Governor Walker Proposes To Eliminate Protection of UWM's Downer Woods

Mar 17, 2015

The University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee and its neighbors were shocked to learn  Gov. Walker’s biennial budget would remove state protections for Downer Woods, an 11-acre preserve on campus.

An aerial view of Downer Woods, located on the corner of N. Maryland Ave. and E. Edgewood Ave. on UWM's campus.
Credit UWM

Vice Chancellor of University Relations and Communications Tom Luljak says UWM did not ask for the changes included in the governor's budget proposal. Leaders assume that the protections state law has provided for the woods would be transferred to the UW Board of Regents - UWM's governing body.

He says the university has no interest in developing the 11-acre tract or changing the nature of woods.

According to Luljak, state law has guarded the woods from development to create a buffer between UWM and surrounding neighborhoods to protect their quality of life and to ensure the east side campus did not become oversaturated with buildings.

Chief sustainability officer Kate Nelson says Downer Woods is important to UWM's vision of future sustainability.

"In urban areas, we need green spaces. This green space, in particular, is functioning as well for ecosystem," she says. "It's a big part of storm water management."

Downer Woods northern edge borders on Shorewood.  In recent years, residents there have experienced basement backups when sudden, heavy storms overwhelmed stormwater infrastructure.

Kate Nelson and Jim Reinartz in Downer Woods.
Credit S Bence

"These woods hold a great deal of rain water, especially these trees. So if that would go away, we would have another issue to deal with. But essentially, creating these urban green spaces are core to UWM," Nelson says.

Over time, crews have battled invasive species that have crept onto the wooded landscape and created a series of paths within it.

Jim Reinartz has guided those efforts since they began 1998.  That's when the state legislature charged UW-Milwaukee with coming up with a management plan.

Reinartz is Director of UWM's Field Station, an hour-plus drive northwest of the main campus.

He says his work in Downer Woods has amounted to removing lots and lots of buck thorn.

"It was just a thicket of big buck thorn, a little bit of honeysuckle.  It was nasty. So in 1998, we began the first phase of removing the big fruiting size buck thorn," Reinartz says. "The right time is when the invasive plant grows to be 6 to 7 feet tall. So we are just completing our third set of removal of buck thorn plants."

Reinartz says the woods "are so beautiful now compared to what it was in 1998. People are using it again. In 1998, the only ones using it was neighborhood kids who came in and set up forts with the buck thorn thickets."

He has just begun to plant native trees to supplement the canopy. "We've only planted about 40 trees, but this spring I have plans to plants about another 100," Reinartz says.

He also has his eye on change. Reinartz says ash trees represent up to 40 percent of Downer Woods.  A beetle called the Emerald ash borer has ravaged trees throughout the Midwest.   

Reinatz thinks he's seen the first evidence of the beetle in Downer Woods. "So eventually all of the ash will go, at which point when such a high percentage of the trees in the woods die, and they start falling like match sticks. What I worry about is the remaining canopy that they're going to damage or take down," he says.

He hopes to remove the ash carefully. "We may have to have a logger come in to fell them in such a way that they cause the least damage to the other trees," Reinartz says.

He modestly describes his job as Downer Woods chief buck thorn cutter and poisoner, but does much more. Reinartz has carried out a complete inventory of everything growing across its 11.1 acres; and oversaw a small mammals' inventory.

"I had a student working in the woods and he did a nice study. One of my questions was would we see the typical white-footed mice that we see in woods in the country, or do they not occur in an urban setting like this?," Reinartz says.

The student discovered white-footed mice in Downer Woods. "And deer," Reinartz adds ruefully, "I wish there weren't deer in the woods."

Trees that are numbered or "ribboned" are part of ongoing studies of UWM Distinguished Professor Mark Schwartz. He and his students track plant-climate interactions. "On the phenology of leaf out on the trees," Jim Reinartz adds, "there are two or three ongoing research projects in the Woods right now and is used by geography and bioscience classes. None of that was happening before we took over management in 1998."

Reinartz's long term vision for the 11.1 acre parcel is for it to become its natural self. "As the (native) canopy closes, the understory will become even more open and sort of park-like," he says. "It'll just be a beautiful shady refuge in the city. That's my dream, I guess. And then always to see it used for research and education, and just enjoyment." 

The exact language included in Walker's budget reads:

Delete the following provisions related to the Downer Woods located on the UW-Milwaukee campus: (1) provisions requiring the UW-Milwaukee Chancellor to prepare and implement a Downer Woods natural area management and restoration plan to ensure that the area of the Downer Woods designated as the conservation area is managed properly as a natural area; (2) provisions requiring that the portion of the Downer Woods designated as permanently reserved woodlands be set aside exclusively for the purposes of community enhancement and relaxation; (3) provisions permitting the portions of the Downer Woods designated as park and woodland areas to be used by UW-Milwaukee as recreational and aesthetic corridors; and (4) provisions specifying that the buildings of the former Downer college be preserved and may not be razed without prior approval of the Building Commission.

Gov Walker's press secretary provided the following statement about Downer Woods, "In order to create the UW System Authority, references to the UW must be removed from state statute to allow the proposed authority, if adopted, to create their own policies.  The land will continue to be public land and we don’t anticipate there will be changes to its use."

Visitors can lose sight of Milwaukee's busy east side.
Credit Susan Bence