Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Walker targets UWM's Downer Woods. Why?

It was a gloomy morning. Although it began with a light snowfall that might have been lovely, by the time I reached Downer Woods the snow had turned to drizzle and the overcast sky dimmed. Despite the undeniably dreary day, however, the gloom I felt had more to do with the news than the weather.

Since I live clear across town in Wauwatosa I don’t go to Downer Woods often. But when I heard the news I was impelled to do the things that come naturally to me: to walk in the woods and make photographs. The news? Governor Walker’s latest budget proposal includes a provision to remove protection of the “the sole remaining natural area on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee”—in the words of the very Wisconsin Code that established that protection.

As I walked beneath the leafless trees I wondered whether Scott Walker had ever been to Downer Woods.

The code goes on to say this of the woods: “…Its preservation and enhancement is consistent with the university's recognition of its need to protect and enhance its own physical environment, and to serve the pressing human need of its faculty, students and staff, as well as the greater Milwaukee community, to live and work in an urban environment which respects those portions of unspoiled nature which yet exist. The woods is a unique asset; it provides visual relief to the concentrated building pattern surrounding it, complements the urban landscape and affords aesthetically and psychologically attractive places for people to congregate and relax. In addition, the woods serves as a refuge for wildlife and vegetation, and is, therefore, an important educational, scientific and ecological resource to the university and the community.”

The provision concludes: “Its presence imparts priceless recreational and aesthetic values.”

No matter how many times I read that paragraph, I can’t for the life of me fathom what part of it could be objectionable. In fact, bureaucratese rarely articulates the value of urban natural areas as clearly as this. Who wouldn’t want to protect and enhance their own physical environment? Well, I guess we know the answer.

Furthermore, this proposal comes from a governor who, far from walking in any Wisconsin woods, has been spending more time outside the state lately for his unannounced campaign. Imagine natural areas all over the country that might be sacrificed if his relentless drive towards higher office were achieved.

I’ve objected to many of the governor’s choices relating to the environment, from his selection of the DNR director to relaxation of regulations to benefit mining companies. But if I do the mental gymnastics required to see those policies from the dark side of the looking glass there is at least some recognizable logic. Where is the logic in singling out an 11-acre oasis on a university campus? It would seem petty if it weren’t so patently destructive.

I can imagine only two motives: someone influential will benefit economically from the development of the land or the governor considers this a twisted kind of retribution for political opposition. But I readily concede that the governor’s motive may exceed my powers of imagination.

It doesn’t take long to walk from one corner of the woods to the other. Footprints in the new fallen snow indicate that even on gloomy days the opportunity to enjoy nature is appreciated by the community of students and neighbors. I shoot a number of photographs. Inevitably, they reflect the somber mood of the day.

I imagine this scenery in spring. And hope generations of students who live in the tall dormitory towers next to Downer Woods will be able to appreciate its priceless recreational and aesthetic values.

For other perspectives and broader analyses of this issue, go to
"Walker budget targets Downer Woods" at Urban Milwaukee.
"Walker budget deletes preservation of UWM Downer Woods, historic buildings" at The Political Environment.
"Pervasive Walker budget leads every countty to search  for its own 'Downer Woods'" from Dom's Domain.


  1. A unique and healthy buffer for neighbors as well as students and staff, this woodland has been chipped away at over the years, but deserves its place as a refuge. Sad news. I look forward to your spring photos, Eddee. Betsy A.

    1. This really takes the cake! It really stinks!

  2. Clearly that nincompoop does not have the wit nor energy to think of all the destruction he is planning. Follow the money. There must be a way to stop this.

  3. I've been asked by a number of people what position UWM is taking on this. Here is the official statement I have received:

    "UWM did not ask for the changes to state law that remove the legislative protection for the Downer Woods property and buildings. The University has no plans to develop or sell the Downer property or buildings and is
    presuming that the current protections for Downer Woods would be maintained by the Public Authority that is being proposed for the UW System."

  4. As a former true forest that was devoid of urban encroachment, Downer Woods is a treasure that I recall was once a place so large you could nearly get lost.

    Solitude was conspicuous by its presence.

    Diverse birds dominated.

    Now, it's a mere skeleton of its self.

    Yesterday seems so far away.

    BUT, nonetheless, 11 acres is still an urban island of green. It's worth preserving and fighting over in the wake of Walker's actions. Let's move forward and try to get the place preserved.

    Remember, we are not environmentals, but simply conservationists seeking a balance of urban and rural elements in our lives to make them whole.

  5. Here's the best analysis I've seen and one that thoroughly answers the question, why?

  6. I've been asked what people can do about this. I've said "write your state legislators." Still true. Here's something more specific: There will be a public hearing for the legislature's Joint Finance Committee:
    Friday, March 20th
    10:00 AM to 5:00 PM
    Alverno College
    Pitman Theatre
    3400 South 43rd Street
    Milwaukee, WI 53234