Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: a fine urban wilderness

In order to get to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore from my home in Milwaukee, I have to go through all of Chicago, with its sprawling suburbs and its densely packed downtown, spiked with skyscrapers, and then across the skyway. The view from the skyway is of a vast apocalyptic landscape seething with active refineries, steel mills, and inactive, abandoned industrial sites. Past the last steel mill I begin to see woodlands and wetlands instead of enormous factory sheds, steel armatures, and tall smokestacks. It is worth the effort.

I’ve been to “the dunes” many times, but always to lie on the beach in warm weather. Last weekend could have been more of the same, but it was freezing! So, instead of sticking to the beach I explored one of the inland trails where it was out of the wind and much warmer. And what a lovely discovery! The Cowles Bog trail led me through some swamplands, over oak covered hills, and past glacial kettle ponds. 

Most of the landscape was still hued with pre-spring shades of russet and charcoal. The marshy areas have started to sprout thin green reeds and tight pale curls of what will unfold as ferns. Bright yellow Marsh Marigolds provide the only other splashes of color.

It was very peaceful, too, considering how close it is to Chicago. Just an hour to the southeast of the windy city, the National Lakeshore is a thin, discontinuous band of sandy hills and soggy wetlands. It lines the southern shore of Lake Michigan, residue of the last great ice sheet. It is discontinuous because it was created around private lands that remain grandfathered within the scope of the park. This happens in other parks, but is particularly prevalent where a park is created long after development has taken hold.

  Checkerboard ownership can make for jarring juxtapositions beyond the proximity of power plants and steel mills. When I arrived at the Cowles Bog trailhead, I was stopped by the guard station that keeps the public out of a private community called Dune Acres. The small trailhead parking lot was tucked away behind a ridge, where residents of Dune Acres wouldn’t see it as they approach and exit their enclave.

Away from the road, my wilderness experience unfolds gradually. At the beginning of the hike I could hear the regular clattering of the commuter rail line that runs arrow straight through the irregular meanderings of sand hills and streams. As I got farther from the rail line, closer to the lake, only the more distant sounding air whistle could be heard as each train reached road crossings. Finally, as I crested the last tall dune, all I could hear was the wind in the trees and the pounding of the surf below. Very peaceful.

I could easily ignore the steel mill that smoked far off down the shoreline.

While there are ten National Seashores, there are currently only four National Lakeshores, all on the Great Lakes. Two are on Lake Michigan and two on Lake Superior. The Indiana Dunes is the one closest to a populous city. (There also are two National Parks in the Great Lakes region: remote Isle Royale in Lake Superior and urban Cuyahoga between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wild Wauwatosa comes to Wauwatosa Patch

Dear fans of the urban wilderness: I have a new beat - although it overlaps with my old beat. I've been invited to write a weekly column for the new online news venue called Wauwatosa Patch. My column is called Wild Wauwatosa and I will be covering much of the same thematic territory in the more limited physical territory of Wauwatosa.

Recently completed outflow structure for the MMSD detention basins
So, if there's something happening out on the County Grounds...

Mating geese considering a nesting place at the Burleigh Triangle?
Or if I simply run across some curious phenomenon of nature in this urban setting, you will probably hear about it at Wild Wauwatosa. My latest post is about last weekend's river cleanup, organized by Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

A painting found in Underwood Creek has ironic poignancy
I invite you to check out Wild Wauwatosa by clicking this link.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Conservation Congress: Help save Rainbow Springs for wildlife!

The results of the balloting in Monday's Conservation Congress are in. Having been there, it comes as no surprise to me that most of the proposals passed, including the controversial ones to expand hunting and trapping in State Parks. To see the tally, go to DNR Summary of Results.

I plan to write up another post with reflections and concerns about the Conservation Congress meeting and process. In fact, I may have to make it a series. There are a number of issues that I think will be of interest. But I feel the need to begin with an appeal.

One of the things I learned about at Monday's meeting was the issue of using funds from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund to buy golf courses with the intention of converting them to natural areas. It's a complicated issue that may get more complicated and there are controversial aspects. I'll try to explain it as succinctly as I can based on my limited understanding of the issues. I welcome comments that will provide clarification and further information.

Stewardship funds are currently not allowed to be used to purchase golf courses. However, there has been a request for an exception to be made for Rainbow Springs Country Club, which was developed on the Mukwonago River. Environmentalists objected to this at the time, but it was done. Now a plan has been proposed to purchase the golf course using Stewardship funds, designate it as part of the Kettle Moraine State Park, and convert it to wetlands.  This is something the hunting/fishing community that form the majority of those attending the Conservation Congress approve. I.e., hunters/fishermen and conservationists are on the same side of this issue. As I see it, there are two potential problems:

1. Using Stewardship funds to purchase Rainbow Springs would set a precedent.
2. Some people - golfers, presumably - want to keep the golf course.

A group called Friends of the Mukwanago River are advocating for the restoration and protection of the river and this land. They are requesting help and recommend the following:

Take Action
Help us serve as the voice of the Mukwonago River

   Please contact Senator Lazich’s office and let her or her staff know that you are a Friend of the Mukwonago River. (Senator Lazich represents this area in the state legislature.)
   Tell Senator Lazich that the protection and restoration of the river is of the utmost importance to you.
   Urge her NOT to introduce legislation that compromises the future of newly-designated Mukwonago Kettle Moraine Unit. 
   Senator Lazich can be reached by phone at (608) 266-5400 or toll free at (800) 334-1442. Her email address is sen.lazich@legis.wi.gov

A proposal to continue the existence of the Rainbow Springs golf courses could threaten the Mukwonago River and planned restoration.  The construction and operation of these golf courses in the floodplain and wetlands has been a detriment to water quality, aquatic habitat, wetland function, proper water flow through the area, and fish and recreational passage.

The Friends of the Mukwonago River believe that the Mukwonago River Unit’s future should be as has always been the plan: restoration of the Mukwonago River, surrounding wetlands, and the river’s floodplain for the benefit of water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and nature-based recreation opportunities for the general public.

For more details about this issue check out "Recent News" at www.mukwonagoriver.org.
If you contact Senator Lazich, please report your call at friendsofthemukwonagoriver@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Conservation Congress provides quite an education

If you read my previous post about yesterday's Conservation Congress (CC) with surprise and concern, you were not alone. Many people did and I appreciate the feedback I've gotten. I went last night; I listened; I spoke up once; and I voted. And I do intend to report on my experience there, which was illuminating if not edifying. Please be patient. It will take some time for me to formulate a report that does the issues justice. I hope you'll check back for it later.

In the meantime, I've just posted the Cherokee Marsh piece below, which has been in the pipeline and which got bumped by the CC issue. I hope you enjoy it.

Cherokee Marsh: an impressionistic hike

Cherokee Marsh Conservation Park is a short drive from downtown Madison. Just beyond Cherokee Apartments, Cherokee Country Club, and Cherokee Shooting Range, the curb-less road goes low and flat. Water nears the pavement on both sides; brown marsh grasses have been flattened by winter.

As I approach the park sign I see the complicated roof gables of two new McMansions rising above their protective berm. Brick pillars flanking the entry drive bear a large “Private – No Trespassing” sign.

The park is more inviting. The road turns to dirt, then mud. It veers left toward woodland as the marsh opens out on the right. I park in the nearly empty lot, exchange my shoes for boots, and set off towards a lake visible through the trees. My ear catches the distinctive warbling of Sandhill Cranes and I feel an immediate thrill of excitement even though the sound is faint and the direction unclear.

A shiny new aluminum boardwalk leads to a rickety-looking wooden viewing platform that has been etched with names and epithets. I climb to survey the long narrow lake (which may be the Yahara River, though my map doesn’t name it.) A few geese dot the glistening water. Large houses dot the opposite shore. Squares of lawn have been carved from the shag of woodlands.

Angelic streaks of sunlight break through the fitful sky, blaze across the water, and – almost theatrically – illuminate the white trunks of Aspens crowding the shoreline. Then it darkens. Suddenly, light fluffy snow appears, floating as much as falling. It thickens, swirling around me; then, just as suddenly, it disappears. The clouds thin, angels beckon once again. This common place, with its subtle triumphs and ordinary tragedies, reminds me that astonishment is a normal reaction to the world when I take the time to be outdoors in it.

A large hill is spiked with twisted oaks; gray trunks brandishing black limbs, still clutch last year’s brown leaves. Beyond, back in the lowlands, a badly warped wooden boardwalk leads into a tiny wetland pond that remains icebound. But tiny specks of Duckweed, with its biological heat, penetrate the ice, signaling the changing season. 

The clouds break, revealing a deep, brilliant blue. Rivers of dead grass shimmer; the cold light awakens their inner warmth. The capricious sky, never resting, covers itself once more and again throws snow down upon the land. My fingers are numb from the cold, but I turn my face up into the magical gale, knowing its transient beauty and the inevitability of spring.

My boots clank incongruously atop another aluminum boardwalk. The harsh sound is an affront, alien to the marsh. I am grateful to reach its temporary terminus, to see the gray timbers of the old boardwalk snaking off over the dead grass. My gratitude multiplies when, as I turn to leave, two cranes soar over the tree line, sweep the marsh, and descend, their bodies aligned, wings outspread in perfect harmony.

Thus fortified, I make my way back. As I near the McMansions I have to stop the car for a skunk that trundles blithely across the road and into the brush. I pick up speed again as I pass Cherokee this and Cherokee that, thankful not just for Cherokee Marsh (a less egregious use of the appellation, but no less patronizing), but for the nameless oaks, grasses, cranes – and for the effervescent sky.

For more images from Cherokee Marsh, go to my flickr page

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Milwaukee's lakefront in fog

I was grateful to be on the lakefront today and to discover the lovely fog drifting about. Got a few shots to share.

This wraithlike tree seemed almost to be emitting electricity, rising from out of the mist.

The lagoon, where water and trees today seem more substantial than tall buildings.

How about a metaphor? A representation of the urban wilderness.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Wisconsin’s wildlife more endangered than ever!

Vote April 5 and at a Conservation Congress on April 11 – Please!

As everyone knows, Governor Walker has made national headlines over controversial proposals. He seems to relish the publicity as well as the fight he provoked. Much of the ire has been directed, appropriately, at his attempts to bust unions and gut public education. But much more is also at stake, including wildlife and peaceful recreation in our state parks. Tomorrow’s voting is widely viewed as a referendum on Walker’s proposals. Let’s make it so. But there’s another important opportunity to vote next week.

The Wisconsin DNR is holding a Conservation Congress next Monday, April 11 to determine the fate of 85 proposals for changes that could have a dramatic effect on our state parks.

Here are just five of the proposals to be voted on:

1.     To allow widespread hunting and trapping in state parks.
2.     To kill 350 of the state’s 700 wild wolves.
3.     To allow shooting within 100 feet of a human-occupied building.
4.     To allow hunting of the 200 elk in the state.
5.     To allow bears to be killed with dog packs.

With some exceptions for the annual hunting of deer, turkey, and other designated animals in designated sections of the parks, none of these things currently are legal in Wisconsin state parks.

You can make a difference by voting no on these and other ballot questions! But here’s the kicker: the rules stipulate that no public comments will be accepted. You must vote in person, you must vote on April 11, and you must vote in the one location designated for your county.

If you live in Milwaukee County, please vote at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis at 7 pm on April 11.

If you live in another county, click here to find the location.

To read ballot questions 52-53, which proposes to allow hunting and trapping, click here.
For more information, click here.

For the record, I have never opposed hunting deer on private lands in Wisconsin. Please join me in voting no on April 11 to opening our parks to widespread hunting. Who thinks 200 elk are too many for the state of Wisconsin, anyway?!!

Here's another thought: why is this voting so restrictive? It seems as if it's deliberately designed to reduce participation. Let's tell our legislators that our parks and the people of Wisconsin who use them deserve more respect.