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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Ozaukee County conservation project stalled in legislative finance committee

View of Lake Michigan
Susan Bence
One view of Lake Michigan from the proposed Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Natural Area in Ozaukee County.

Since 1989, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has been a fundamental tool used to conserve parcels around Wisconsin.

Groups interested in preserving natural areas can apply to the program administered by the Department of Natural Resources. But larger grants require legislative approval, which can stall projects without much explanation.

North of downtown Milwaukee, you’ll find one such project. The sign along Lake Shore Road, where the town of Grafton meets the city of Port Washington, reads, “If you like this land... you’ll love Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Natural Area."

Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Natural Area
Susan Bence
The sign says, "If you like this Land... You'll LOVE Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Natural Area!"

From the road, the parcel looks like farmland with one very soggy spot where geese are hanging out, but Tom Stolp says look east for the treasures. “This property is really special — it has the natural gorge feature; it has the clay seepage bluffs with 110 foot-high bluffs looking out over Lake Michigan but it also has the presence of restorable wetlands," he explains.

Stolp is executive director of Ozaukee Washington Land Trust. The trust been working to purchase and conserve the 131-acre parcel.

Stolp says Cedar Gorge has value beyond the public being able to enjoy the Lake Michigan vista and clamber down the cedar-rich gorge.

“Because we’re going to restore some of those wetlands; and with those wetlands, does it not only improve the hydrology around Lake Michigan but it also creates an important resting stopover habitat area for those migrating birds. So all of that adds up to a really unique opportunity,” he says.

We weave around low-growing native juniper toward a stunning lake view.

Susan Bence
Lake Michigan peeking through the cedar gorge. Ozaukee Washington Land Trust envisions a staircase taking the public down to the shore while providing protection to the natural area.

“You’ll see a lot of the tree line was unfortunately ash, so pretty well decimated by emerald ash borer. But it’s part of the reason we’re getting support from the U.S. Forest Service, this is an area that could really be revitalized and reforested to improve the tree canopy here,” Stolp explains.

The forest service isn’t the only federal agency that supports protecting and improving the parcel. So do the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But Stolp says local donations form the backbone of the campaign. “Even before we had publicly announced that we were fundraising this project, word got out and we started getting the checks in the mail from people saying, ‘Please put this toward the Lake Michigan project; I want to see it happen.'"

The land trust raised over half the needed funds, and successfully applied for Knowles-Nelson Stewardship to cover the rest. “We were approved for $2.3 million and at about the eleventh hour, literally the last day when lawmakers can object, we received an anonymous objection to the $2.3 million grant. This was July of 2021," he says.

Stolp’s eleventh hour comment refers to a nuance of the state stewardship program. A law enacted in 1995 gives Wisconsin's Joint Committee on Finance 14 business days to review, approve or object to grants higher than $250,000, even after DNR review and approval. Even one committee member’s opposition, that’s allowed to be anonymous, can reduce or cancel a Knowles-Nelson grant.

READ: Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program Creates More Green Space Across Wisconsin

Tom Stolp says his land trust was simply told the $2.3 million grant amount was too high. The group had raised $300,000.

“So we went back to the committee members. They said that, that’s not going to be enough — the most you’re going to get is $1.6 million,” he explains.

Stolp says the land trust turned to supporters and raised another $400,000. “We said, 'OK, we can do it, we can do $1.6 million.' That was January of 2022 and we’ve been stonewalled since that time."

Stolp’s group learned an anonymous, private interest wants to purchase the parcel.

WUWM reached out to the co-chairs of the joint finance committee for comment. At the time this story was produced, we had not received a response.

Tom Stolp says Ozaukee Washington Land Trust is determined to see the 131-acre natural area project through.

Meanwhile, Stolp says the land trust is determined to make Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Natural Area a reality.

“We had a little boy who brought his birthday money to one of our nature preserves when we were having an outing, and those are the people and the types of gifts that are at the backbone of this project and so I think there will be more philanthropy coming forward, if we can’t get this project through the Joint Committee on Finance,” he says.

Ozaukee Washington Land Trust is not the only project to pass through what Stolp describes as a rigorous review process by DNR staff, only to stall when reaching the joint finance committee.

He fears other projects important to the public’s and natural world’s well-being will languish.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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