On a warm, overcast afternoon, Sept. 18, 2016, a small crowd gathered in Pillsbury State Forest near Brainerd for the dedication of a horse trail. The newly named trail honors Meg Hanisch, a consummate horsewoman and DNR Forestry professional who died May 30, 2016, a month before her planned retirement. Marked by wooden signs at both ends, the Meg Hanisch Horse Trail travels uphill and down, winding past small glacial lakes and ponds and through sugar maples, aspens, paper birch, and old-growth oaks and red pines.
As DNR Forestry deputy director Craig Schmid began to speak, four chestnut-colored horses and their unknown riders sauntered down the end of the trail. When the equestrian group passed the gathering of some 50 friends, family, and colleagues, forestry consultant Holly Johnson commented, "That's fitting—a four-horse salute."
In his remarks, Schmid recalled once saying in a speech that the DNR had hired its first professional forestry women in the 1980s. After that speech, Hanisch gently but firmly corrected him: In 1978 she blazed the trail.
"Women were just starting to be part of the workforce," said Mimi Barzen, who joined the DNR as a field forester in 1980. "We all felt every single day we had to prove ourselves."
When Hanisch arrived in DNR Forestry, she took the reins of the Dutch elm disease program. For the July–August 1984 Volunteer, Hanisch wrote a story condensed from the DNR's Dutch Elm Disease Management Guide. Clear and precise, both the story and the guide demonstrate Hanisch's commitment to telling Minnesotans what they need to know about trees and forests. As a tribute to her leadership, the trail dedication included the planting of a disease-resistant American elm near the trail sign.
To appreciate the breadth and depth of Hanisch's role in forestry, you could study the MCV archive of forest-related stories from the 1980s to the present. Her expert advice was at the root of virtually all of them. With her guidance, MCV chronicled the 100-year history of the Division of Forestry. According to DNR forest entomologist Val Cervenka, "Changing Color," which Hanisch wrote for Young Naturalists in 2000, remains the go-to guide for explaining fall leaf color.
"Most of what people in Minnesota know about forests came out of Meg's shop or work over the past [nearly four] decades," Schmid said.
In her career, Hanisch served as supervisor, urban forestry specialist, public affairs specialist, program coordinator, and section manager. In all capacities, her colleagues sought her advice. Her former supervisor Bob Tomlinson spoke for many administrators when he said she prepared him to speak to the public and to legislators.
DNR Forestry director Forrest Boe cited Hanisch's keen knowledge of the legislative process. She wrote talking points for presentations, "rounding up facts, choosing the correct words."
Creating a Culture. Becoming a DNR Forestry section manager was another pioneering step in Hanisch's career. "A top-notch manager," said Boe. "She was so thoughtful … making sure all voices were heard. She created a culture of working together."
Because Hanisch was a "deeply caring person," said DNR forestry policy analyst Amber Ellering, she caused that expectation "to spread in the community of folks she worked closely with."
Amy Kay Kerber, DNR forestry administrative supervisor, watched Hanisch work behind the scenes, "bolstering other people, making sure they felt they belonged and were supported." As "a proponent of partners," Hanisch would begin a project by asking: Who are our partners, and how are we going to talk to them? Her leadership approach, Kerber said, was "about relationships."
When Shannon Jensen was hired as DNR office services supervisor, Hanisch became her mentor. When faced with difficult decisions, Jensen learned to ask herself: What would Meg do? "Meg always had the answer because she had so much experience. … There's not a meeting I sit in when someone doesn't ask: Who does this? Who knows this? Meg."
For about a quarter century, Bemidji-based Kathleen Preece and St. Paul-based Hanisch collaborated on projects from a distance. "She ran so many shows," said Preece, executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota Forest Resources Partnership, "yet you never really saw Meg Hanisch."
According to Boe and other colleagues, Hanisch saw the big picture. She kept in view not only what was good for Forestry, but also what was good for the DNR and the citizens of Minnesota.
In an era of rapidly changing electronic communications, Hanisch helped the agency adapt, Ellering pointed out. Yet, given her passion for quality public information, she "always had a red pen" to correct spelling and grammar. Hanisch would "do that editing for you as a service," Ellering said, reflecting the gratitude of almost everyone who wrote forestry materials.
Outside the office, her pets came first. A rescuer of dogs and barn cats, Hanisch was most well known for her lifelong love of horses. At age 16, Hanisch became friends with another devoted horseback rider, Joyce Mazzitello. Over the years, their horses shared stables. Together the friends and a passel of other riders hitched up their horse trailers and headed west. They set up camp and rode in Wyoming, Montana, the Dakota Badlands, and many other places.
In 1984 Hanisch traveled to Pillsbury State Forest to help prepare a 6-foot-tall red pine—weighing 200 pounds with its earthen root ball—for planting at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. In her "Arbor Day" story for the March–April 1985 issue, Hanisch wrote, "Hundreds of plants, shrubs, and trees cover the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Minnesotans can be proud that a living symbol of their state now grows among them."
Over the years, countless DNR employees have worked to protect, restore, and sustainably use natural resources. We Minnesotans can be grateful that Meg Hanisch was among them.
Kathleen Weflen, editor