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Don L. Johnson

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Title: Don L. Johnson  
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Subject: List of University of Wisconsin–Madison people, Nature writing, Don Johnson (disambiguation)
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Don L. Johnson

For other people called Don or Donald Johnson, see Don Johnson (disambiguation).

Don L. Johnson (1927–2006) was among Wisconsin's best known outdoor writers. His career included widely acclaimed nature writing, groundbreaking investigative reporting on environmental issues, and traditional outdoor writing about hunting, fishing, and related pursuits.

In 2000, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal named Johnson as among "The Century Honor Roll" of 20 individuals who had the greatest influence on conservation, hunting, and fishing in Wisconsin during the 20th century.

Johnson died on January 20, 2006, after a struggle with both Parkinson's disease and cancer. A feature article published in the Johnson took readers on outdoor adventures," by Amy Rabideau and Mark Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 21, 2006.)

Environmental Reporter, Nature Writer

Jay Reed (1929–2002), longtime outdoor writer for the Milwaukee Journal, wrote in 1984, "Johnson was, and is, one of the most respected conservation voices ever to be sounded in Wisconsin, which puts him in the company of the likes of Gordon MacQuarrie, Ernest Swift, Aldo Leopold and Mel Ellis. . . Anybody who hunts or fishes in Wisconsin or enjoys any of the outdoor recreation this state provides owes this man something."

Born March 18, 1927, Johnson grew up in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, but spent much of his boyhood on family farms in Dodge County, and Buffalo counties, hunting and fishing. He graduated from Nathan Hale High School in West Allis, then served with the U.S. Navy in combat forces in the South Pacific during World War II. In 1949, he married Lorraine Senn. The couple had a son, Douglas, and a daughter, Lynn. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied both conservation and journalism, and where he met Aldo Leopold. After graduating, he worked for several newspapers in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In 1962, Johnson joined the Milwaukee Sentinel -- then one of two statewide newspapers—as the paper's outdoor writer, a post he held until 1984. During those years, Johnson was known to many readers for his reporting on hunting, fishing, and wildlife throughout Wisconsin, and also as an adventurer who hiked, hunted, fished, and photographed in such far-flung places as Africa, Cuba, the Andes, the Amazon, Mexico, the Yukon, and Alaska.

But Johnson reported on more than just fishing and hunting. His hard-hitting conservation work included an exposé of mercury pollution in the Wisconsin River and a series on pesticide pollution. In 1966, Johnson wrote a series of investigative reports about high concentrations of DDT in state waters. Despite threats of lawsuits and demands by chemical companies that he be fired, Johnson kept pursuing his environmental stories. The series played a key role in making Wisconsin the first state to ban DDT, a significant landmark in the chain of events that led to a national ban.[1]

In another series, Johnson challenged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they tried to ditch and drain the Cache River bottomlands in Arkansas, for which he received an award from the Arkansas Wildlife Federation. (Decades later, the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought extinct, was discovered to survive in some of the habitat that Johnson's article had helped to preserve.)

There was also the man who simply went for strolls in the woods, taking notes which he crafted into vignettes, many of which were initially published in the Milwaukee Sentinel during the years (1962–84) that Johnson worked as outdoor writer for that newspaper. In November 2005, a collection of Johnson's nature essays—including some never before printed—was published as ISBN 0-9773309-0-7), receiving highly laudatory reviews in such publications as Wisconsin Outdoor News, Racine Journal-Times, Madison Capital Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine.

Dave Carlson, outdoor writer and host/producer of the multi-state syndicated TV program Northland Adventures, wrote, "Like Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson or Gordon MacQuarrie, Don L. Johnson's words never wear out. . . . They're just wonderful stories that will enrich your life."

Johnson left the Sentinel in 1984, but did not give up writing. He freelanced articles and photographs to numerous magazines. His 1995 book Grouse & Woodcock: A Gunner's Guide (Krause Publications. ISBN 0-87341-346-6) is regarded as a classic by upland gamebird hunters.


During his long career, Johnson won many honors for his outdoor writing and environmental reporting.

  • In 1961, Johnson received the Gordon MacQuarrie Award "For Telling the Conservation Story." The Audubon Society recognized his investigative work in 1974, "for accurate interpretive reporting on behalf of all life on earth."
  • In 2000, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal named Johnson one of the 20 people who had the greatest influence on hunting and fishing in the state during the 20th century. In May 2005, the Natural Resources Board recognized his contributions to conserving the state's natural resources.
  • In addition, Johnson was named to the Milwaukee Press Club Media Hall of Fame and the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, and as an honorary life member of the Outdoor Communications Association "in recognition of a lifetime of service to Wisconsin's outdoors." In 2005, Johnson was honored by the Outdoor Writers Association of America "for excellence in outdoor communication." He received other honors from the Ruffed Grouse Society, Great Lakes Sport Fishermen, Wisconsin Newspaper Association, UPI, AP, the U.S. EPA, and the Wisconsin and Arkansas Wildlife Federations, among others.

"You see, I have always had this compulsion to see what is around the next bend; over the next hill," Johnson wrote in his final column for the Milwaukee Sentinel. "And now this fork in the trail beckons. "But I will look back sometimes, and remember where we've been, and smile."


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