Testing the Resilience of the Environment

Dec 14, 2011

We continue our week-long series Project Milwaukee: State of Upheaval.

This first year of the Walker Administration may be remembered as one of Wisconsin’s most tumultuous political eras.

Early on, the governor created environmental waves by putting the brakes on much-anticipated wind turbine siting rules – stifling a fledgling industry.

WUWM finds that many people dedicated to protecting our air, land and water - fear environmental protection is losing traction, amid state leaders’ zeal to create jobs.

When asked how environmental protection fits into his vision for the state, Governor Walker maintains that conserving Wisconsin’s natural resources is “tremendously important.”

“Because really if you look at the state’s major industries; they’re manufacturing, they’re agriculture and they’re tourism and in particular two out of the three – agriculture and tourism – are highly dependent on clean air, clean water, clean land,” Walker says.

Yet Walker has not blanched under criticism, for example, that he soft pedaled on phosphorus rules.

Biologist Alice Thompson examines fresh wet meadows' soils in the field.

Alice Thompson of South Milwaukee is trying to preserve one of Wisconsin’s complicated “blendings” of water and land – wetlands.

“Wetland soils are these darker, or grayer soils. I’ll.dig a little deeper,” Thompson says.

Thompson sinks her narrow-bladed shovel into an abandoned farm field, three miles from Lake Michigan.

Dig down deep enough, and she says you unearth soils glacial activity influenced 10,0000 years ago.

“There’s going to be a clay basin down here that’s holding the water ponded above it, you know, like a bathtub layer. This clay would have been deposited in some kind of glacial feature. See how gray that is?” Thompson says.

This scrubby 100-acre stretch is what scientists call “fresh wet meadow” – the most common type of wetland in southeastern Wisconsin.

It’s a stopover for migrating birds, and habitat for the likes of wee toads and Butler’s garter snakes.

Thompson says the spongy composition also controls storm water, so she’s saddened development obliterated many wetlands here.

“It wasn’t until the 1970s and the Clean Water Act that we recognized that wetlands have functions, Wisconsin had lost maybe half of its wetland acreage; northern areas have less loss, but down here with agriculture, like Racine and Kenosha, maybe 80 percent of the soils once could have supported wetlands, so we’re talking about a huge amount of loss in small area of the state,” Thompson says.

According to Thompson, Wisconsin has some of the best wetland protections in the country, but she fears those safeguards are about to crumble under legislation filtering through the political process; for example, the new GOP-driven Assembly mining bill.

It would hasten the state permitting process, so the company Gogebic Taconite can extract iron-ore near the shores of Lake Superior.

Advocates stress the operation would create thousands of jobs in an economically depressed region.

In Erin O’Brien’s mind, the legislation screams with concerns.

She works with Wisconsin Wetlands Association.

“What people need to understand is that if this project is built, those impacts will be significant, I have no ability to calculate or even guess as to acres; but I know we’re talking about hundreds, we might be talking about thousands of wetland acres,” O’Brien says.

O’Brien says through the years her group has been steeped in the legislative process…

“Wisconsin Wetlands Association has been involved in crafting essentially every wetland policy that’s been passed in the state for the past 40 years,” O’Brien says

. …..but the association has not yet seen a syllable of new wetlands policies, rumored since Governor Walker’s first day in office.

There have also been citizen complaints of being shut out of the process by limited public hearings.

UWM biologist Tim Ehlinger fears Wisconsin is losing the ability to talk out complex issues that require mind-bending solutions.

“As a scientist, I don’t think that my models of watershed should be the one and only component of a decision; they have to be weighed relative to the impacts on jobs, the impacts on agriculture. Everything has to exist together, but the only way those parts of the equation is if there is open, and honest and respected communication among all of the different parties,” Ehlinger says.

Nor, Ehlinger says, can the state pluck out one environmental issue and examine it in isolation.

He says that’s why in the 1990s the state structured its Department of Natural Resources into teams to monitor individual watersheds and ecosystems. “These basin management units, or BMUs, allowed us to look at our water and our environment from an ecosystem's perspective; and the connectedness between storm water and ground water and the environment was look at as a connected set of interacting systems. This was really important,” Ehlinger says.

The Walker administration replaced the BMU model with a “quicker on its feet” structure.

The governor says he’s convinced Wisconsin’s new customer service-oriented DNR will encourage business growth, and in turn, more jobs.

“We’re trying to streamline things. We’re trying to improve the DNR, but by no means, are the things we’re doing in the end, not also about conserving natural resources,” Walker says.

Debate will likely intensify around just who the DNR’s customers are, and how far natural resource protections should bend to accommodate the jobs Walker promised in his gubernatorial campaign, and the state needs to ease unemployment.