’s career. Her interest in conservation grew from researching the behaviors of monarch butterflies in response to climate change, among other topics, throughout her education at UW–Madison, Harvard University, and the University of Minnesota, leading her to discover a love for motivating people to care for environmental issues. She even headed the first Conservation Biology graduate program at the University of Minnesota. Since the field of conservation biology was not firmly established when she began her education, Oberhauser has been able to watch it evolve throughout her career as the field continues to grow.  These experiences have led her to the present: returning to Wisconsin near family and outdoor adventures to direct the Arboretum with a team that shares her attitudes about sustainability. 

After becoming director in 2017, Oberhauser noticed a gap in the sustainable actions of the Arboretum. 

“We needed more usable space,” she said. “We have all these old buildings that were built in the 1930s, and they had just been falling deeper and deeper into a state of neglect.”

She took it upon herself to find a solution in how to approach the seemingly unusable structures on the Arboretum property. 

“There was a conversation about, do we start over and build a new building? But we’ve decided to focus on fixing up those old buildings to minimize our environmental footprint.”

As a result, the Arboretum has begun to update all buildings to better align with the values of the organization most often applied to work done on the land: environmental impact and sustainability. It has not only installed solar panels on the Visitor Center but also recently retrofitted all lightbulbs and fixtures. 

A newfound focus on renewing buildings doesn’t mean the Arboretum has forgotten about the land. The team is continuing to hold community events for all ages, including naturalist-led tours every Sunday, summer camps, lecture series, Earth Day events, and more. Additionally, the Arboretum continues to work with the Office of Sustainability to find ways to make events more sustainable by implementing more recycling options and buying more sustainable products. 

Ultimately these localized efforts contribute to a bigger effort: the wellbeing of our planet.

“I sometimes say, a little tongue and cheek, that really our mission is to try to save the world,” Oberhauser said, who recently announced her retirement. “And I believe that. That the things that we do in all of these areas—education, caring for the land, and doing research that supports other people to care for the land—are really important, and that feels good.”