Wisconsin is rich in lakes, streams and wetlands. Throughout 2018 concern among those who steward those resources rose. Let's review some challenges facing water protection over the past year, along with an example of collaboration.
We’ve grown accustomed to hearing wetlands described as nature sponges, a tremendous storm water filterer and flood abater, not to mention provider of critical habitat. But last year some lawmakers found Wisconsin’s wetland protections far too stringent.
State Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) authored a bill he says struck a balance – protecting high-grade wetlands while eliminating what he calls unnecessary restrictions imposed on landowners he’d been hearing from.
“Homeowners who felt their property rights were being infringed upon because of a small area on their property that had some wetland indicators but never were truly wet, true habitat. We also heard from family farmers who said they would like to expand their operations but couldn’t because of small low quality wetlands," Steineke said.
Steineke’s bill passed in February along party lines, removing protection of thousands of acres of small, isolated wetlands.
An ancient wetland system just south of Sheboygan, next to Lake Michigan has been capturing attention for years. The site butts up to Kohler Andrae State Park.
The Kohler Company said it could create a golf course there with little disturbance of the environment. The Wisconsin DNR approved the plan.
Then, in 2018, Kohler stepped closer to the course’s construction. In exchange for nearby land, Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board agreed to give a parcel of the park to the company.
Jim Buchholz, who was Kohler Andrae State Park superintendent for nearly three decades, spoke against giving up irreplaceable park land.
"It’s got wetlands in it, it’s got all of the different grasses and plants. This area here would have to be bulldozed and flattened quite a bit. And then the main road to the golf course would go straight through the sand dune area straight down this way," he said.
Critics are fighting the plan. Right now, it’s tied up in litigation.
More conservation concerns surfaced in 2018. Some unexpected.
Early in December, after the defeat of two-term Gov. Scott Walker by Democrat Tony Evers, Republican lawmakers introduced sweeping legislation.
Most described it as an attempt to limit the power of the incoming administration. Others, including Jennifer Giegerich with the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, says the new law will limit the Wisconsin DNR’s ability to carry out environmental protections of our air and water.
"It’s really disturbing to write into statute that agency experts, their expertise is not to be considered when determining public health standards," Giegerich said,
The fate of the limits is uncertain. Tuesday, Tony Evers said he would ignore Republicans’ attempts to restrict his power.
While the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have long served as environmental safety net, President Trump called on the agencies to streamline waters that fall under federal protection.
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler says those would include, "Traditional navigable waters, tributaries to those navigable waters. Certain ditches such as those used for navigation. Certain lakes and ponds, impoundments and wetlands that are adjacent to all of the above."
Citizens can weigh in on the plan until late February.
There were unexpected wins for the environment in 2018, in this case, thanks to an amphibian in the southern edge of Milwaukee County.
“We knew that there were tiger salamanders breeding in this pond next to this development," said then Milwaukee County Park's Natural Areas Coordinator Julia Robson.
The development is household goods giant IKEA that set up shop in Oak Creek.
Its parking lot borders the 222-acre, wetland-rich Falk Park, in which the rare-to-Milwaukee-County tiger salamander breeds.
But unless the creature was prevented from wandering onto IKEA's pavement, Robson says their future looked bleak.
"One of the habits of our pond-breeding amphibians is that in spring they migrate from areas where they’ve overwintered to their wetlands. And they will travel far and wide – sometimes several hundred meters to get there ... So, what you see is mass mortality events from amphibians crossing roads to get to their breeding wetlands," Robson says.
IKEA cooperated by incorporating a 3-foot-tall wooden fence into its design plan. Robson credits a dedicated crew of citizen scientists, who first spotted the tiger salamander and other rare creatures in the park.
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