Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Wauwatosa master plan would bulldoze the last corner of the County Grounds

Must “Sanctuary Woods” be sacrificed for retail and residential development?

I crept through the snowy woods as stealthily as possible, my eye on a tree limb ahead. Four long-eared owls perched on that limb stared back at my approach. As I raised and focused my telephoto lens one of them swiveled to confront me head on. Our eyes locked.

Long-eared owl
Then it and the others—including two I hadn’t noticed—rose and took off, sailing deeper into the woods. Six large owls! It was both a peak experience and a reassurance. I hadn’t seen any owls for several years and here was clear proof that they were back on the County Grounds in force. This was good news not only for the birders and others who love these woods, but it meant that the habitat remained healthy enough to attract an elusive and sensitive species.

Unfortunately, my reassurance was tempered by the realization that the very spot on which I stood watching the owls disappear from sight could soon be a road. If that happens they would likely disappear again, this time for good.

Sanctuary Woods has become a very popular place to walk dogs
For many, especially those who use this area regularly to walk dogs or simply to walk in the peaceful woods, it will probably come as a surprise to learn that this corner of the County Grounds has never been protected. It feels like parkland. In fact it was fenced off during years of construction all around it in order to preserve the habitat I’m witnessing now.

Construction fencing encircled the woodland during construction of County Grounds Park and the MMSD detention basins
But the decades of negotiation and compromise that resulted in the establishment of UWM’s Innovation Campus and adjacent County Grounds Park never involved this southeast corner. Now the City of Wauwatosa is developing a master plan that, in its current form, includes a new thoroughfare connecting Innovation Park with the Village of Wauwatosa. The 66-ft. wide right-of-way, which has already been named “Emerald Parkway,” would bifurcate the woods. A second, north-south road would separate the woods from the County Park, fragmenting wildlife habitats and diminishing the recreational experience for the public (see map).

Aerial view of County Grounds showing the approximate location of the new roads
The primary purpose of “Emerald Parkway” would be to spur dense, mixed-use developments (including residential and retail) along the entire length between it and Watertown Plank Road. According to a recent article in BizTimes, the County Grounds portion is just a small part of a larger plan to increase density along Watertown Plank Road, thus creating a new “metropolitan center” for the city. That larger plan has merit.

Stepping back from the County Grounds for a moment, an overall increase in density ought to be good both for economic development and conservation of wildlife habitats. As global populations become increasingly urban and therefore more distant from surrounding nature city planners all over the world are taking up the challenge of providing urban parks as an antidote. Density is part of the solution—as long as the density doesn’t destroy irreplaceable natural areas.

The stub of a new road already points east from Innovation Park towards the threatened woodland
You don’t have to be a nature-enthusiast to see that parts of Wauwatosa’s plan fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Parks improve the quality of life for a community’s residents. But also, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is well documented that property values (and therefore potential tax revenues) increase near parks and natural areas. Parks create value. They are also an attraction. On its website, Discover Milwaukee, a business-oriented organization, describes Wauwatosa as “attractive to professionals because of its proximity to the Milwaukee County Grounds” [emphasis theirs].

Although it has no official designation, the southeast corner of the County Grounds has come to be known colloquially as “Sanctuary Woods,” a hopeful appellation. The location, adjacent to the Milwaukee County Regional Medical Center makes it ideal, in its current natural state, for a health and wellness trail. "Proximity to nature is a valuable asset for the medical complex," says Dr. Marc Gorelick, pediatrician and Executive Vice President at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. "The natural beauty of the County Grounds is important to patients and families, who see it as a peaceful refuge at a time of great stress. It is also increasingly attractive to our workforce, many of whom are millennials who value environmental conservation. Given the existing high density of development on the medical campus itself, any further loss of green space on the remainder of the grounds would be very concerning."

Stone stairs still lead down to the ravine trail from the time when the County Asylum was located here

Sanctuary Woods, which includes a meadow, wetland and a rare remnant oak savanna, is one of the more beautiful and bio-diverse sections of the County Grounds and therefore—not surprisingly—intensively used by the public. “It is safe to say that, if you polled the neighborhoods around the County Grounds, you would find resounding support for preserving this wildlife habitat,” says Bryan Lenz, Director of Bird City Wisconsin [emphasis his].

Wauwatosa, which prides itself on being a Tree City USA, has yet to be designated as a Bird City. But it could. In a passionate letter opposing the proposed road Lenz describes the importance of such natural areas to humans and wildlife and says that the County Grounds has “one of the largest bird lists” in Milwaukee County. He goes on to say that the road and subsequent developments would cause fragmentation of habitats and “destroy its value for sensitive wildlife.”

A very healthy cardinal wintering in the County Grounds
It’s probably safe to say that those at City Hall who want to see this road built will not be polling the neighborhoods to learn how much the community loves this land. However, there will be an opportunity for public input. An updated version of the master plan will be presented to the Wauwatosa Common Council’s Committee of the Whole at 6:00 p.m. on January 17. That meeting is open to the public (at Wauwatosa City Hall, North Ave. and 76th St.). After that meeting a public open house will be scheduled for sometime in early February, according to Paulette Enders, City of Wauwatosa Development Director.

In the meantime, you can always contact the Wauwatosa Common Council, the mayor’s office and Milwaukee County supervisors to voice your opinions and feelings. Although the City of Wauwatosa is developing the master plan, the land is owned by Milwaukee County. In a resolution passed in October 2016 the county board requested an environmental assessment specific to the proposed road be done by March 2017.

A snowy morning in Sanctuary Woods
On a recent morning as I walked again through Sanctuary Woods I met a man named Mike whose two large dogs ran circles around us as we chatted. He echoed my love for the woods. When I mentioned the proposed road he grew solemn and told me, “I used to walk my dogs around the abandoned Eschweiler buildings, until they built apartments there. I figure this here is the last corner left that’s natural and peaceful. Seems like they just want to tear everything up.” I assured him that there are many people who feel the way he does and expressed hope that “they” can be convinced to save Sanctuary Woods.

As he turned to go he said he’d contact his aldermen.

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

This story first appeared in my column at Milwaukee Magazine on January 9, 2017.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: The year in review

Interstate Falls, Iron County, WI, on the border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula
It was a remarkable year in the Urban Wilderness. Grateful for the opportunities, the year took me to some lovely new places, allowed me to revisit some of Wisconsin's great places, and even to explore a few new places (to me) right here in Milwaukee. Follow the links in each excerpt to read the whole story and see the photo essays.

The year began with a blast--of cold that is. I went to New York just in time to witness the city shut down for the blizzard that dumped a record-breaking two feet of snow in one day. It was great fun to walk down the middle of 9th Avenue in the snow and even more fun to join thousands of like-minded New Yorkers romping in Central Park. The blizzard obliterated the surrounding city, making Central Park more of an urban wilderness than usual. Making the best of the New York blizzard.

Later in January it was a distinct pleasure to be introduced to the Flying Squirrels in the Milwaukee County Grounds, right in my backyard! Turns out they are native to the area. However, since they are elusive and nocturnal I would never have seen one if not for a chance encounter with Gary Casper, the scientist who is monitoring the squirrels and who took me on a tour of the nesting sites.

In February the wilderness came indoors when the Milwaukee Art Museum opened an exhibit called Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School. My review.

In March I drove to Houston, Texas for a conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Stopped in St. Louis on the way where their version of New York's Central Park is called "Forest Park." I found it to be more urban than wilderness, but lovely.

The theme of the Houston conference was "Leading with Landscape." I learned a lot about Houston not only from the conference itself but from the two days of guided tours that followed. I also learned that Milwaukee has long had a head start when it comes to preserving and enjoying its landscapes, aka parks and natural areas. I wrote an essay about that for Milwaukee Magazine called What can Milwaukee learn from "Houstonization?"

Buffalo Bayou Greenway, Houston, Texas

In April I took a much shorter road trip to visit Chicago's Millennium Reserve for the second time. The Millennium Reserve Initiative, still in its infancy, is intended to create a network of parklands that in total would be the largest urban park system in the country. Much of the system would be comprised of rehabilitated brownfields and post-industrial landscapes sprawling across Chicago's southern edge and into Indiana. Millennium Reserve: visiting Chicagoland's ambitious urban wilderness project.

In May I sought out signs of spring in Milwaukee area parks and found a LOT! I posted four photo essays of my explorations:
Cudahy Nature Preserve: bursting with spring
World Fish Migration Day at Riveredge Nature Center
Mangan Woods blossoms with spring
Review of springtime in Milwaukee (Yes!)

In July I discovered that a new trail had been added along the north bank of the Menomonee River across from Three Bridges Park in the Menomonee Valley. North Bank Trail.

On August 7 the Milwaukee Water Commons held its third annual We Are Water celebration on Bradford Beach. So began a month of water, nature and park-related events.

Citizens Acting for Rail Safety held its second annual Rally on the Milwaukee River to protest oil trains.

One of my biggest adventures of the year was a kayaking expedition with three other river rats down the Menomonee River, my home turf. The projected three-hour tour turned into a six-hour ordeal that we all loved: The constant lure of adventure: Kayaking a surprisingly wild urban river.

Kayaking the Menomonee River, Wauwatosa, WI

August 25 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. Since the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is the closest national park to Milwaukee, I went there to pay tribute: National Park Service turns 100.

On Sept. 11 a water-related service at my church inspired this reflection: Water Communion.

September also saw a gratifying resurgence of monarch butterflies along the Monarch Trail in the Milwaukee County Grounds. In what began as an act of faith with no assurance of success, years of lobbying to preserve land and efforts restore habitat seems to be paying off as more butterflies roosted this year than in any of the last ten. Monarch return in force to the Monarch Trail.

In October I went a little crazy.

The month began with a guided tour of the Penokee Hills region of Northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. A selection of photos from that trip are on a Flickr album.

When I returned from up north the unrelentingly beautiful autumn led me to spend nearly every day outside in one or another of the Milwaukee region's remarkable parks and natural areas.

If you haven't heard of Brew City Safari, I recommend this hiking club. I went on two hikes with them in October:
Milwaukee River Greenway
Havenwoods State Forest

And it took a whole series of posts to share my experience of autumn in Milwaukee:
Greenfield Park: A walk in the woods
Grant and McGovern Parks
Cudahy Nature Preserve and Falk Park
Humans and Animals: Lake Park and Schlitz Audubon
A magnificent autumn in Milwaukee's parks

Grant Park beach, South Milwaukee, WI
Although autumn slipped into the beginning of November, it wasn't long after that when the season changed. The first day of December found me in Racine, exploring a park I'd never been to before:
Quarry Lake ramble: photographs and poetry was the result.

If you've never seen the Santa Rampage and if you missed my post the first time, you definitely want to check this one out.

When the snow finally showed up I went back to Greenfield Park and to Havenwoods State Forest to be out in it: First snowfall.

The last two weeks of 2016 found me in the most exotic location of the year, Nicaragua. While wilderness eluded me I enjoyed beautiful flowers everywhere I went. Urban Wilderness in Nicaragua, just posted yesterday after my return.

And so ends 2016. If only the political landscape had been as beautiful as the natural one!

Here's to 2017, may it bring humility as well as accountability, peace and determination, greater cooperation but never tolerance of hate. May we live sustainably and spend time in nature frequently whether we live in a city, suburb or rural area.

Greenfield Park, West Allis, WI

Friday, December 30, 2016

Urban Wilderness in Nicaragua

I've been AWOL for a couple of weeks. But I have a good excuse: I've been out of the country. In Nicaragua to be exact. Over the past ten years my wife, Lynn, has developed a regular working relationship with a non-profit organization in Managua called Cantera. The mission of Cantera is to build a more just, equitable and sustainable society through holistic community development using the methodology of Popular Education. This year Cantera invited me to accompany Lynn in the capacity of artist in residence for a two-week period. We just returned last night.

Managua has little in the way of urban park infrastructure, but I managed to make a few photographs that I hope capture a little of the yin and yang of Nicaragua. On the one hand it is a tropical land with abundant natural beauty and on the other it is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (after Haiti.) Here is a here is one of two initial selections of photos. The other set can be seen on my Arts Without Borders blog.

 The sign overlooking Lake Managua (which is severely polluted) reads "respect Mother Earth."

To see a different selection of photos from the residency go to Arts Without Borders.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

First snowfall: Greenfield Park and Havenwoods

Greenfield Park, West Allis

Sunday was one of those magical days. Big, fluffy snowflakes floating out of the sky. Weekend lassitude. A walk in the park. A walk in a forest in a park. A forest thick and silent with new fallen snow. And, mysteriously, after the first few minutes I had it all to myself.

Here is what I saw, along with a couple of haiku for good measure:

in the snowbound forest
Packer game today

the silent forest
surrounding me        somewhere
the city

Havenwoods State Forest, Milwaukee

Monday morning I went out early, partly to beat rush hour traffic but mostly because I was afraid that the snow would melt off the trees. And it did, very quickly. Again I had the place to myself. After nearly two hours I finally met a dog walker on my way back to the car.

I love the solitude, but I fear for a society that has no time for nature. Here’s what I have of it to share:

woodland stillness
…a train roars by…
deeper stillness

soft growl of traffic
in the fresh snow
coyote tracks

sunless sky
over the prairie
Cooper’s hawk

first snowfall
already the trail

To see a selection of Milwaukee’s parks in all seasons go to my Flickr album.