By Lloyd Lewis Eagan
As a long time member (and former board member) of Groundswell, I am greatly saddened and alarmed by the proposal in the Governor’s budget to eliminate Stewardship funding for land protection for thirteen years. I retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) in September of 2013 after dedicating my career to water quality and natural resource protection. At the end of my career, I had the great good fortune to serve as a DNR regional director for the south- central part of the state and then as water leader for southern Wisconsin. In both of these positions, I worked with local communities, non-profit entities, and DNR staff to use Stewardship funds to preserve and enhance special places. I have seen first hand how the Stewardship program protects threatened natural resources, improves wildlife habitat and water quality, promotes outdoor recreation opportunities, and strengthens communities. The Stewardship program allows partners to work together to further the legacy of Wisconsin’s great environmental visionaries: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson and Gaylord Nelson.
The benefits of the Stewardship program can be seen by projects implemented by local communities and their nonprofit partners all across Wisconsin. More locally, Groundswell has used Stewardship funds to protect 19 special areas and hundreds of acres in and around Dane County. Each one of these places has a special story, but I will share three stories with you that represent the breadth and depth of impact that Stewardship investments have yielded.
Black Earth Creek Corridor
I started my permanent career with WDNR as a water quality planner for what was then the Southern District of DNR. My job was to prepare water quality plans for all of the river basins in south-central Wisconsin. In the plans, I identified special resources and special threats. In the Lower Wisconsin River Basin, Black Earth Creek stood out as an area of special significance. I assisted the water quality biologists and fish managers in conducting field surveys to document how cool, clean groundwater fed Black Earth Creek, which supported a world-class trout fishery. However, channelization, sewage plant upsets, encroaching development and nonpoint source pollution all threatened the quality of the water and the fishery. In addition, public access along the creek was limited. Clearly, this was a resource worthy of protection. The Black Earth Creek Watershed Association formed in this area, uniting people interested in protecting the creek. In addition, Black Earth Creek was designated as a “Priority Watershed,” enabling farmers to install practices to reduce agricultural runoff from entering the stream. However, the creek was still vulnerable and more needed to be done. Several landowners preferred working on conservation with a nonprofit entity rather than with governmental bodies. Groundswell stepped up to play this key role and identified the area as a high priority for protection. Since 2004, it has protected over 900 acres in the Black Earth Creek Watershed (map). These projects have protected many miles of stream bank and hundreds of acres of agricultural land. These protection efforts have allowed for continued agricultural use while providing improved wildlife habitat, enhanced water quality protection, increased public access to the resource and increased community benefits. The most recent project creates 2 miles of public trail from Mazomanie to Wisconsin Heights High School, providing key recreational access to this outstanding resource.
Cherokee Marsh Conservation Park
From 1988 to 1990, I left DNR to serve as the first Lakes and Watershed Coordinator at Dane County. One of the issues that came to the attention of the county executive was the build-up of sediment in the Yahara River channel as it enters Lake Mendota. More correspondence was received on the need to dredge this channel than any other issue during my tenure at the county. The county allocated funds for dredging, but that proved to be a temporary fix to the real problem which was upstream, where large portions of Cherokee Marsh had been lost over the years due to rising water levels and residential development. Gone were the wetlands that had once served as a big sponge, soaking up runoff and allowing sediments to drop out in the marsh upstream of the lake. The natural order of these events had been altered and the upper portion of the lake had become the catch all for sediment. Both the City of Madison and Dane County recognized this issue and began working upstream in the watershed to slow runoff and restore historic wetlands. Groundswell partnered in the effort by protecting about 290 acres in the Cherokee Marsh Conservation Park (map). In addition to helping restore some historic wetlands, this area is open to the public and allows people to connect with nature whether hiking, snow shoeing or launching a canoe or kayak to see wetland habitat first hand.
Lake Belle View Park
My familiarity with Lake Belle View in Belleville, Wisconsin started when I was a water quality planner for Southern District DNR in the mid-1980’s. At that time I was developing the Sugar River Basin plan. Lake Belleville was an impoundment on the Sugar River that was filled up with sediment, algae and rough fish. At the time, the resource managers recommended removing the dam completely so the river could flush itself. However, the local community did not want to lose what had been a good fishing area and a gathering spot for their community. There were many contentious meetings and a consensus did not seem reachable. One thing everyone agreed upon was that the lake was not very pleasant. Over the years, resource managers and consultants developed a different idea – build a berm to separate the Sugar River from Lake Belleville, draw down the lake, remove rough fish, and then allow groundwater to refill the lake. When I was regional director at South Central Region DNR, the agency supported the Village of Belleville with Stewardship grants that enabled lake planning and improvement projects working with private consultants (Montgomery and Associates in collaboration with Eco-Resource Consulting LLC, Agrecol Environmental Consulting and EC3 Environmental Consulting Group). In addition, retired DNR employees, Dave Marshall and Dick Wedepohl, worked to evaluate the fisheries potential with DNR fisheries staff. Dane County worked with local farmers to decrease agricultural runoff into the river and supported the lake improvement project. In 2013, with the help of Stewardship dollars, Groundswell purchased 36 acres and 200 feet of Sugar River shoreline to stabilize stream banks, improve water quality and promote recreation. This project has demonstrated the power of Stewardship funding to stimulate partnerships and cooperation among local governments, private contractors, nonprofit organizations and staff from multiple backgrounds at DNR. As a result, Belleville has a beautiful natural resource. The berm links northern and southern parts of the village by trail, and is easily accessed by the Badger State Trail. Lake Belle View is now a living laboratory of a unique and rare floodplain forest restoration featuring rare songbirds, eagles, and rare native plants. The lake/river area is a unique convergence of natural assets and recreational opportunities. Rare turtle habitat has been protected in the project area and native fish populations are recovering.
The lake is a pleasure to look at and the village sponsors multiple family events in the park along the shores of Lake Belleville. This resource has added value to local recreational experiences and local property values. If not for the Stewardship fund, Lake Belleville would likely have remained an unsightly, unproductive and underappreciated resource in the community. Instead, now it is a great source of pride and accomplishment. I am proud that I was able to be part of this transformation over the course of my career.
I’ve witnessed how well the Stewardship program has worked, not only in these three projects (or the sixteen other Groundswell projects), but all the successful projects in southern Wisconsin. Communities have made their dreams come true, improved water quality and recreational opportunities, enhanced wildlife habitat, and carried out Wisconsin’s long tradition of environmental preservation. But we are at a cross roads now. If the Stewardship Fund is eliminated from Wisconsin communities and nonprofit organizations for thirteen years, similar projects will stop dead in their tracks.
I am a grandmother now and, a large reason for my retirement was to spend a day a week caring for our grandson. He is only 15 months, but I have already canoed with him, carried him through the forest in a backpack, and introduced him to wildlife through books and pictures. I want us to leave special places for our grandchildren and their grandchildren to enjoy. I want future generations to know what “wildness” is like. I am sure many of you agree with me, so I implore you to join me in contacting your legislators. Please let them know that Stewardship fund purchases should not be stopped! This should not be a partisan issue. Protecting our natural resources is about protecting and improving our natural capital, a rare and precious thing.