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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Large-scale, nature-based project underway in southeast Wisconsin. The goal — mitigate climate change

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Mequon Nature Preserve
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This conventionally farmed soy bean field in Ozaukee County will be transform to a native forest and wetland. It's one of seven projects unfolding in Milwaukee's watersheds as the Reforestation & Wetland Restoration Program kicks off.

Wednesday afternoon dignitaries will gather at a nature preserve northwest of Milwaukee to symbolically throw dirt around a newly planted tree.

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Susan Bence
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WUWM
Cory Gritzmacher with Mequon Nature Preserve, Nadia Vogt with MMSD and Steve Kass with Ducks Unlimited at the ceremonial tree that marks the launch of the reforestation and wetland restoration program.

The ceremony will kick off of a project called simply the Reforestation & Wetland Restoration Program, a multi-year, multi-watershed effort to mitigate climate change in southeastern Wisconsin. It’s being led by the Metropolitan Sewerage District and Ducks Unlimited, along with what the two organizations hope is a growing list of partners.

At Mequon Nature Preserve, where the tree was just planted, the nonprofit will be able to transform 57 acres of land conventionally farmed for years to its pre-agricultural state.

“Currently, it’s planted in soybeans, and by next spring, there’s going to be 70,000 tree seedlings and 10 acres of wetlands and multiple acres of prairie and pollinator habitat on top,” says Cory Gritzmacher of Mequon Nature Preserve.

It’s a dream come true for Gritzmacher. He didn’t anticipate pulling off the project for another 25 years.

Over the next decade, the program will facilitate six million trees taking root and 4,000 acres worth of wetlands will be restored within Milwaukee’s watersheds encompassing 1,100 square miles. The trees alone will capture an estimated 350 million gallons of stormwater—every acre of wetland stores up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.

MMSD senior project manager Nadia Vogt says the program aims to test how large-scale nature based solutions can take on climate change.

“This program is going to be on public and private property going all the way up through the Milwaukee, Menomonee, Kinnickinnic, Oak Creek and Root River watersheds and then all the direct drainage to Lake Michigan. So touching Fond du Lac and Sheboygan in the north, to the west dipping into Waukesha County and then in the east just going to touch on Racine and Kenosha,” says Vogt.

Property owners interested in participating in the Reforestation & Wetland Restoration Program can add their names to an online application list. Vogt says those selected will have to meet rigorous criteria.

“So we are looking at carbon sequestration, how to reduce the risk of flooding, that this is an ecologically balanced approach… So we want to create a clear and implemental framework for what that looks like and what our reduction for climate change can be,” says Vogt.

But she adds, there’s more to the program than carbon sequestration and reducing flooding.

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MMSD RWR Program map
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Map of the project area.

“We will be doing community outreach and engagement and it’s really actually going to have a focus in our urban settings, particularly in Milwaukee and the surrounding areas. Not only as a way to engage people in decision-making, but a way to build power, political power, so folks know that they can make changes in their communities, but also for a way for them to say we are part of the solution to climate change,” Vogt says.

Steve Kass does not seem concerned about the cost of pulling off what he admits is an audacious goal. He is the senior director of development for the Wisconsin chapter of Ducks Unlimited.

"We will engage partners across southeast Wisconsin to deliver wetland restoration and forestry," Kass adds. "This is sustainability and climate resiliency in action, and we will provide positive outcomes over the years that will last for generations."

As for Cory Gritzmacher, who’s celebrating the symbolism of the newly planted oak tree, he’s thinking about how Mequon Nature Preserve can help make a difference when its Reforestation & Wetland Restoration project takes root.

"A great example is one the wetlands that we restored up on top of the hill here about six years ago now holds over a million gallons of water when it rains. So that has a huge impact of everyone else downstream," Gritzmacher adds. "And the habitat that's been created is absolutely amazing."

He calls the combined effort one big generational push to impact climate change.

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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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