Friday, April 28, 2017

Transformation: The week spring sprang

Greenfield Park, West Allis, WI

Spring has been particularly fitful this year, one moment teasing with sunshine and warmth, the next plunging back towards winter. I’ve gone out for a walk in the past week, happily warm in a T-shirt only to find myself an hour later wishing I’d brought along a sweatshirt and a jacket!

Blue buttercups, Zillmer Trail, Kettle Moraine State Forest, Northern Unit
I find it essential now and then to pay attention to wildflowers. The cultivated ones are easily seen, often gaudily demanding attention. Seeing wildflowers in the forest requires a kind of mindfulness that is like meditation. It shifts your awareness from larger concerns to something humble on the ground, swaying gently in the breeze.

Greenfield Park, West Allis, WI
In a little over a week the landscape has blossomed. Woodlands that were barren and monochromatic now blush with new life. Here is a selection of photos that highlight the change, along with a few poetic musings about spring and nature.

Whitnall Park Pond, Franklin, WI.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.  ~ John Burroughs

Franklin Savanna State Natural Area, Franklin, WI

Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring. If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature -if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep, if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you -know that the morning and spring of your life are past. Thus may you feel your pulse. ~ Henry David Thoreau 

Mangan Woods, Root River Parkway, Franklin, WI

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. ~John Muir

Boerner Botanical Gardens, Whitnall Park, Hales Corners, WI
When I speak of flowers                   
it is to recall                                                        
that at one time 
we were young.
~William Carlos Williams

Hubbard Park and Milwaukee River Greenway, Shorewood, WI

Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems by heart. ~ Reiner Maria Rilke

Trout lilies, McGovern Park, Milwaukee, WI

I want to do what spring does with cherry trees. ~ Pablo Neruda

Kletsch Park, Glendale, WI

The day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. ~ Anaïs Nin
Jacobus Park, Wauwatosa, WI

See more spring photos from the wild lands of Milwaukee's parks and natural areas at Flickr.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Citizens to Wauwatosa: NO more development on County Grounds

Hundreds turn out to oppose city master plan but are city officials listening?

County Grounds Park
“Preserve the land first and then we can talk about development, ” stated Alderman Michael Walsh in a Wauwatosa Community Affairs Committee meeting on April 11. It was one of several comments that appeared to signal a shift in tone by committee members when referring to Wauwatosa’s controversial Life Sciences District Master Plan.

The committee was discussing a motion by alderman John Dubinski that alarmed members of the public in attendance. He proposed that, in exchange for preserving a portion of the “Sanctuary Woods,” the parkland would be rezoned in order to allow new development in the existing preserve of County Grounds Park.

2008 Comprehensive Plan map showing projected future land use. The blue segment in the center labeled "campus" includes parts of County Grounds Park and Sanctuary Woods. Courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.
Dubinski introduced his motion by saying that he considered rezoning the park for development was the “only way to save the wooded area and wildlife habitats.” Sacrificing County Park land was acceptable in his view because there are “no mature trees” in the park. Many others in this debate have emphasized saving trees. As Milwaukee County Economic Development Director James Tarantino, who attended the meeting, put it, “Everyone agrees the woods should be protected.”

Rendering from LSD plan depicting development adjacent to the woods. Courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.
The south meadow from a perspective similar to the rendering above.

But not everyone agrees what exactly is included in “the woods,” let alone what constitutes protection. If city planners and the Common Council consider destroying the open prairie to put urban, high-density developments on existing parkland in exchange for saving a section of woods, it indicates disregard for the significance of diverse types of habitat and wildlife ecology. Never mind that County Grounds Park was created as part of the compromise that allowed for the development of the Innovation Campus. Never mind that the county has invested considerable time and resources to restoring the park’s habitats with native grasses, wildflowers and, yes, trees.

Never mind the will of the people.

View of Innovation Campus showing undeveloped lots
Only days before the Community Affairs Committee meeting over 300 citizens attended the latest public hearing, at which the city had unveiled its revised Life Sciences District planning map (below). The hearing was wisely held at the Muellner Building in order to prevent a repeat of the Open House in February when half the crowd had to wait outside the meeting room in City Hall because it was filled to capacity.

The will of the people was acknowledged during the April 6th presentation. A slide reported that the “vast majority” of written comments from the February open house included these: “Let development happen where it already is; no more development.” Also: “No County Grounds development/Save County Grounds” and “No roads.”

Concept map showing areas to be developed in brown, all except one of which would encroach on current open space and wildlife habitat. Courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.
A few moments later, however, these unequivocal sentiments were ignored when it came to unveiling the revised plan. Not only does the map show new roads and new development on undefined non-park county land but also the unexpected and shocking revelation of proposed development east of Discovery Parkway in the actual county park. The proposed new road (which may or may not still bear the name “Scenic Parkway”) extending east from the roundabout and turning north at 92nd Street would require the bulldozing of critical habitats—including the long-eared owls’ roosting site and Butler’s garter snake dens—and fragment the parkland.

The new concept map shows buildings in the foreground of this panoramic view of County Grounds Park.
The will of the people, expressed during the public comment period following the presentation, was again unequivocal, clear and virtually unanimous in its condemnation of the proposed Life Sciences District Master Plan as revised. In fact, although the issues of the woods, wildlife habitat, and open space were high on the list of concerns, many of the most vocal objections targeted other aspects of the plan. Critical comments about high-rise development, density, congestion, and financial implications of the plan all received spirited applause.

State Street Station under construction in the Village: Many expressed concern that Wauwatosa is overbuilding in an already saturated market.
Many in the crowd expressed dismay at the very notion that after 20 years of compromises, which have whittled away more and more of the natural land, they were all back again trying to “save the County Grounds.” Wauwatosa resident John Pokrandt drew enormous applause and summed up the mood of the crowd when he said, "We are not asking for two stories instead of ten; we are not asking to move the road; we are not asking for a land swap. We are saying NO! No more compromises, no more development on the County Grounds."

If the Community Affairs Committee meeting was an adequate barometer it seems as if at least some of the Wauwatosa Common Council members have been responsive to this overwhelming public pressure. Many who were present expressed their desire to protect “the woods.” Fortunately, the county, which is and likely will continue to be the landowner, has weighed in recently on the vagueness of “the woods.” In a press release dated April 6, County Executive Chris Abele announced that the county is “surveying the site to establish what in addition to the woods should be protected.”

Monarch butterfly with purple asters and goldenrod in County Grounds Park.
Such a survey and determination are long overdue. I am not alone in hoping that the county will enlist the aid of biologists and wildlife ecologists in their effort. “If [Wauwatosa] Mayor Ehley and County Executive Abele are sincere about their desire to protect the “woods” and natural areas, then they should work with environmentalists to identify those areas, create a parcel, and rezone them first,” alderwoman Nancy Welch told me.

Bulldozing parts of County Grounds Park shouldn’t even be considered. Neither should new roads or any new compromises that diminish what’s left of the County Grounds. “Protecting our natural spaces has long been a priority of mine,” said Abele in his press release. We’ve still got a few here that need protecting. I know a lot of folks who don’t want to be “saving the County Grounds” again in another 20 years.

Sanctuary Woods.

The City of Wauwatosa has published the following schedule of meetings regarding the approval process for the Life Sciences District Master Plan:

May 2 – A Common Council Committee of the Whole will be held, in workshop format to allow for Council discussion and interaction, with no public comment.

May 15 – A final draft master plan proposal will be submitted to the Plan Commission, with an opportunity for public comment.

May 22 – A second meeting of the Plan Commission will be held, with no public comment.

June 6 – Introduction at Common Council, set public hearing date, no public comment.

July 18 – A public hearing with public comment will be held in front of the Common Council.

Aug. 1  – A Common Council meeting will be held where final adoption of the master plan will be considered.

The dates are subject to change.

See more photos of Sanctuary Woods and the rest of the County Grounds on Flickr. 

This story was first published by Milwaukee Magazine on April 25, 2017. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Annual Earth Day river clean up

Yesterday was a most beautiful day for a river clean up. If the few sites I managed to get to were an indicator of participation then we had a great turn out for it, too. The clean up is sponsored by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and there were many sites along all of our rivers. I stuck to the Milwaukee River. Started at Lincoln Park and made my way downstream to Caesar's Pool, although by the time I got to the end it was indeed the end and the volunteer staffers were heading off to the after party at Estabrook Park. Here are are few of my photos. More can be seen on Flickr.

Members of girl scout troop 20055 lend each other a helping hand. Lincoln Park.

Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park

Estabrook Dam

Members of Chinmaya Bala Vihar Hindu community at Estabrook Park

Estabrook Park

This chalkboard has to be the catch of the day! Hubbard Park.

Bicycle cop on the West Bank Trail at North Avenue.

Wrapping up for the day at Caesar's Pool.

See the complete Earth Day river clean up album on Flickr.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Menomonee River Parkway’s Paintball Dell

Redefining the wild in an unlikely urban wilderness

It’s a little hard to imagine a place in the City of Milwaukee that you might consider remote. I’m not talking about a place you have to drive a long distance to reach. I mean a natural landscape so secluded and, yes, wild that you wouldn’t expect to encounter another person there—unless they were doing something illicit.

There is such a place. It lies at the end of a long hike on trails next to the Menomonee River from my house to just shy of the Waukesha County line—or the short hike described here. The story of my first encounter was moving and memorable enough to include in my 2008 book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed.

I don’t go back often. It’s not that I avoid the place—although fear did seem an appropriate reaction when I first discovered it over a decade ago and indeed there has been little enough reason to change my initial impression in subsequent years. Unlike other secluded spots in Milwaukee’s parks, I haven’t found it to be a peaceful destination. But a kind of morbid fascination draws me back now and then.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve last seen it. A cold, dreary week has given way to sunshine. I decide to see if another visit will reveal any fresh abomination.

I turn into 119th Street, drive past huge piles of recycled asphalt and gravel and park between a trucking terminal and a packaging plant near the dead end. The chain link fence between this industrial hinterland and the backwoods along the river has long been breached—wide enough for thrill seekers to ride 4-wheel drive trucks through. Today the mud leaves no doubt that the practice continues.
Near the bottom of the slope, just before reaching the river, I come upon the wreckage of some unrecognizable vehicle. An omen, perhaps, for what lies ahead—or an unwitting monument to the occasionally fatal consequences of our actions.

The deep truck ruts end abruptly near the river at the verge of the forest. A dirt road once continued on through the trees. Deeper ruts here are mossy and overgrown. Timbers have toppled across the still visible passage. I take the footpath that lies closer to the river.

Animal tracks stipple the soft earth of the trail. But, surprisingly, there are no human prints. Plenty of people are out taking advantage, as I am, of a warm, sunny Saturday in Wisconsin’s fickle spring. I saw them in a constant stream as I drove along Menomonee River Parkway—jogging and biking; many simply strolling. The playgrounds were packed.

I knew this place was off the beaten path, but I didn’t expect to be so completely alone. As if to drive home the point, I have to step over a large trunk that blocks the trail. The colorless forest grows steadily wilder—the trees more twisted, the underbrush increasingly tangled and impenetrable.

The land rises along a steepening riverside escarpment. Mountain bikers have altered the trail: banking curves, kicking up gravel, compressing the earth. But the tread marks are faint, strewn with decaying leaves. No one, it seems, has cleared branches and other debris that fell over the winter. The sense of isolation deepens.

Reaching the summit, I see ahead the familiar river bend and the dell that I know to be the journey’s end—in more ways than one. The barren trees make it look desolate. For the moment, however, bright, inviting afternoon sunshine dispels the sense of impending doom.

I gaze down the steep drop into the dell. There in prominent view lie the hulking remains of an old van, looking more casually forlorn than its violent end might suggest. I pick my way gingerly down the muddy slope and slowly circle the van. It is no less obvious an intrusion, and yet somehow less repugnant than I remember. Fresh graffiti adorns rear and side panels, rust has etched deeper into unpainted steel, and the whole thing seems to have settled into the ground. Drab, snow-matted grasses appear to crest like static waves over the mired vehicle.

I step carefully. Like a maze of booby traps, the matted grasses hide additional chunks of even more corroded steel; an engine block here, an axle there, several wheel rims and the skeleton of a chassis. Aside from the risk of a twisted ankle, it all looks remarkably benign compared to my memory of the time when I first encountered it. Then this was a veritable battlefield. The various car parts, hoods, door panels, and odd bits of sheet metal had been placed deliberately and strategically around what was open, uneven terrain, scoured by floodwater that had washed over the oxbow in the river.

All of it—trees and the rock-strewn ground as well as the makeshift fortifications—had been completely spattered with colorful splotches of paint. No trace of that remains. I guess no one comes to play war games any more.

I find the mountain bike trail, which loops around the circumference of the oxbow, and leads me to the secret of the dell’s remoteness. I am confronted with a massive expanse of concrete—a railroad bridge resembling a medieval fortress. A long freight train rests silently on top. The river emerges through three arched openings. This imposing rampart, along with the private property of commercial enterprises on the opposite side, effectively thwarts entry from nearby 124th Street.

A continuous frieze of graffiti decorates the lower sections of concrete. But this too, like the trail and the “battlefield,” looks tired and dingy. Even the freshest-looking paint has started to peel. Seams in the concrete weep and run, staining the tags as well as the walls.

I head back to the dell to look for my favorite car, an ancient Gremlin I once photographed when it was iridescent with pink and chartreuse paintball paint. Even knowing where to look it’s hard to find. The rusted relic nestles among fallen logs, more akin to the patient earth beneath it than to the automobile-enamored culture that created it.

Nearby I find a smooth log and sit; close my eyes and turn my head towards the sun spilling all around, welcoming a solitude from which the demons have been expelled. Nothing, essentially, has changed. No one has come to remove wreckage or wash off graffiti. But despite the lingering evidence of abuse and degradation, it all seems paradoxically more natural than before. Against all odds, it is finally peaceful. 

This story was first published by Milwaukee Magazine on April 11, 2017.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A beautiful, brief spring weekend in Wisconsin

Little Menomonee River Parkway

As I post this photo essay the weather has suddenly turned cold and nasty again. Yes, it's still that kind of spring. But you would be forgiven if over the past weekend you thought we'd skip that and go straight to being nice and warm, sun shining and flowers blooming. Because it was, if only briefly.

Little Menomonee River Parkway
My weekend began at dawn (top) in one of my favorite places along the Menomonee River Parkway, near where it ends at the county line. I went looking for migrating geese, which I've found there in abundance in the past. No luck with that this time. But the dawn itself was worth the time.

Little Menomonee River Parkway
Later, I explored the Donges Bay Gorge Natural Area, which was new to me. I never would have found it on my own, either. I came across it on the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust website and I stopped to check it out on my way to an event at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, which is nearby.

Donges Bay Gorge Natural Area

It's not only hard to find without a map or directions, but when I got there I discovered that they don't expect a crowd. The dirt parking lot has room for only three cars.

Donges Bay Gorge Natural Area
 It also isn't a very large natural area. The trail, called "Wendy's Trail" for reasons that are not revealed on the signage, runs along the rim of the "gorge," which is similar to many of the other ravines that can be found all along the shores of Lake Michigan. Wendy didn't like to hike down into the ravine, apparently, for the trail doesn't go there. After a short walk I reached the bluff overlooking the lake, where Wendy sits down on one of two benches provided for her.

Donges Bay Gorge Natural Area
It was lovely, though. The scent of pine and solitude, along with surprisingly warm sunshine, were reason enough to go there.

On Sunday, I returned to another of my favorite urban wilderness haunts, the Milwaukee River Greenway.

West Bank Trail, Milwaukee River Greenway
 The scenery is still largely devoid of leaves...

West Bank Trail, Milwaukee River Greenway

 ...but they're on the way.

Bank stabilization, Pleasant Valley Park, Milwaukee River Greenway

The Milwaukee River Greenway is a series of mostly named public parks, although some of the names are unfamiliar to all but the initiated. Take this one, Pleasant Valley Park, aka Blatz Park. Its "valley" is another one of those ravines, only this one leads to the river instead of the lake. When the river was in fact a lake, backed up behind the North Avenue dam, this park was an exotic resort. Steam boats pulled up at a dock here and crowds of passengers poured out to partake of its beer garden. You would never imagine this if you go there now. (Read all about "the forgotten Milwaukee River park" in Milwaukee Notebook.)

Causeway to nowhere, Pleasant Valley Park, Milwaukee River Greenway

Until recently, when the steep slope of one side of the "valley" was denuded of trees in order to save it, the most notable and quirkiest thing about this ravine was the pedestrian causeway that crosses it for no discernible reason. Now, the view from the causeway of the bank stabilization effort draws one's attention, as would a person who had shaved one half of his head and left the other in a tangled mat of unkempt hair. "But it will grow back" is probably the polite thing to say.

West Bank Trail, Milwaukee River Greenway
What I can't figure out here is whether or not the beaver was in on the joke or if the joke was on the beaver. I'm trying to imagine the moment when the beaver had just gotten far enough through the trunk that the remaining fibers started to tear apart. How far, I wonder, does a beaver back off at that point? It couldn't possibly have guessed that, instead of crashing straight down over the edge of the river, as it normally would, the whole tree would suddenly catch in the crook of another tree and spring up like a mouse trap. I had to ask myself, did the beaver lose a tooth? Or its head!

West Bank Trail, Milwaukee River Greenway
I hope you enjoyed your weekend as much as I did. And may spring return soon!

To see more photos of the Milwaukee River Greenway, go to my Flickr album.