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Weighing In On The Evolving Milwaukee River Greenway

Susan Bence
Young greenway explorers.

If you don’t spend much time along the Milwaukee River, you might be surprised to know that more and more of its most urban stretch – from Silver Spring Drive in Glendale downstream to the former North Avenue Dam site is becoming more natural.

Tonightpeople can weigh in on the Milwaukee River Greenway’s progress and future.

Wildlife biologist Gary Casper hopes people who show up for the want to protect turtles and their offspring.  He discovered them during a two-year comprehensive survey of the greenway's  878 acres that straddle the river.

“It’s kind of a deeply incised valley and heavily wooded for the most part. So it’s real constrained and fairly homogeneous in its habitat types,” Casper explains.

His finds included species of snakes, frogs and turtles.

“There’s like five species of turtles which surprised me, but what we don’t know is where they’re breeding, where they’re nesting and that’s probably an issue in an area like this – they might be nesting in people’s backyards,” Casper says.

Credit Gary Casper
Actual first ever record for Northern Map Turtle in the Milwaukee River, resting on the old North Avenue Dam structure. - Wildlife biologist Gary Casper

One of his early recommendations was to try to diversify the habitat – to cultivate a broader array of creatures, an idea that was adopted by the Urban Ecology Center when it created an ephemeral pond across the river and to the north.

“It will be interesting to see how that evolves and whether it might be worth introducing some new species there – tree frogs, chorus frogs might be new options,” Casper adds, “ I think it will attract some dragonflies.”

Aaron Zeleske serves as director of the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition.

“What I really want to do is formalize what we know about the space. Sometimes restoration work happens in the patchwork way – we have some resources, let’s do this without understanding the big picture,” Zeleske adds, “We’ve been doing also a lot of plant research as well as invertebrates, collecting data on what’s out here and getting to know that a little better, so that we can make a better plan going forward."

Credit Susan Bence
Left to right - volunteer Jon Bailey, wildlife biologist Gary Casper, Aaron Zeleske, Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition director.

Gary Casper envisions the greenway as a well-stocked stopover for migrating birds.

“So when we get some native shrubs like this replacing the buckthorn and the honeysuckle, all of a sudden when those migrant birds stop here and are really hungry from that long flight – they have something much more nourishing to feed on,” Casper says.

Jon Bailey didn’t expect to become an advocate. Over the last half dozen years, he’s has spent many hours removing garlic mustard and buckthorn along this sloped greenway.

“And there are a few trees that maybe I recognize that we were able to plant as a tree – the fun one is service berry because it really ties in to what we feel we’re doing is really providing that service,” Bailey says.

But he remembers a different time in the area’s history. “I grew up on the north shore and we always thought the river is not where good happens, it’s sort of where the ne’er-do-wells hung out,” Bailey says.

Today he not only puts in sweat equity, Bailey uses its trails to recreate and bike to work.

“Now, every day I see somebody hiking, somebody walking their dog, somebody biking through and it really makes me feel a part of what’s happening in this space and how it’s growing,” Bailey says.

Credit Susan Bence
Autumn 2017 - mountain biker rides through Pleasant Valley Park, part of the Milwaukee River Greenway.

But one point of contention within the advocate crowd is whether mountain bikers should share the greenway.

Bailey believes they should. “You can encourage other users of the space as stakeholders to give back and formalize their relationship with this area,” Bailey says, “I think is beneficial.”

Others worry that as native plants hold on or take root, more traffic equals damaged habitat.

Gary Casper believes strategic landscaping around a new trail system could be devised to discourage mountain bikers from going into sensitive areas, “Like putting prickly bushes in the say,” he says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>