Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hank Aaron State Trail goes west!

I know I should have done it before now. I’ve been meaning to ride the west extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail (HAST) since the new Valley Passage and Menomonee River bridge opened way back in November! (See previous post.) With apologies to friends at the Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail for my tardiness, I’ve finally biked the section of the trail that runs from Miller Park out to 123rd St.

It was clear from the start that plenty of other people had discovered it. As I rode up the incline from the Valley Passage, I passed a steady stream of bikers coasting down. I thought I knew what to expect: The trail was established on an old railroad line, which is common enough to have its own Rails to Trails national program. This railroad line ran due west from the Menomonee Valley, through urban neighborhoods of Milwaukee and West Allis. I expected to see a lot of houses, businesses, and industrial buildings.

Well, Okay, I did see a lot of those things, but I also saw a lot more than I expected, including some interesting bits of nature. I didn’t expect to see any wildlife, the corridor being so narrow, but I soon caught out my own bias in this regard. Richard Louv observes in his new book, The Nature Principle, that many people think only of animals when they think of wildlife. There is even a term for it: “plant blindness.” I guess I’ve been guilty of this on occasion.

Some of the bikers on the trail speed along without glancing around, focused on fitness perhaps, or trying to reach a destination. Some ride in pairs or groups, making the trail a social experience. I saw at least one girl riding along with one hand gripping the handlebar and holding a cell phone up to her ear with the other. I hope there were a few who enjoyed discovering the flowers and other plants as much as I did.
Among my favorites was the wild rose, which I saw frequently. Many of the blossoms had already started to wilt, but enough were fresh to brighten up the lush green foliage with their delicate pink accents.

 At Wood National Cemetery I passed a hillside full of daisies.

I found a tall stand of newly planted wild rye grass near Miller Park to be surprisingly dazzling in the bright afternoon light.

Unfortunately, many of the plants, even attractive flowers like this multiflora rose bush, are non-native. This is a common problem throughout the urban wilderness, of course. Not all non-native plants are invasive and many have been planted deliberately, but they do tend to compete with the native species and limit biodiversity.

The trail passes through the State Fairgrounds where I found some decidedly unnatural curiosities.

The pavement ends at 94th Place but a gravel trail continues quite a bit farther. Eventually, it will be paved all the way to where it will intersect with the Oak Leaf Trail near the Milwaukee County line. But it passes under the Zoo Interchange where I-94 meets I-894 and Highway 45. The whole interchange is due to be rebuilt in a few years. Paving the HAST will follow that huge enterprise.

After riding for several miles in relatively narrow confines, the west end of the trail begins to seem pretty wild by comparison. There is no illusion of wilderness, what with the freeways and power lines, but the character of the trail changes and more open.

 Cattails grow in puddles alongside the trail.

The trail itself becomes a dirt track crowded with weeds. This lovely crop of yellow flowers is, sadly, invasive. When I sent the picture to a plant-knowledgeable friend to confirm its identity as bird’s foot trefoil, she added “ick.”

Currently the HAST doesn’t quite reach its intended destination. The abandoned rail line continues on but old railroad ties remain in place, making it impossible to ride that way. I had to make a short detour on the road to finish up and return home via the Oak Leaf Trail.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wauwatosa’s innovation: Marketing parkways?

This is adapted from my recent column, Wild Wauwatosa. I wrote it in response to current events in the city where I live, but the issues and principles are hardly unique to this location.

What‘s in a name? First came Innovation Drive, in Wauwatosa’s Research Park. Then the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee touted its planned engineering campus on the Milwaukee County Grounds as Innovation Park. The Crowne Plaza Hotel, on Innovation Dr., even adopted the moniker for its restaurant. Now officials have decided to brand the entire city of Wauwatosa as “Innovation Parkway,” based on the observation that it is interlaced with Olmsted-inspired Milwaukee County parkways.

View west across the Innovation Park site, one of the most spectacular locations in Wauwatosa.

The brand is being rolled out with the companion slogan “great opportunities at a great location.” The intent is to encourage economic development by promoting the city’s central location in the Milwaukee region and its accessibility with an emphasis on the proximity of the parkways.

I’m in favor of economic development. Of course. Especially in the current economic climate, who would question the need to attract business and create jobs? I’m also – no surprise here – in favor of parks, parkways, and open green space. What’s in a name? I call this blog Urban Wilderness in order to promote the idea that regular contact with nature is essential for a healthy life.

View southeast from UWM’s planned Innovation Park site showing Medical Complex towers.
The Milwaukee County Parks and parkway system provide beauty, serenity, and recreational opportunities within the urban region, making Wauwatosa and Milwaukee County especially attractive places to live. I hope that it is this inherent value of parkways that the architects of Wauwatosa’s new identity had in mind and that all new development will respect the integrity of those lands.

A short stroll along the Oak Leaf Trail on a pleasant evening is enough to convince anyone that people all over the county love the parkways. Wauwatosa officials and their newly created Community Development Authority should not be surprised if many of their constituents view this campaign with a measure of skepticism. Real estate developments notoriously are named after natural features that have been diminished or destroyed. The term “park” itself long has been coopted, its meaning subverted in oxymoronic combinations like Industrial Park and Business Park. How farfetched is the fear that “Innovation Parkway” will likewise disregard the meaning of parkway, or that public parkland will be lost to commercial development? Examples of this are as near and recent as Aurora’s Hospice Care Center on Honey Creek Parkway and the “Research Park,” which sits on land that really did look like a park not so long ago. Cookie cutter suburban subdivisions all over the country sport names like “Rolling Meadows,” “Tall Pines,” and the particularly egregious subcategory of “The Preserve at…[fill in the blank.]”

Wauwatosa’s new identity and marketing campaign won’t necessarily have this destructive effect on the parkways, nor should it. But if economic development is allowed to trump land preservation and the public’s enjoyment of nature then the danger is as real here as it is elsewhere. The citizens of Wauwatosa should be particularly concerned that the Community Development Authority is empowered to negotiate privately – without public input – even when development plans involve public land and taxpayers’ funds. 

A scenic natural area along Underwood Parkway.
The consultants who recommended the new brand to city officials wisely identified the parkways as among Wauwatosa’s most valued assets. The Mayor wants to use the new marketing strategy to “make a buzz around Wauwatosa.” A truly innovative idea would be to promote Wauwatosa and Milwaukee as cities where people can enjoy nature and places that protect natural areas. Let’s make a buzz about the indisputable importance of the parkways and the nearness of nature to the quality of life in our community. Economic development and the public interest both would benefit from this approach.

A view of High Pointe Office Center from Underwood Parkway.
Economic development is essential. Wauwatosa and Milwaukee have plenty of places that need revitalization. Development should be sensitive to the public’s enjoyment of the parks and parkways; it should occur in locations that will never compromise their value. This includes consideration of the views from the parks and not just the attraction of the views into the parks. The recently created overlay-zoning district for the Milwaukee River Greenway should serve as a model for development in ecologically sensitive areas. Milwaukee County really is blessed with an abundance of nature – that’s something worth creating a buzz around.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

River Revitalization Foundation takes a hike on National Trails Day

Last Saturday was National Trails Day, so designated by the American Hiking Society. The River Revitalization Foundation (RRF) invited the public to celebrate the day with a hike along the Milwaukee River. Although I had to wonder why a specially designated day was needed, being highly self-motivated when it comes to hiking, the Milwaukee River Greenway is one of my favorite places for it and I relished the idea of a hike guided by the knowledgeable staff of the RRF. 
false Solomon's seal
The worth of the designated event became apparent immediately as about 25 people assembled in Gordon Park. A few were seasoned hikers but most were not. Some confided that they’d never hiked along the Milwaukee River before.

We began with sight, across Locust St., of a modest house that belonged to Charles Whitnall, the mastermind of Milwaukee County’s magnificent park system. Vince Bushell, RRF’s Land Steward, provided some historical background about Gordon Park and the river below the bluff, which was invisible due to a screen of mature trees. When first developed, he said, the view was unobstructed. However, cuts to the parks budget have resulted in the elimination of tree trimming operations.

Anise blossoms
 We strolled down the recently developed, paved Beer Line Trail, so called because it follows the route of the former railroad line that once served Milwaukee’s breweries. Vince identified native flowers that were blooming in places that had been cleared of garlic mustard and other invasive species by RRF volunteers. 

Next to one of the two massive UWM dorms that bracket the river at North Ave. we found a troop of boy scouts working on another RRF project: re-routing a mountain bike trail to reduce erosion. Bikers love the riparian trails – and multi-use is the name of the game in this high-profile urban wilderness.

I was delighted to see the creative re-use of buckthorn as a fencing material in the new Wheelhouse Gateway Park at the south end of the Greenway.

By the time we crossed the bridge at Caesar’s Pool and turned back north up the East Bank Trail attrition had reduced our party to seven diehards. Which was too bad, I thought, because the east side trail is unpaved, which I prefer, and because we discovered a number of fascinating projects in the works.

 There were square depressions at regular intervals in the tall grass made by slabs of plywood laid down to provide shelter for endangered Butler’s garter snakes. A soccer-field size area had been battened down with black plastic, in an experimental effort by the Urban Ecology Center to control invasive reed canary grass, which blankets much of the riverside.

The most exciting project has to be imagined from the devastation wrought upon one section of the bluff, which looks like a war zone. A new 40-acre arboretum is being created that will extend up and over the top of the bluff.  With an irony that is emblematic of the urban wilderness I love to write about, the first step in the development of the arboretum, apparently, is to clear-cut all the trees. The new, yet-to-be-planted trees will outlive me – and it fills my heart with joy to know that. 

arboretum under construction
We finished our loop in Riverside Park, which was originally designed in the 1890’s by Frederick Law Olmsted and rescued a hundred years later from blight and neglect by the Urban Ecology Center. Much as I admire Olmsted’s classic landscape designs and anticipate the beauty of the new arboretum, I must admit I was heartened to see this magnificent old black willow (below) lying where it had recently toppled. It is a fitting symbol of a new sensitivity to ecological processes and biodiversity. One of the signature differences between a wilderness and most urban parks is what happens to fallen trees. Park managers traditionally have made lumber and carted it away. But where trees are left to decompose they provide habitat for wildlife and their nutrients eventually return to the earth, repeating the cycle of regeneration. 

I enjoyed National Trails Day but I won’t be waiting for another official excuse to take my next hike in the urban wilderness. (You knew that!) I hope I see you out there on one of my hikes.

Click here to see more images from the National Trails Day hike and Milwaukee River Greenway.