Monday, January 21, 2013

Slaughter on the Milwaukee County Grounds: Innovation What?

"The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope." ~ Wendell Berry

It is a cold day on the Milwaukee County Grounds. An icy front pushed through last night. My fingers are numb only minutes after leaving the car. But the tingling in the tips of my fingers, toes and ears is bearable compared to the numbness that afflicts my mind and soul as I behold the chilling operation that is underway.

I thought I was prepared for this. I’ve known something like this was coming for a long time now. There are some things – skydiving, the birth of a first child, going into battle – for which no amount of preparation can account. Is the cutting of a few old trees comparable? No, but the shock of seeing a stately and beloved grove of trees, some over a hundred years old, unceremoniously slaughtered is real. No, I am not prepared.

I take refuge behind my camera. Peering through its viewfinder distances me enough to record the event. My mind reverts to acquired routines: scout for points of view, frame compositions, wait for the action, … shoot. Shoot again. And again.

The action proceeds non-stop, so efficiently that it takes only two workers to level the entire grove before noon. The mechanical efficiency of the operation contributes to my shock. One worker operates the tree cutting machine and the other watches. He watches me. If they didn’t need someone to keep curious spectators away from danger, one worker could do the job.

They needn’t fear for my safety; I don’t want to be close to this.

The hydraulic arm of the tree-cutting machine is tipped with an entirely utilitarian and perfectly hideous combination of claws and spinning blade. The tractor clanks towards the next target. I expect it to jerk like a cinematic robot, but the arm rises smoothly, eases towards the trunk. There is a momentary hesitation; then it pushes straight into the gray bark. With a bright spray of chips the claws clamp onto the suddenly severed trunk and lift the entire tree, still upright, through the air. Like raising a toast!

The tree is released a good fifteen feet off the ground. It tilts slowly and falls. With a great crunch of breaking limbs and a splattering of branches, it collapses onto the earth. Then the machine pivots, moves on and does it again.

I am equal parts appalled and riveted.

The machine approaches a maple tree too large to topple in one swipe. It progresses methodically from limb to limb, lopping and tossing them aside as easily as my infant granddaughter tosses a toy in order to reach for another one.

The next tree, as the blade bites into it, explodes. Branches fly off in every direction and, though I have kept my distance, I am showered with a barrage of wood chips. I turn aside, protecting my eyes and lens from the cloud of dust that follows. When I turn back a flurry of dark, burnt umber oak leaves wafts in the updraft. Through the dissipating dust the machine’s operator sees me, then smiles and waves.

Burning questions bubble up, insistently. “Why?” doesn’t begin to express the inquisition the situation requires. In simple terms, I know the answer: The land has been purchased for its potential as real estate. It is intended to become a campus, a research facility, a business incubator, a privileged residential address. It will mean jobs, taxes, economic development. In the narrowly constrained rationalization that accepts the myth of progress a grove of trees cannot compete with all that.

But the real reason is even simpler: trees, along with uneven, natural contours, increase development costs. The cheapest way to maximize the utility of the land is to clear it and flatten it. This is supposed to be called Innovation Park. Where is the promise implied in the name?

The rotating steel blade catches the sun, gleaming. It spins relentlessly. As it snaps off another hundred-year-old trunk I can’t help feeling that conventional thinking bested innovation on this round.

Why, it must be asked, all of the trees? It is a failure of imagination to suggest that any of the intended uses of the property are inconsistent with the retention of strategically situated, mature, beautiful trees. That the people who one day will work and live in this place would not have benefitted by their healing presence.

Why is the bottom line always so bereft of what is truly valuable?

When will we begin to learn that value accrues to the ineluctable, spiritual qualities of nature as much as to material, economic considerations? When will we understand that by stripping the land of nature we leave ourselves naked?

I look away from my camera, tearing my eyes from the terrible and compelling activity I’ve been shooting with such intensity. I am confronted with a ravaged landscape. A rabbit scurries out of a woodpile, away from the uproar, disappears into another. The Milwaukee County Parks Administration building sits beyond, newly exposed in the bright, wintry light. Atop its pole the flag snaps in the wind. Land of the free….

When there is only one tree left, the spotter walks over to me and tells me he is leaving, perfunctorily warns me not to get too close. He understands that I will not. Then he, like the rabbit, vanishes.

The last oak stands, its lacy tangle of branches stark and black against the sky.

Then there is only sky.

Note: If, like me, you are saddened and disappointed by this and want to know what you can do, please contact the following with your questions and comments:
The Wauwatosa Common Council 
The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors
The UWM Real Estate Foundation, President David H. Gilbert: -->
The City of Wauwatosa:
Mayor Kathleen Ehley: 
Paulette Enders, Development Director:  
William C. Porter, Director of Public Works:

To read another perspective on this topic, click on WauwatosaNOW.


  1. I totally know how you feel about this. Watching the senseless destruction of something that is loved. Whether it be a beautiful grove of trees or a an old building. I have been working on a book project about the histories of Wisconsin drive-in theaters for several years now. And like you, I documented the destruction of the old 41 Twin Outdoor theater in Franklin, WI back in 2002. It was a horrible feeling watch all the memories of 53 years get stripped from the land in a matter of a month. Thankfully you were there to document this sad event for all to know and share in the future. Thanks for a great article.

  2. Thank you for your work to document such a devastating loss.
    My question is: Why did this work take place on a weekend???

    1. I am sure they were hoping that no one would notice until the deed was done.

    2. I asked the spotter why they were doing it on the weekend. His answer was pretty conventional: the company, which is based in Illinois, was so busy that this was the only free time the job could be booked, also considering the snow-free conditions. He was friendly, and "just doing his job." I get that; don't blame the workers. But Charles may have a point.

  3. And so now what will become of the "harvested" wood? There is probably hundreds of feet of furniture-grade lumber in those old trunks. Is it all destined for the chipper?

  4. An Man shall destroy this good earth, I have walked the grounds many times and it tears out your heart. The hawks, owls Deers Monarchs butterflies shall not return, thanks to man.

  5. The thing that is so frustrating is that originally, they were going to put the road in from the west of the Parks building, but DOT said it would be too close to the new highway interchange. Then they decided to put it to the east. They could have moved it further east (b/c of course, the County owns that property too) or even meandered it to save a few of those amazing trees. Sadly, instead of a lovely "parkway" that UWM promised, we are getting a highway, paid by DOT, which is essentially going to be a reliever for when they are constructing the new Zoo Interchange. Since DOT is paying for it, Tosa did what they wanted I think. We've been talking at people with blank stares for years now. The new buildings are also not innovative, or built to take advantage of the natural topography. They are grading and flattening everything. Its going to look like another boring business park (e.g. South of Watertown Plank). There so called Innovation Park is not innovative or a park. Its an abomination and a "missed" opportunity to do it right. Its also funded by your tax dollars Tosans through two ginormous TIFs.

  6. Good work on this, Mr. Daniel. It sometimes seems as if some people simply dislike the color green, and wish it banned from the world.. real green, real life-affirming fresh and living green, not the green of money. Unfortunately, these people are often in a position of power. Again, good work detailing this, and wonderful message to the story.

  7. Those responsible don't understand that short-term thinking isn't thinking at all. Charlie

  8. Sometimes I Wonder

    Sometimes I wonder if the human species is a cancer…
    sometimes I wonder if we’re a planetary plague—
    sometimes I wonder, but I’m afraid of the answer…
    yes, I’m afraid, and I’m not being vague.

    There may be more wisdom in one tree
    than in a so-called ‘university’—
    sometimes I wonder

  9. I don't even want to know what effect this is going to have on the monarch butterfly migration that uses this land and these trees as a layover.

  10. Eddee, thank you for documenting this slaughter I'm so dismayed at UWM's lack of understanding about the value of these trees and land. UWM is a public institution of higher learning that grants degrees in Urban Planning. They should be keenly aware of the value and nature of this specific land as well as the interdependent ecosystems. The cutting all these mature oaks is surely a sin.

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  12. Eddee, thank you for documenting the work and writing your post. I have contacted four of the individuals you mentioned. I am not angry, just sad that our society keeps doing this over and over again.

    Jim Schmitt, Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors ,
    David Gilbert, President, UWM Real Estate Foundation ,
    Dennis McBride, City of Wauwatosa Alderman ,
    Kathy Ehley, City of Wauwatosa Mayor

    Tue, Jan 22, 2013 at 2:40 PM

    Saddened over loss of trees. Can "innovation" include smart approaches to land stewardship?

    Jim, David, Kathy, and Dennis,

    I appreciate all that you do for our community and the metro area. I know there are many factors to balance in making decisions and that compromises are necessary. So thank you for the tough decisions I know you need to make every day.

    I specifically appreciate all the work that has gone into planning for the current Innovation Park project.

    Given that there have been intelligent people around the table, I do hope that the recent clear-cutting of trees was absolutely necessary.

    Perhaps there was a public announcement that I missed. Perhaps there was an attempt to educate citizens on the absolute need to cut down the trees. I may have missed it if there were (seriously).

    Half of maintaining good will is being honest with folks. Somehow, I felt that the wool had been pulled over my eyes.

    As I drove by yesterday, my mouth dropped and I felt punched in the stomach.

    If we do not preserve nature for our own psychological health, who will? Another foundation, another planning committee, another council? We are all accountable for preserving nature.

    I am not a tree hugger, some radical who ties themselves to trees. I do, however, feel that clear-cutting should be a last resort.

    To quote Eddee Daniel in his recent blog post:
    "When will we begin to learn that value accrues to the ineluctable, spiritual qualities of nature as much as to material, economic considerations? When will we understand that by stripping the land of nature we leave ourselves naked?"

    I ask that all of us find ways to preserve nature and our connection to it. There is a deep need for societal health that we are not achieving and nature is part of the solution.

    Thank you for your time.

    Julie (O'Keeffe) Henszey
    1830 N 72nd St
    Wauwatosa, WI 53213

  13. Eddee... I took some video and photos the other day when they were destroying the East/North side. If you would like some of the shots to put up just let me know. I am the guy that shoots a lot with his son, and am always out and about during the summer.

  14. I wonder if you were as outraged by the murder of the child by his drunken and high mother when she rolled over him? Get some perspective man. Trees can be planted.

    1. She can have another child.

  15. The sneak "attack" on the trees, the obvious lack of any sincere effort to preserve even a few, or to invest the money necessary to modify plans, are all lazy, sad, disappointing and short-sighted. The decision-makers are sadly out of touch and negligent.