Thursday, July 25, 2013

Saving the last wetland in Milwaukee's estuary: the Grand Trunk

How important are a meager six acres of wetland surrounded by industrial and commercial developments just off the Kinnickinnic River near the port of Milwaukee? As the last remaining wetland in an estuary where wild rice marshes once covered the entire confluence of Milwaukee's three rivers and several miles into the Menomonee Valley, I believe they are important enough to save and protect. A couple years ago I wrote about this site, known as the Grand Trunk after the railroad company which ran its tracks nearby. I am reprising that story below.

This is topical, though, because there is an opportunity to make your voice heard on this issue at an upcoming public hearing. Here are the details:

Public Open House
re: Bay View Wetland restoration and sustainable development project.

Thursday August 1, 2013
4:30 to 6:30 pm
Presentation at 5:00 pm

Port of Milwaukee, 2323 S. Lincoln Memorial Drive
(alongside the CARFERRY ROAD northbound ramp to the Hoan Bridge.)

You can see an aerial view of the Grand Trunk site by clicking here.

The following story was originally posted in October, 2011.

Seiche: Symbolism and reality in an unlikely urban wilderness

In the midst of active rail lines and towering industrial buildings, I find the activity of beavers most mysterious. Discovering the little haven of nature in a place so completely altered by humans is itself unexpected. The presence of a beaver, an animal also driven to modify its environment, seems miraculous and symbolic.

Against long odds, a wetland remains within the historic estuary of the Milwaukee River.

Milwaukee’s estuary, with its vast wild rice marshes, once was one of the greatest treasures in the entire great lakes basin. First it drew myriad Indian tribes, who prospered from its abundance. Later it drew European settlers who, to make a long story short, cleared the wilderness, filled the wetlands, paved over the earth – and transformed it into “the machine shop of the world.”

Today the estuary is reduced to the confluence of the city’s three rivers, their banks lined with concrete and steel. But, accompanied by Megan O’Shea of the Wisconsin DNR, I set out to explore a tiny unnamed wetland in this unlikely setting.

Starting at Skipper Bud’s Marina on the Kinnickinnic River, we follow an uninviting ditch strewn with trash. There are plans to clean and rehabilitate it. In theory, aside from providing drainage the ditch should be hydrologically dynamic. Surprisingly, inland bodies of water as large as Lake Michigan can have something like a tide. It is called seiche. Storm fronts, high winds, and variations in air pressure can cause water levels to fluctuate from one side of the lake to the other, like water sloshing in a tub.

During a seiche event, high lake water can flow into the wetland bringing aquatic life with it as high tide does in a salt marsh.

It takes only a minute or two to reach the heart of the miniscule marsh from South Marina Drive. Atop a large berm we look down on a patch of cattails nearly overwhelmed by tall non-native reeds called Phragmites. Attractive but aggressively invasive, these will have to be eradicated.

We walk along a weed-choked dirt track to reach the far end of the mostly dry 6.5-acre site. A healthy wetland is more than a place that’s wet. Fortunately for this site, size is not a crucial factor. Three things are needed: the right soils, plants, and hydrology – or flow of water. Surrounding uplands add complexity and vitality to the ecosystem, which increases biodiversity.

Bushwhacking through tangled undergrowth, we are suddenly, marvelously immersed in nature. Even here, where surrounding industrial buildings, boxcars, or dry-docked boats are rarely out of sight, the variety of colorful plants in slightly faded autumn splendor is a revelation. We skirt an impenetrable stand of sandbar willows. Poplar leaves quiver in the breeze, by turns silvery and golden.

The wind dies as we enter a slough. All evidence of the surrounding city disappears. After a rainfall the wetland drains through here into the ditch. We see the telltale trees, gnawed and toppled. The teeth marks are gray with age and some of the neatly coned stumps have long since resprouted. Among the many incongruities of our diminutive wetland this evidence of beavers is the most compelling.

I imagine a beaver swimming down the Milwaukee River. First the intrepid creature has to leave its comfortable habitat, probably near the headwaters where the river is relatively wild and protected by Kettle Moraine State Park. Before long it reaches farmland where cow pastures occasionally denude the riverbanks. Then for most of its long journey it paddles past suburban homes perched on lawns to enjoy riverfront views.

Our big-toothed, flat-tailed protagonist would have to portage past – or slip over – at least a couple dams; avoid piers, boaters, fishermen. When at last it reaches downtown Milwaukee it is confronted by a canyon of condominiums and industries, with their bulwarks of concrete walls.

The beaver perseveres. It threads its way through the hardened confines of the constrained river; past barges, motorboats, bridges; until it reaches the narrow, polluted outlet of the only wetland left in the estuary. What instinct drives it to this apparently desperate end?

The question reverberates as we emerge from the copse to see a flat, vacant brownfield, dotted with mounds of asphalt and gravel. Even this harsh landscape sprouts new mosses, grasses, and trees. Nature is persistent. The brownfield would double the size of the preserve. Sadly, it isn’t included on the planning map.

Why should we care? Why restore such a meager wetland, so long neglected and circumscribed by blight? In a few hours time a bulldozer could erase the last wetland, flatten its gentle contours, prepare it for pavement. Centuries of progress have led us, like the beaver, to this desperate end.

This unlikely place is precisely where we need a refuge. Yes, we can replenish a habitat for the fish, birds, and other creatures that require it to thrive, but our own salvation is no less at stake, inextricably bound as it is to theirs. We humans are drawn to nature, to water and the soft edges of the land, as surely as the beaver.

We are at a moment, if not a turning of the tide then at least a high water mark – a seiche – when the effects of our own pressure on the earth are swamping outdated and unsustainable impulses. Like beavers, we have the power to shape our environment. We can push it around with bulldozers but we cannot conquer nature. How we shape it will determine if we thrive or perish.

It is time to become reacquainted with nature. There is no better place to begin than here in the ravaged estuary of the Milwaukee River. This seemingly insignificant wetland at the edge of civilization is what we have left to work with. We must not merely protect it; we must make the most of it.

Hartung Park in Wauwatosa is ablaze with wildflowers

Hartung Park, as yet unfinished, was recently developed atop the site of a former quarry along the Menomonee River Parkway north of Burleigh Street and east of Highway 100/Mayfair Road. The wildflowers, as you can see, are currently riotously lovely.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Grand opening of Menomonee Valley's new 3 Bridges Park: a photo essay

3 Bridges Park opened yesterday on an auspiciously bright morning. Hundreds of people joined three processions that led from the eponymous bridges towards a platform next to the Menomonee River. There they heard Mayor Barrett, the directors of the two sponsoring organizations, Menomonee River Partners and the Urban Ecology Center, and other dignitaries and community activists talk about their excitement about the new park. Following the speaches and a ribbon cutting there was music and festivities throughout the 24-acre park.

You can read much more thorough stories about the day's event at JSOnline and The Active Pursuit. Here are a few of the photographs I took of the festivities. (I also was there to shoot portraits of people attending the event. Check back to see those. It'll take me a few days to process and upload them all.)

A trio of musicians leads one of the three processions from the bridge at 33rd Ct. in the center of the park.

The processions marched along newly paved multi-use paths that are an extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail.

Drummers leading a second procession from the bridge at the east end of the park, which connects to the Mitchell Park Domes.

The procession that came from the bridge at the east end of the park merges with the group from the 33rd Ct. bridge.

Mayor Barrett headlines the list of distinguished speakers who extolled the significance of the park for the neighborhood, the Menomonee Valley, the City of Milwaukee and the larger community.

Alderman Murphy (in red shirt), a long-time advocate for the park and the Valley, joins the throng of spectators crowding the narrow paths between newly seeded slopes of park land.

Several children join in the ribbon cutting along with the mayor, the alderman, and the directors of MVP and UEC, Laura Bray and Ken Leinbach, respectively.

The dignitaries toss handfulls of seed to symbolize the potential of the park.

De la Buena, a local band, provided entertainment with a Latin flavor.

UEC staff led popular kayaking demonstrations throughout the day from the newly created ramp that slopes down to the river.

Younger members of the crowd could elect to have their faces painted with floral and animal designs.

There were plenty of cyclists pedaling throughout the park all day. This is the Valley Passage bridge at the west end of the park.

There was also one prominent unicyclist, UEC director Ken Leinbach, who traveled the length of the park in his inimitable, unique style.

Postscript: I've been asked by a number of people how to get to the park.
Here is a link to a map.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three Bridges Park opens this Saturday in Menomonee Valley

The newly created, 24-acre “Three Bridges Park” is located in the Menomonee Valley between Mitchell Park (the Domes) and Miller Park stadium along the Menomonee River. This is one of the most exciting developments in Milwaukee in years and a major success story for the beleaguered parks in our area.

It opens to the public at 10 a.m. this Saturday, July 20.

Not only will I be there - I wouldn't miss it - but I will be photographing people who come. So, please join me and have a commemorative portrait made for this historic event.

In addition to picture taking there will be a dedication and family celebration with kayak demonstrations, bike rides, fishing, food trucks and live music.

From the official press release:
"The July 20 opening kicks off at 10 a.m. with short group processions from each bridge to an area of the park across the new 33rd Court Pedestrian Bridge. After a ceremonial blessing by a Potawatomi Tribe leaders and remarks by officials at 10:15 a.m., the public is invited to enjoy scheduled activities throughout the park until 2 p.m., including live music by Paul Cebar and the Afro-Cuban / Latin Jazz band De La Buena."
You can read the entire press release at the end of this post. You can also find information about the event, including a map, at Menomonee Valley: from the ground up.

The Menomonee Valley Partners, Urban Ecology Center and DNR, primary sponsors of the park, hosted a preview last week. I managed to take a few photos. If the park looks bare, well, that's how it begins. Trees have been planted, seeds sown. This is the "before" that we will all look back on in ten years and more when it looks very different! I can't wait.

The cyclists have already discovered the newly paved bike path, an extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail, that winds west from the Domes and connects up with the rest of the Trail.

A small ceremony was held next to one of the "3 bridges" near 33rd Court.

Guided tours provided information about the features of the park and the process of developing it.

Hills reminiscent of glacial features and wetlands are important elements in the park design.

The potential is here!

A path leading down to a canoe launch is still under construction.

Views of downtown Milwaukee, seen here underneath the 27th St. viaduct, are common throughout the park.

This sculpture by Milwaukee artist Peter Flanary is located at the southern tip of the park, where one of the "3 bridges" crosses over from the Domes.

Press release:

Menomonee Valley’s New 24-Acre

“Three Bridges Park”

Opens to Public This Saturday July 20

Ceremony, community activities to launch major new urban river park

MILWAUKEE (July 16, 2013) –– Located in the Menomonee Valley between Downtown Milwaukee and Miller Park along the Menomonee River, the new 24-acre “Three Bridges Park” opens to the public at 10 a.m. this Saturday July 20 with a dedication and free family celebration including kayak demonstrations, bike rides, fishing, food trucks and live music.

Three Bridges Park, the largest new park developed in Milwaukee in decades, marks the continued transformation of the Menomonee Valley – a former, long-abandoned rail yard – into a popular destination for families, children, fishers, hikers, bikers, boaters and the growing numbers of businesses and employees in the area.

Three Bridges Park features two miles of accessible biking and walking trails, river access for fishing and canoeing, as well as three new bike/pedestrian bridges providing access to area residents and workers to the new park and jobs in the Valley.

The park covers the area between the 35th and 27th Street Viaducts and along the southern bank of the Menomonee River.

The July 20 opening kicks off at 10 a.m. with short group processions from each bridge to an area of the park across the new 33rd Court Pedestrian Bridge. After a ceremonial blessing by a
Potawatomi Tribe leaders and remarks by officials at 10:15 a.m., the public is invited to enjoy scheduled activities throughout the park until 2 p.m., including live music by Paul Cebar and the Afro-Cuban / Latin Jazz band De La Buena.

Three Bridges Park will be cooperatively owned by the State and City and become a part of the Hank Aaron State Trail. The Urban Ecology Center will program activities as the outdoor science classroom of their new Menomonee Valley branch, which is located at S. 37th and Pierce Streets on the south end of the new Valley Passage bike and pedestrian bridge.

In addition to the three new pedestrian/bike bridges crossing the Menomonee River, new asphalt paths have been created throughout the park and a canoe launch has been built on the river. Planting of prairie plants and trees is underway and will soon grow to create a lush green belt in the heart of Milwaukee.

The park’s completion caps $26 million in interconnected projects to improve access to jobs, environmental education, outdoor recreation and neighborhood vitality. Partners in this effort include Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources and Transportation, City of Milwaukee, Menomonee Valley Partners and the Urban Ecology Center. Other projects have included the Urban Ecology Center Menomonee Valley branch, which opened in September 2012, and a six-mile extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail and the Valley Passage bridge, which opened in November 2010. The other two new bike/pedestrian bridges will open July 20 – one at 33rd Court and the other linking the Valley and the park to the Clark Square neighborhood at the Mitchell Park Domes.

The 4.5-mile wide Valley was once a wild rice marsh and home to American Indians. During the Industrial Era, the Valley housed numerous industries, including the Milwaukee Roads Shops, an enormous complex that made rail cars and locomotives.

After the national decline of heavy industry and railroads, the Valley was largely abandoned and became a highly visible eyesore along I-94. Then, in the late 1990s, the city and nonprofit Menomonee Valley Partners began to develop and successfully execute plans to clean, green and revive the Valley for recreation and employment.

In the last 10 years, 35 companies have moved to or expanded in the Valley, 5,000 jobs have been created and the Valley is recognized as national model of economic and environmental sustainability.

Laura Bray, Executive Director of Menomonee Valley Partners, said the word “bridges” in the park’s name “captures the spirit of the community initiative that is transforming the Valley into a place that connects people to jobs, nature and each other.”

The federal, state and city governments along with private supporters have funded the project, and the City of Milwaukee’s Redevelopment Authority provided land for the park. Menomonee Valley Partners and Urban Ecology Center have launched a grassroots fund drive to raise the remaining support needed for science education and outdoor recreation programs for area youth and families, a land restoration effort in the new park and the building of community gardens and other park amenities. More information on the park initiative and fundraising can be found at

Media parking for opening day events available at south end of S. 33rd Court, off of Canal Street and just east of Palermo’s Pizza, 3301 W. Canal St. Site map and high res images available at: A map showing the media parking location for the opening is at:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Chicago’s Millennium Reserve: a photo essay

In dim morning light the wooded riverbank stretches into a misty distance. Luxuriant early summer foliage hangs over the water. Cheerful birdsong peppers the stillness, spices the tranquility of dawn.

At intermittent intervals the blast of an air horn erupts a short way down river, from some factory. Oddly, it is less a disturbance than a punctuation of the peaceful tenor of the morning.

There is a tangle of deadfall at the river’s edge. From within it I hear the sound of some creature plunge into the water. A muskrat perhaps. The surface swirls with its passage as it swims out into the current, but it remains invisible. Then it submerges further and is gone. The water is still again.

A young deer steps out of the undergrowth onto the path. I do not move. It turns calmly, raises its white tail as if in farewell and saunters off, nibbling here and there as it goes. Stealthily, I try to follow, but I can’t keep pace and I lose track of it as it wanders back into the depth of the forest.

This is Chicago. The occasional blast of the air horn is joined now by a soft rumble and staccato clank of coupling boxcars as a train begins to accelerate. It reminds me of the importance of the railroad in the history of the city. This is the Whistler Woods Forest Preserve in Riverdale. After parking in a riverside neighborhood of West Pullman, I crossed the Calumet River on the Major Taylor Trail. The trail hints at another piece of Chicago history. It is named for an African American bicycle racer who is also revered as a civil rights pioneer and author.

Whistler Woods Forest Preserve, east boundary
After my brief reverie with the wildlife, I head back to my car. Although I would enjoy doing so, I am not here to explore Whistler Woods. I have a larger purpose in mind. I am not alone in this. For this far southeast corner of the city Chicago has a very grand scheme in progress. It is called the Millennium Reserve and if all of its plans come to fruition it will become the largest network of urban parklands and natural areas in the country, potentially encompassing over 140,000 acres.

Urban farming, West Pullman, from Major Taylor Trail
I have come to what’s known as the “Calumet Core” of the Millennium Reserve for what can only amount to a peek at the landscape of this vast project. It is a landscape of stark contrasts that symbolize all of the hopes and challenges inherent in the concept of urban wilderness. As regular readers of this blog know, that was bound to attract my attention. I am eager to explore.

The Calumet Core is billed as “a 220-square mile opportunity to transform a region in transition.” The project is ambitious, to say the least. It is, fortunately, far more than the usual attempt to restore neglected or degraded land. The visionary planners have wisely incorporated cultural, social, and economic objectives into the project. To be sustainable, environmental restoration and conservation must not only be linked to human concerns; members of the local community must recognize and believe in its relevance to them personally.

We will not survive if we do not understand how inextricably bound are human society and the natural world. This tie has too long been denied but the tremendous and undeniable changes that we have brought upon our planet over the past two hundred years make it particularly urgent now to redress the imbalance.

It is in places like this that we must begin to reverse the tide.

Here is what I found in my brief tour of parts of the Millennium Reserve.

Rainwater has turned a park lawn into wetland. William W. Powers Conservation Area.

Beyond the dead end of a worn asphalt road a guardrail is engulfed by nature. Calumet Woods Forest Preserve.

Prairie. This is Illinois after all. Flat. Few native grasses and wildflowers remain, however, in presettlement times this would have been a typical Illinois prairie and open savanna. Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve.

“River Bend Prairie.” I am not making this up. The landfill across the Calumet River from the Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve bears this ironic name. The carved wooden sign at its entrance, reminiscent of those that grace natural parkland, frames the name with cattails and wildlife. It is on a bend in the river.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these juxtapositions are inherent to the challenges of urban wilderness in general and the Millennium Reserve project in particular. Here at Beaubien the prairie and the landfill (in the distant background of this shot) straddle the Calumet River. There are several other landfills nearby and many industrial sites along with abandoned, neglected land throughout the region. This is where a project with the objectives of the Millennium Reserve is truly needed.

River Bend Prairie landfill from Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve.

Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve is a large, well-established park with a variety of habitats. The Calumet River and Long Foot Lake both provide local residents places to fish. I saw at least half a dozen people taking advantage of the opportunity on this quiet Sunday morning.

The mulberries are at that ripe stage when they fall and blacken the ground underneath the trees.

Neither the landscape nor the opportunities for rehabilitation of it end at the Illinois border. Unaware of it until I later checked the map, I crossed over into Indiana. The last two images are from just inside the Indiana state line.

Bank stabilization. Forsythe Park, Hammond, IN.

The sign on the side of this building reads Environmental Education Center. The parking lot was vacant. It’s either defunct or closed on Sundays. Across Highway 41, a dramatic new pavilion and recreation center on Wolf Lake was buzzing with activity.