Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rock River wilderness near downtown Beloit

The electronic sign outside the M&I bank in downtown Beloit read 89 degrees yesterday afternoon. I didn't want to be there! Fortunately, just minutes away I discovered an urban wilderness with sufficient shade to make the sweltering day tolerable.

I don't know the status of the riparian woodland. There were no signs indicating a park but it wasn't posted with "no trespassing" signs either. The track I followed was faint. But an empty lawn chair sat on the gravel spit at the tip of a narrow island in the Rock River. Someone appreciates the solitude and serenity of the spot.

(If you look closely, the chair is just visible in the center of the shot below.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Should UWM be more like UW - Madison?

A meditation after visiting the University of Wisconsin – Madison Arboretum, one of my favorite urban wildernesses! And a reflection on the contrast I see with another university with aspirations to emulate Madison.

I first discovered the Arboretum as an undergraduate at the university (too many years ago!) and I go back whenever I get the chance. I had an opportunity to spend several hours there over the weekend. I’m including just a couple shots here, but you can see many more: just click the link below to go to my flickr site.

As I enjoyed walking through forest, wetland, and prairie sections of the arboretum – I believe I saw more of it in one day than ever before – I couldn’t help reflecting on UWM’s plan for the Milwaukee County Grounds. They are focused on developing a research campus on one of the few places in Milwaukee County that could be similar to the Arboretum. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could have a University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Natural Area and Education Center instead of a research “park”? What if land stewardship and wildlife ecology were the focus at the County Grounds?

UWM’s long range goal is to be more like U.W. – Madison. I’m cool with that. As an alumnus of both institutions, I’d like to see them both thrive. UWM thinks the way to be like Madison is to increase its research capacity. I’d also like to see Milwaukee benefit from research the way Madison has. But have you been to Madison lately? The campus I attended so long ago is barely recognizable. Huge new buildings block familiar views and dwarf familiar structures. But Madison is doing it through what’s called “infill” in architectural lingo: using previously developed land rather than sacrificing parks or natural areas.

Although it goes against my core values to lose any potential parkland, being realistic I've consistently supported the compromise that was brokered following the "Save the County Grounds" debacle over ten years ago. Deferring to overwhelming public pressure, that compromise set aside most of the land as open green space, but allowed for some development as well. I've also supported UWM's bid to be the developer of choice because I believe UWM ought to be a good steward of this incomparable property. But is UWM committed to stewardship, or only research unrelated to the spectacular setting on which it wants to construct a campus? Let’s make Milwaukee more like Madison. What do you think: University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Arboretum? Or maybe UWM Wildlife Sanctuary.

More pictures of the Madison Arboretum at flickr.
Pictures of the Milwaukee County Grounds at flickr.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Milwaukee's three rivers in today's news

Important current projects on each of Milwaukee's three rivers made today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Headline reads "Urban river rebirth effort under way."

The specific projects covered in the story are

A) the new Menomonee Valley Passage that will link the Hank Aaron State Trail and the new business park in the Valley with the Silver City neighborhood to the south.

B) the Milwaukee Common Council's scheduled vote on the long awaited overlay district that will protect the Milwaukee River corridor. (see photo below, a view of the Cambridge Woods segment, which is just north of Locust Street.)

C) The planned removal of parts of the concrete channel that is a major reason the Kinnickinnic River has been designated one of the ten most endangered rivers in the US. (pictured above.)

They are all great projects. Read the whole story by clicking here.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Wauwatosa produces another book about loving nature!

Fellow Wauwatosan, Amy Lou Jenkins, has written a new book entitled Every Natural Fact: Five Seasons of Open Air Parenting about how to raise your children to enjoy nature. What a great idea!
She has a website that will tell you more about it.

She is having two back to back book launching events this week:

Monday, May 24, at 7 pm at the Urban Ecology Center - could there be a better place for it?!! Click here for directions.

Tuesday, May 25, at 6:30 at the Wauwatosa Public Library. Click here for directions.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Waukesha request for water diversion goes to DNR

I hope everyone is following the water issues, which have become hot ones around here. Today's story at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outlines the latest step in Waukesha's bid to use Lake Michigan water and return it via Underwood Creek in Wauwatosa. Repeat: Waukesha's water will flow down Underwood Creek and then the Menomonee River.

Here is the cogent paragraph from the story:

"To meet the compact's requirement for return of the water, Waukesha proposes discharging treated wastewater to Underwood Creek near W. Blue Mound Road in Wauwatosa. The creek flows to the Menomonee River, a tributary of the Milwaukee River, which flows to the lake."

Check out the rest of the story at jsonline.

Below: Underwood Creek, South Branch, near Krueger Park and I-94 overpass.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Milwaukee's Urban Ecology Center needs YOU!

OK, if you have been following Urban Wilderness, chances are you’ve heard of the Urban Ecology Center. In my humble opinion, it is one of the jewels of Milwaukee. Their programming is bringing the urban wilderness to school children in our city on a daily basis. If you aren’t already a member, I encourage you to become one. Not only will you be supporting a great place, but membership is a GREAT DEAL!!! Read on.

The following is excerpted from a message sent out recently by Judy Krause, who works at the center.

The Urban Ecology Center is an amazing place with a great mission. (If you are already a member, thank you, and please consider asking a few of your friends to join, enjoy the membership benefits and support this great place!)

The Center provides outdoor learning experiences for tens of thousands of urban youth who rarely, if ever, get the chance to be outside in the natural environment. They learn things like: 
  • How to canoe, while discovering the science of a pond
  • How wild birds are netted, banded and released, while assisting researchers as they do their work
  • Where their food or water comes from through hands-on lessons in our gardens and with explorations along the Milwaukee River or the Washington Park lagoon.
  • How solar power works with tours of our green building in Riverside Park.
It is a one-of–a-kind program for the kids ... but more than this, the Center provides incredible experiences for the whole community. If you are not a member, I am asking that you consider becoming one. It is only $25 for an individual (which allows you to bring a guest to most programs) or $35 for a family. For this small tax-deductible contribution you get four things:

1) The good feeling of knowing that you are supporting a way for kids with limited opportunities to get outside and active in natural setting within their neighborhood.

2) A year's subscription to the UEC newsletter. Check it out! There are a lot of amazing programs being run here that I think you would enjoy. Many of them are reduced or free with your membership. Download a sample newsletter here.

3) The ability to borrow a broad array of equipment from the center for FREE. This includes kayaks, canoes, cross-country skis, posthole diggers, extension ladders and more. This service easily pays for the membership. For example, you can borrow one of the Center's tandem bicycles and cycle two miles on the Oak Leaf Trail down to the Art Museum with a friend for lunch, or strap a Center canoe to your car (we even lend out the straps) for a weekend getaway.

4) The chance to support this amazing place. We currently have over 3,500 households that have figured out the value of the Urban Ecology Center. The more people that are involved, the more kids we can serve and community programs we can offer. It’s a win, win, win.

You can become a member by clicking on this link: UEC Membership

You can learn more at our website: Urban Ecology Center.

Thank you for your consideration!

Judy Krause
Director of Finance and Operations
Urban Ecology Center
1500 E. Park Place
Milwaukee, WI 53211
414-964-8505 x. 102
414-964-1084 (fax)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Milwaukee county parks: Mangan Woods

I was in Brookfield around 4 pm on Friday afternoon. Usually I would go home, but the weather had finally turned warm, the light was beautiful. I’d wanted to revisit Mangan Woods ever since Brian Russart, Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas Coordinator had introduced it to me. (See previous post.) Red trillium—new to me—had just been budding out and I’ve been afraid I’d miss them. I headed south. Traffic was crawling on the Freeway so I took side streets. They were only slightly faster. After bumper to bumper traffic on Hwy 100, I drove through Whitnall Park and finally reached Mangan Woods at 4:30. I didn’t have much time.

As soon as I got out of the car I felt my body relax. After all that noise and congestion, there was no one around. Walking through magnificent, tall trees—some of the oldest in the county—I felt both humble and at peace. I wandered slowly down the trail, looking for flowers. I spotted a few Jack in the Pulpits and then a few more. A quartet of them finally impelled me to lie on the dirt of the trail take a group portrait.

I finally spotted a few isolated plants with the three variegated leaves I could identify as the trillium, but none with a bloom. I wandered along a trail that divided two distinct zones of the woods. On one side the old growth oaks, maples, and ash towered overhead. There were large patches of May Apples, also in bloom. Again I managed a worm’s eye view of them without crushing any. There was very little understory above the ground hugging flowers.

The other side of the trail had a dramatically different character. The trees were mostly all the same size and weedy varieties like box elder. Below that was a dense understory of brush and invasive species like buckthorn. Brian had explained that the 300 acre core of Mangan Woods, which is wedged between Whitnall Park and the Root River Parkway, had survived the logging that occurred throughout Milwaukee County following European settlement. This trail ran along the edge of that relatively pristine wilderness. The brushy side was second growth.

It was getting late. I turned down a new trail towards the parking lot. Finally, just as I was leaving, I spotted trillium—not just one but a whole patch of them. The flowers still seemed new but they were a deep, burgundy red and pricked up like a candle flame.

That would be a nice end to my story: a successful hunt and a peaceful stroll. Sadly, as I turned to leave I found the patch of native trillium surrounded by masses of garlic mustard. After that, more bumper to bumper traffic getting home. But I was grateful, as always, for the blessing of urban wilderness, however short the stay.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Milwaukee Urban Water Trail makes NY Times Travel section

Hey, not only did today's New York Times feature Milwaukee's Urban Water Trail in their Travel section but they used one of my photos to illustrate it. Another plug for Milwaukee's urban wilderness! Thanks to Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, for making the connection. Keep up the good work, Cheryl!

Check out Seven Rivers Less Paddled.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

County Executive Walker asks for input on 2011 budget

So, let's give it to him!

County Executive Scott Walker would like his constituents – if you live in Milwaukee County, that’s you – to give him some input on priorities for next year’s county budget.

Thanks to our trusty parks watchdog, Jim Goulee, you can go online and tell the Exec what you think. Jim is the Director of the Park People a non-profit dedicated to the parks. I encourage everyone to check them out and get involved.

Jim attended one of Walker’s public budget workshops, which had all been scheduled during the work day when most of us can’t attend, and suggested the online option.

Here are the three questions you will be asked when you go to the site, as well as my answers.

Co Exec Walker: In your opinion, what are the priority areas for County funding?
Urban Wilderness: Parks, transit, and potholes.

Co Exec Walker: What ideas/suggestions do you have for closing the 2011 Budget gap?
Urban Wilderness: Use the 1% sales tax that was approved in a referendum by the voters of Milwaukee County but vetoed by Governor Doyle.

Co Exec Walker: What questions/comments do you have for the County Executive regarding the 2011 Budget?
Urban Wilderness: I recommend that the county create a parks district that is independent of Milwaukee County and removed from its budget. The amount that the county currently pays towards the parks would be reduced from the tax burden. The sales tax would be used by the parks district to fund its operations.

To tell the County Exec what your priorities are, go to 2011 Recommended Budget Survey.

At the Urban Wilderness I hope you agree that the parks should be a priority – however you think they will be funded.

The images that bookend this post I shot today at Pleasant Valley Park, which is part of the Milwaukee River corridor, a.k.a. Milwaukee’s Central Park. I call the one below “an explosion of birch.”

Tree planting this weekend in the Menomonee Valley: come help!

Menomonee Valley's

Community Planting Day
May 15th, 2010
Chimney Park

Join the Friends of Hank Aaron State
Trail for the Menomonee Valley's Community Planting Day!

Help plant native prairie plants in the Valley along the Hank Aaron State Trail and in Community Park

May 15th, 2010 (Chimney Park along Canal St. adjacent to the 35th St. viaduct)

For more info go to Friends of the HAST.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

County Supervisor blasts County Executive Walker on parks

The statement below was issued on April 26 by County Supervisor Gerry Broderick, who is the Chair of the Parks, Energy & Environment Committee. I meant to post it earlier, but as it is it's like dropping the other shoe, after yesterday's post celebrating Parks Director Sue Black.


County Executive misunderstands gold medal award, bleak future for County parks

Milwaukee, WI – Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick is responding to recent comments from County Executive Scott Walker regarding the Milwaukee County Parks system.

“Based on comments made last week to senior citizens and repeated in his weekly newsletter, Scott Walker continues to believe that we have the best parks system in the United States. In fact, the gold medal award was presented to Milwaukee County for its parks management, but this award does not mean that our Parks are in the best of shape,” Supervisor Broderick said. “If cutting dozens of County parks workers and deferring parks maintenance to a backlog of $276 million is his contribution, it’s not a positive one. The public needs to be made aware that his claims are fraudulent.”

Parks Director Sue Black and her team have done an amazing job in managing our parks system, and the Gold Medal award recognized their creativity. But, Supervisor Broderick believes that Scott Walker’s continued claims that Milwaukee County has the best park system indicate the County Executive’s clear misunderstanding of the nature of this award.

“Our parks are currently running on fumes rather than fuel, and the County Executive has opposed the sales tax, a dedicated funding stream endorsed by the public in a November 2008 referendum, which might have salvaged our parks. In its absence, our parks have a bleak future,” Supervisor Broderick added. “The quality of our parks is going to hell. Pretty soon, we’ll look like Gary, Indiana. Sure, Gary might have lower taxes, but who wants to live there?”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black doesn't rest

One might not blame Parks Director Black for sitting back and resting a bit on the laurels of last year's Gold Medal award for an underfunded park system. But that's not her style. Milwaukee County is better for her leadership.

Check out this story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about current plans for the parks.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ten years of smart growth in wisconsn

Has it really been ten years since the State of Wisconsin began to require communities to adopt the thoughtful planning process known as "smart growth?" I still remember the "kicking and screaming" that John Torinus describes in his column on the success of that initiative in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Call me a skeptic, but I can't help wondering: If builders and realtors consider Smart Growth a success, how much conservation of natural and agricultural lands is being done? (Conservation is not the only goal of Smart Growth, of course, but it's the one that makes my urban wilderness heart warm.)

To learn more about Smart Growth, go to

Friday, May 7, 2010

Plan Commission Approves Zoning for Milwaukee River Corridor

The following story is courtesy Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Milwaukee's Central Park is the popular name for the stretch of the Milwaukee River between Silver Spring Drive and North Avenue. It is one of the most amazing highlights of Milwaukee's amazing urban wilderness.

Milwaukee's Central Park - One Step Closer!

The City Planning Commission voted unanimous approval of the map and the Milwaukee River Design Guidelines for the Overlay Zone of Milwaukee's Central Park!

Milwaukee Riverkeeper and our partners on the Milwaukee River Work Group have been working hard on passing the Milwaukee River Greenway Overlay District legislation, which will protect over 8 miles of river, floodplain, and riverfront habitat from the former North Avenue Dam to Silver Spring Road.

Thanks to the many supporters who and came out and testified on behalf of the Milwaukee River!

Now on to a Public Works hearing for the stormwater and forestry provisions on Wednesday, May 12, a Zoning and Neighborhood Development Committee on Tuesday, May 18, and final approval by the Milwaukee Common Council on May 25.

For meeting locations and more information on Milwaukee's Central Park click here.

For more information about Milwaukee's Central Park click here.
For a slide show about Milwaukee's Central Park click here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

After rhetorical firestorm Wauwatosa adopts UWM plan despite questions

What was Alderman Donegan thinking? The rest of the Wauwatosa Common Council went very quiet; the audience went still as if holding their breaths. The one unmentionable topic was broached, and despite protestations to “drain emotion from the debate” this one brought out emotions aplenty: is preservation of the Eschweiler buildings worth the loss of potential parkland?

The reaction was predictable. In fact, Mr. Donovan even predicted it himself, saying that he’d be “getting a lot of letters” by taking this position. What he got, in very short order, was a firestorm of criticism from the council. Never mind that the preservation of those buildings, which are on the national registry of historic places, has always been a prerequisite for any development on the county grounds, end of argument. No, there had to be an exhaustive review of Wauwatosa’s stewardship of historic properties and reassertion of preservation as one of the city’s premier values.

In fact, this stunning turn in what should have been a conversation about the merits and scope of UWM’s plan followed an award ceremony. We had just witnessed the charm and effervescent delight on the faces of elementary school children for artwork they had done on the theme of historic Wauwatosa. The contest was sponsored by the Historical Society. If questioning the value of the Eschweiler buildings was some sort of strategy, it not only failed utterly but, in my opinion, it derailed an important debate.

Nearly an hour of rhetoric obscured the fact that Alderman Donovan had not suggested that the historic buildings be demolished. His much more measured and reasonable motion was simply to return the question of approval back to the committee on community development for further study. Unfortunately, his tactless comments about preservation made it possible for vocal aldermen who had already made up their minds to dismiss his other very pertinent questions. The foremost of these were: Will Wauwatosa give a green light to 200,000 sq. ft. of residential development before it knows how much the renovation of the Eschweiler buildings will cost? What if, after construction of the apartment units (intended to enable the developer to renovate the dilapidated structures) it is then determined that the cost is still too high?

More important to the many patient audience members, Alderman Donegan’s motion to remand the resolution back to the committee superseded one by Alderman Hanson to amend the resolution. Hanson’s motion would have limited the total square footage of development to the originally agreed 850,000, down from UWM’s request of almost 1.2 million sq. ft. Late in the evening, by the time the council returned to Mr. Hanson’s motion, which had the support of most of the environmental groups represented in the audience, no one was in the mood for further debate. This significant difference in development footprints was dismissed as “negligible.” (Never mind that, if all of the still speculative developments are completed and further need is demonstrated, UWM could come back to Wauwatosa with a new request to return to its 1.2 million.) The “no” vote on that amendment was quickly followed by approval of UWM’s preliminary plan for Innovation Park with two dissenting votes.

To view my recent photo shoot on the county grounds go to my flickr site.

For more information and analysis:
The Daily Reporter
The Political Environment
Milwaukee County First

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Wauwatosa: proceed with caution on the milwaukee county grounds

An open letter to the Wauwatosa Common Council.

My positions on UWM’s plans for the county grounds closely match those of Barb Agnew, director of the Monarch Trail, and I will try not to repeat them. I have four main points to make: 1) constituencies, 2) compromise, 3) some details of the plan, 4) caution.

1. Who are the constituents here and what are their interests?

The committee on community development discussion last Tuesday night was dominated by concerns about the details of the UWM plan. UWM is clearly the dominant stakeholder. Representatives of the Monarch Trail, Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and other concerned groups, although not allowed to speak, were visibly present. Some of their concerns were acknowledged during the discussion. Although the audience included ordinary citizens, like myself, what was missing was even a passing reference to the overwhelming opposition that was expressed in last week’s public hearing to any sort of development. The point I made at that meeting still stands: no constituents stood up to support this plan. The environmental organizations are not taking the extremist position in this conversation; they—however reluctantly—see the need for compromise.

2. It’s time for a new compromise.

Ten years ago the Common Council compromised. The public then, as now, clearly wanted no development. The Kubala-Washatko plan that was approved by Wauwatosa allowed for some development. During the past year we have seen further compromise. UWM’s good plan takes many environmental concerns into account. However, the requested acreage increased from 66 to 89 and that was approved. Now you are being asked to allow a significant increase in overall square footage of development from 850,000 to nearly 1.2 million. This is too much. It’s time for the developers to compromise, not the public.

3. The devil is in the details.

Most of the plan, which includes habitat protections, bio-remediation of storm water, and sensitivity to the relationship between parklands and developments, among other things, is a good compromise. The committee discussed some specifics of the plan and added judicious restrictions. These were accepted by the UWM representatives at Tuesday’s meeting. I want to urge action by the Council on three major details.

 As Barb Agnew has said, it would be a mistake to raise the building heights in order to reduce the footprint of development. (See my previous blog for more on that.)

 Instead, the overall footprint of development should be reduced by limiting the square footage to the originally agreed 850,000. UWM needs only a small fraction of that for its campus. This is the compromise needed to give the public its due.

 The initial phase of development, as presented to the committee, makes it clear that complete development is not only years away but speculative. While it may make economic sense to install the utility infrastructures in anticipation of full development, the exit road to Swan Blvd., which would divide protected wildlife habitat areas, should not be constructed until a later phase makes it necessary.

4. Caution and vigilance will be needed.

By the end of a meeting that went very late some of the aldermen seemed a bit shell shocked at the magnitude and importance of the issues being discussed. (Read the blog I posted online previously for a more complete description of that meeting.) A very real dilemma was inadvertently created by the coincidence of such a large turnover in the middle of this process. I urge the common council to acknowledge the need to slow this process down and honor the instincts of those committee members who had valid questions. Please send this back to the committee before a final vote is taken.

As Alderman Jay pointed out so graphically, vigilance will be needed even after your well-intentioned specifications are put in place. This is not the moment to proceed without exceptional caution. I thank you all for your sincere efforts and your obvious concern for this vital and special place. We are about to change Wauwatosa indelibly. Let us do it right.

For a portfolio of photographs of this area that I shot during a two hour walk on Wednesday, April 29, go to my flickr site.

Gulf oil spill proves we all live in an urban wilderness

I hit a solid wall of backed up traffic the moment I turned onto the Ontario Street entrance to the Kennedy Expressway. The jam continued on for miles and didn’t ease up until the Edens split off from the Kennedy. On the other side of the median, traffic coming into Chicago for Saturday evening activities was even worse. As we crept along my friends and I reflected on our enjoyable afternoon seeing ArtChicago. It didn’t occur to me to think about all the gasoline that my car burned, let alone the imponderable amount of oil that was being consumed all around us on this one highway in the one city out of all the cities and highways on this one day.

Meanwhile, an estimated 200,000 gallons of oil per day continues to gush to the surface of the gulf of Mexico off Louisiana. It will most likely become the worst oil spill in the nation’s history, with the potential to destroy marine, marsh, and coastline habitats from around the Gulf to North Carolina due to the interconnected ecology of the Gulf Stream system. We all live in an urban wilderness. The butterfly effect sounds ridiculous if you think about a single butterfly. Here's a more understandable parable. Everything is interconnected. Oil spills happen all the time. The size of this one makes it more newsworthy. But oil spills can ruin the environment with regularity as long as we can drive around without thinking of them as a consequence of our actions.

Coincidences can be such a pain! It’s a bit hard not to see this as some kind of global payback for the Obama’s decision to open up more coastline for drilling.

There is plenty of news coverage. I’ve read The New York Times and Associated Press accounts.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A walk on the Milwaukee County Grounds

On Wednesday, after the Wauwatosa Common Council's committee on community development rezoned this land, I went out for a walk and took a few pictures. Here is a sample. More can be found on my flickr site.

The Sycamore tree, highlight of the Monarch Trail and roosting site during the fall migration.

The Eschweiler complex. Five buildings designed by the famed Milwaukee architect still stand on the grounds. Restoration of the historic buildings is planned as part of the Innovation Park proposal.