Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Seymour Simon Preserve: Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness

On a Sunday afternoon recently I drove down from Milwaukee to pick up my wife at O’Hare. Her flight was due to arrive in the late afternoon when traffic tends to pile up as travelers return to Chicago from their weekend in Wisconsin. I’ve been in this position before. I like to avoid potential backups on the Interstate by going early and taking the time to stroll in one of the Forest Preserves along the Des Plaines River near the airport.

I happened upon a sign for the Seymour Simon Preserve and pulled into the nearly full parking lot next to a large open field. Large groups of people were using the shelters provided there. I found the Des Plaines River Trail and headed south along the river. Maybe it was the heat—somewhere between 80 and 90, depending on whether you were in shade or sun—but the trail was uncharacteristically busy that day. So was the river itself. I saw canoers and kayakers going upstream and down.

Here is a short photo essay from my stroll that afternoon. As you will see, wildlife is represented, but most of my encounters were of the human variety.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Photo Essay: Update on Three Bridges Park

The next time you visit Three Bridges Park walk to it using the path from the Urban Ecology Center on Pierce Street. You will see an elegantly arched steel structure that has been newly placed along the Hank Aaron State Trail not far from the Valley Passage. On the inside surfaces of the twin arches you will see the laser-cut names of donors who made the park possible.

The primary purpose of the arches, which were dedicated recently, is to represent the named donors—and there are many. But they also symbolize the bridges for which the park is named, along with the metaphor of that name for a park that owes so much to so many and means so much to such a diverse constituency....

...Elsewhere in the park it was spring planting day. A couple dozen volunteers, along with Urban Ecology Center staff members, braved the heat to plant 900 small potted seedlings along the south edge of the park where lush vegetation meets a still running railroad. 

This story was published at Milwaukee Magazine.  Click here to continue reading.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Milwaukee area parks: 5 hidden gems

Although I’ve been back many times in all seasons, my first visit to Falk Park was most memorable. A personal quest to see wildflowers motivated me. Brian Russart, Natural Areas Coordinator for the Milwaukee County Parks Department, had recommended Falk. The small parking lot was easy to find, on Rawson Avenue just off the exit from I-94 in Oak Creek. Although it was a pleasant day in early spring there were no cars in the lot when I arrived.

I walked along a wide path that led more or less straight into the forest. Most of the trees were bare. The only leaves still clinging to gray branches were desiccated leftovers from the year before. The ground, swaddled in dead leaves, was likewise brown and gray. Where were the flowers, I wondered? ....

This story is published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to learn about all five hidden gems.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Oak savannas in Milwaukee County

Indian Community School, Franklin, WI

Remnants of once-vast ecosystem linger on public and private properties

The big trees lean this way and that like preadolescents at a middle school dance who want to be seen together but aren’t quite ready to touch. The small stand—little over half a dozen oaks—is defined as much by the space around the trees as by the substantial bulk of their individual trunks. It is a classic example of an ecosystem known as oak savanna—or, I must hasten to add, what is left of one.

Stahl-Conrad Homestead, Hales Corners, WI
An undisturbed oak savanna is primarily grassland dotted with oaks. This remarkably diverse ecosystem once stretched in a wide belt from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, creating a transition between the tallgrass prairie to the west and the dense broadleaf forest to the east. Unfortunately, of the 50 million acres that existed prior to European settlement little remains, almost none of it undisturbed....

This story is published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Wauwatosa committee moves to protect County Grounds

Sunset, County Grounds Park
Vote is a victory for opponents of controversial master plan

A Wauwatosa Common Council committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to put on hold the controversial master plan for what is being called the Life Sciences District.

“We have been listening,” Kathleen Causier, Chair of the council’s Community Affairs Committee, told the packed room in the council chambers. The size of the audience for a committee meeting indicated once again the amount of concern and attention being paid to this issue by the community. The outcome included a provision that seemed to surprise nearly everyone in attendance.

During the public comment period before the committee deliberations the contentiousness that had characterized so many previous meetings simmered but never boiled over. The idea of putting the master planning process on hold was itself uncontroversial. Speaker after speaker rose to agree with it. Despite the narrow focus of the issue at hand, many couldn’t resist the opportunity to reiterate their opposition to elements of the plan itself.

When it came time for the committee to deliberate, Ald. Cheryl Berdan made the motion, which was to put the planning process on hold until such time as the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and Milwaukee County both completed environmental impact assessments of County Grounds Park and the non-park county land commonly known as “Sanctuary Woods.” Initially there was little opposition and the decision seemed a foregone conclusion.

Autumn, Wil-O-Way Woods, DNR State Forest, County Grounds
Then alderman Jason Wilke proposed what he considered a “friendly amendment” that add new protections to not only the two parcels stipulated in the original motion but also to the Wil-O-Way Woods property north of Swan Boulevard. This proposal was met with some confusion and Berdan refused to accept the “friendly amendment” to her motion. Wilke then moved to amend the motion without the “friendly” designation, which led to a lively discussion about the intent and feasibility of adding the protection.

The public is clearly disturbed by the part of the plan that involves these three parcels, Wilke explained, and protecting them would serve to reassure people and allow the rest of the plan to move forward. This clarification seemed to satisfy the committee members. The audience listened with rapt attention as nearly every member of the committee expressed agreement in principle with the intent to protect the land. Causier summed up the sentiments by saying “none of us want to see anything going in there,” referring to development on the three parcels.

The final hurdle to acceptance was a consideration of the City’s role in providing permanent protection. City attorney Alan Kesner explained that permanent protection required more than zoning, which is within the purview of the city. A conservation easement or other instrument of protection would require consent of the landowners—Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin. While acknowledging the possibility of resistance, in the end the committee voted unanimously to include Wilke’s amendment to do “whatever it takes to preserve in perpetuity” the three parcels.

It was a stunning development in the now yearlong controversy over the Life Sciences District Master Plan and the committee’s decision was met with loud applause from the audience.

Spring, Sanctuary Woods, County Grounds
The decision means that the scheduled May 15 meeting of the Plan Commission and others will be canceled or postponed until the conditions of last night’s decision have been met. If they are not met, we can expect to hear this issue come up again sometime in the future. However, today we can thank the Community Affairs Committee for their vote to save the County Grounds.

Attention now turns to Milwaukee County, where the decision to act on the Community Affairs Committee decision rests. Those concerned with actually saving the County Grounds will want to make their feelings known to County Executive Chris Abele and the County Board.

There is a meeting of the County Board Committee on Parks, Energy and the Environment Tuesday, May 16 at 9:00 a.m. at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, 901 N. 9th Street, room 201. 

As always, you can see more photos of Sanctuary Woods and the rest of the County Grounds on Flickr.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Transformation: The week spring sprang

Greenfield Park, West Allis, WI

Spring has been particularly fitful this year, one moment teasing with sunshine and warmth, the next plunging back towards winter. I’ve gone out for a walk in the past week, happily warm in a T-shirt only to find myself an hour later wishing I’d brought along a sweatshirt and a jacket!

Blue buttercups, Zillmer Trail, Kettle Moraine State Forest, Northern Unit
I find it essential now and then to pay attention to wildflowers. The cultivated ones are easily seen, often gaudily demanding attention. Seeing wildflowers in the forest requires a kind of mindfulness that is like meditation. It shifts your awareness from larger concerns to something humble on the ground, swaying gently in the breeze.

Greenfield Park, West Allis, WI
In a little over a week the landscape has blossomed. Woodlands that were barren and monochromatic now blush with new life. Here is a selection of photos that highlight the change, along with a few poetic musings about spring and nature.

Whitnall Park Pond, Franklin, WI.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.  ~ John Burroughs

Franklin Savanna State Natural Area, Franklin, WI

Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring. If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature -if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep, if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you -know that the morning and spring of your life are past. Thus may you feel your pulse. ~ Henry David Thoreau 

Mangan Woods, Root River Parkway, Franklin, WI

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. ~John Muir

Boerner Botanical Gardens, Whitnall Park, Hales Corners, WI
When I speak of flowers                   
it is to recall                                                        
that at one time 
we were young.
~William Carlos Williams

Hubbard Park and Milwaukee River Greenway, Shorewood, WI

Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems by heart. ~ Reiner Maria Rilke

Trout lilies, McGovern Park, Milwaukee, WI

I want to do what spring does with cherry trees. ~ Pablo Neruda

Kletsch Park, Glendale, WI

The day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. ~ Anaïs Nin
Jacobus Park, Wauwatosa, WI

See more spring photos from the wild lands of Milwaukee's parks and natural areas at Flickr.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Citizens to Wauwatosa: NO more development on County Grounds

Hundreds turn out to oppose city master plan but are city officials listening?

County Grounds Park
“Preserve the land first and then we can talk about development, ” stated Alderman Michael Walsh in a Wauwatosa Community Affairs Committee meeting on April 11. It was one of several comments that appeared to signal a shift in tone by committee members when referring to Wauwatosa’s controversial Life Sciences District Master Plan.

The committee was discussing a motion by alderman John Dubinski that alarmed members of the public in attendance. He proposed that, in exchange for preserving a portion of the “Sanctuary Woods,” the parkland would be rezoned in order to allow new development in the existing preserve of County Grounds Park.

2008 Comprehensive Plan map showing projected future land use. The blue segment in the center labeled "campus" includes parts of County Grounds Park and Sanctuary Woods. Courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.
Dubinski introduced his motion by saying that he considered rezoning the park for development was the “only way to save the wooded area and wildlife habitats.” Sacrificing County Park land was acceptable in his view because there are “no mature trees” in the park. Many others in this debate have emphasized saving trees. As Milwaukee County Economic Development Director James Tarantino, who attended the meeting, put it, “Everyone agrees the woods should be protected.”

Rendering from LSD plan depicting development adjacent to the woods. Courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.
The south meadow from a perspective similar to the rendering above.

But not everyone agrees what exactly is included in “the woods,” let alone what constitutes protection. If city planners and the Common Council consider destroying the open prairie to put urban, high-density developments on existing parkland in exchange for saving a section of woods, it indicates disregard for the significance of diverse types of habitat and wildlife ecology. Never mind that County Grounds Park was created as part of the compromise that allowed for the development of the Innovation Campus. Never mind that the county has invested considerable time and resources to restoring the park’s habitats with native grasses, wildflowers and, yes, trees.

Never mind the will of the people.

View of Innovation Campus showing undeveloped lots
Only days before the Community Affairs Committee meeting over 300 citizens attended the latest public hearing, at which the city had unveiled its revised Life Sciences District planning map (below). The hearing was wisely held at the Muellner Building in order to prevent a repeat of the Open House in February when half the crowd had to wait outside the meeting room in City Hall because it was filled to capacity.

The will of the people was acknowledged during the April 6th presentation. A slide reported that the “vast majority” of written comments from the February open house included these: “Let development happen where it already is; no more development.” Also: “No County Grounds development/Save County Grounds” and “No roads.”

Concept map showing areas to be developed in brown, all except one of which would encroach on current open space and wildlife habitat. Courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.
A few moments later, however, these unequivocal sentiments were ignored when it came to unveiling the revised plan. Not only does the map show new roads and new development on undefined non-park county land but also the unexpected and shocking revelation of proposed development east of Discovery Parkway in the actual county park. The proposed new road (which may or may not still bear the name “Scenic Parkway”) extending east from the roundabout and turning north at 92nd Street would require the bulldozing of critical habitats—including the long-eared owls’ roosting site and Butler’s garter snake dens—and fragment the parkland.

The new concept map shows buildings in the foreground of this panoramic view of County Grounds Park.
The will of the people, expressed during the public comment period following the presentation, was again unequivocal, clear and virtually unanimous in its condemnation of the proposed Life Sciences District Master Plan as revised. In fact, although the issues of the woods, wildlife habitat, and open space were high on the list of concerns, many of the most vocal objections targeted other aspects of the plan. Critical comments about high-rise development, density, congestion, and financial implications of the plan all received spirited applause.

State Street Station under construction in the Village: Many expressed concern that Wauwatosa is overbuilding in an already saturated market.
Many in the crowd expressed dismay at the very notion that after 20 years of compromises, which have whittled away more and more of the natural land, they were all back again trying to “save the County Grounds.” Wauwatosa resident John Pokrandt drew enormous applause and summed up the mood of the crowd when he said, "We are not asking for two stories instead of ten; we are not asking to move the road; we are not asking for a land swap. We are saying NO! No more compromises, no more development on the County Grounds."

If the Community Affairs Committee meeting was an adequate barometer it seems as if at least some of the Wauwatosa Common Council members have been responsive to this overwhelming public pressure. Many who were present expressed their desire to protect “the woods.” Fortunately, the county, which is and likely will continue to be the landowner, has weighed in recently on the vagueness of “the woods.” In a press release dated April 6, County Executive Chris Abele announced that the county is “surveying the site to establish what in addition to the woods should be protected.”

Monarch butterfly with purple asters and goldenrod in County Grounds Park.
Such a survey and determination are long overdue. I am not alone in hoping that the county will enlist the aid of biologists and wildlife ecologists in their effort. “If [Wauwatosa] Mayor Ehley and County Executive Abele are sincere about their desire to protect the “woods” and natural areas, then they should work with environmentalists to identify those areas, create a parcel, and rezone them first,” alderwoman Nancy Welch told me.

Bulldozing parts of County Grounds Park shouldn’t even be considered. Neither should new roads or any new compromises that diminish what’s left of the County Grounds. “Protecting our natural spaces has long been a priority of mine,” said Abele in his press release. We’ve still got a few here that need protecting. I know a lot of folks who don’t want to be “saving the County Grounds” again in another 20 years.

Sanctuary Woods.

The City of Wauwatosa has published the following schedule of meetings regarding the approval process for the Life Sciences District Master Plan:

May 2 – A Common Council Committee of the Whole will be held, in workshop format to allow for Council discussion and interaction, with no public comment.

May 15 – A final draft master plan proposal will be submitted to the Plan Commission, with an opportunity for public comment.

May 22 – A second meeting of the Plan Commission will be held, with no public comment.

June 6 – Introduction at Common Council, set public hearing date, no public comment.

July 18 – A public hearing with public comment will be held in front of the Common Council.

Aug. 1  – A Common Council meeting will be held where final adoption of the master plan will be considered.

The dates are subject to change.

See more photos of Sanctuary Woods and the rest of the County Grounds on Flickr. 

This story was first published by Milwaukee Magazine on April 25, 2017.