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Urban Ecology Center Showcases Milwaukee River Restoration

In 1990, volunteers hatched an idea to kindle ecological understanding and stewardship among people in the neighborhood near Milwaukee’s Riverside Park. Their idea involved the environment, but their goal was to reduce the crime that gripped the neglected park.

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Credit Jeff McAvoy
New life within Riverside Park

That vision resulted in not just the flagship Urban Ecology Center, but two additional centers in Washington Park and the Menomonee Valley, which all play pivotal roles in their respective neighborhoods.

This Sunday, the Urban Ecology Center is drawing attention to a massive restoration taking place along the Milwaukee River from the Center downstream to the former North Avenue dam site. It’s an event called HKE MKE.

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Credit S Bence
Kathy and Mike Mooney, and their dog Gypsy, hike Riverside Park every day.

UEC executive director gave us a preview. We pedaled a short distance south of the building, crossing a bridge that spans above the bike trail.

We entered Riverside Park and encounter Kathy Mooney and her husband walking their dog Gypsy.

They walk here every early morning. Kathy Mooney says the park changes every day.

“it’s wonderful and to think I grew up and hardly ever saw that river because it wasn’t accessible. And this was considered a taboo park. I went to Riverside (high school). And now I have total access to it,” Mooney says.

Ken Leinbach met the Mooneys years ago.

“ We weren’t the Urban Ecology Center again. (We were) the urban environmental center. And when we built the building, we developed a friendhip along the way,” Leinbach says.

Kathy Mooney marvels how efforts to create a safe area and rebuild a neglected spot has gradually brought unlikely people together.

“Sometimes I look at this park and you got all of the religious and political groups that hate each other together. How did you do that? We actually like each other because it’s so beautiful,” Mooney says.

And though she doesn’t care much for the bugs and snakes, Mooney loves the growing collection of wildlife.

“We saw more herons running around little rocky places than I’ve ever since in my life. It looked like a tropical something,” she says.

Okay, they’ve told the story – the rebirth of nature, the connection with neighbors But it is way too beautiful this early morning to STOP now.

We headed back to the bike path and over the Locust Street bridge. We’re on the other side of the Milwaukee River, heading downstream.

“So we’ll be coming down the Beerline Trail and there will be activities scattered along the route. This is not a race, this is an experience for people to get out and enjoy something a decade ago you could not have explored and enjoyed because there wasn’t access and it wasn’t even legal to walk in many places because it was privately owned,” Leinbach says.

He says that situation shifted in the last decade because of the work of the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition.

He points where a gravel path connected to paved. It’s a connector for explorers using wheelchairs.

“There’s a section of the other side of the river that isn’t accessible to wheelchairs or strollers so what we’re doing is rerouting those in wheelchairs or strollers over North Avenue and across the bridge and then there’s a switchback that brings you down to the river on the other side and into the Arboretum, Leinbach says.

Leinbach says access is core to the river restoration vision. He says someone on the UEC staff, Carijean Buhk, is pivotal to that vision.

“Carijean has worked for us longer than anybody on our staff, including staff. She’s in a wheelchair and types with her teeth and is just brilliant and she’s just brilliant. She does all of our publications. For 15 years, she was editing the newsletter that was talking about all of the beautiful aspects of the Milwaukee River, people fishing and kids planting native plants on the riverbanks, yet she had never been down there, because there was no access,” Leinbach says.

He describes the most profound experience with UEC as the moment he brought Carijean down to the river on the accessible trail.

We glide down to the headquarters of the River Revitalization Foundation. The earth surrounding it bursts with native plants, all but a platform reserved for yoga sessions.

”It all ties together into one long stretch of natural land. So we’re bookends. With the River Revitalization Foundation doing their great work down here, and us doing our work up there this valley is secure for a long time,” Leinbach says.

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Credit Jeff McAvoy

Back on the east bank, we travel upstream across unpaved trail. We’re getting closer to the Urban Ecology Center.

”This is the area where there used to be a factory that we tore down. We had to do massive amounts of environmental remediation. We got subsoil from a project that was going on at UW-Milwaukee to build the mounds that created the oak savanna ecosystem. It’s the most endangered ecosystem in the United States. The bread basket basically used to be this incredible flowing, flowering ecosystem,” Leinbach says.

It’s one of a dozen ecosystems recreated in the Rotary Centennial Arboretum.

“But it’s the showiest because of the flowers and the birds coming to the thistles. It’s a beautiful asset for Milwaukee, “ Leinbach says.

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Volunteer Becky Schneider helped band and is about to release this Swainson's thrush.

As if the lush swaying savanna could be any more breathtaking, we happen on a cluster of UEC volunteers banding birds. Becky Schneider is about to release a Swainson’s Thrush….

“It’s about the size of the palm of my hand. It’s got a spotted breast that kind of fades out from tan to white. And the back is uniformly brown. It’s got a nice little eye rin,.like spectacle,” Schneider says.

The Swainson’s thrush is a migratory bird, but where EXACTLY its headed, Schneider says “That’s one of the big unanswered questions of migratory biology, but they will go to Central America.”

The banding program will help pin down more exactly where.

“We banded him with an aluminum band on his right leg with a unique 9-digit number that identifies the bird. So if it should be recaptured then those researchers can find out where it came from and we’ll no better what direction he’s going,” Schneider says.

It seems you never know just who or what you’ll encounter on the Milwaukee River’s ever-reviving landscape.

That’s reason enough Ken Leinbach says to come often,

“Our whole mission is to get people outside, enjoying the natural world because when you do that you learn to respect the land and that’s what is necessary in the world,” Leinbach says.

He says it’s also about community gathering.

“So my hope is to get as many people walking together. It’s almost like having a meal together. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get everybody in Milwaukee out hiking on the Sunday morning,” Leinbach says.

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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.