Saturday, December 16, 2017

Before Bears Ears

by Drew Hanson

For weeks conservationists have been fretting over the President’s low regard for the Antiquities Act. The concern is justified. Stripping protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments is not only legally questionable, it opens these areas to irreparable damage. Sad as it is, this is not the first time a treasured place has been diminished by government manipulation. Long before President Trump’s controversial actions, a revered Wisconsin landscape also suffered a loss of protections.
1959 USGS Hartland topo map

The Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest (or “Southern Kettles”) was established in 1937 by the legislature to protect a long, narrow belt of glacial ridges in southeast Wisconsin. Its original boundary stretched between Whitewater Lake and the village of Hartland. In the decades that followed, acquisition of lands progressed too slowly for southeast Wisconsin conservationists and supporters of a long-distance hiking trail. But too quickly for others.

Completion in 1956 of the first segment of interstate highway 94 from Milwaukee to within five miles of this part of the Southern Kettles increasingly opened doors to the development of exurban residential subdivisions. The skids of Milwaukee’s white flight were greased. Rural landowners and residential subdivision developers began calling for an end to land acquisition for the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest.

Bowing to the local pressure, in 1965 the State reduced the boundary of the Southern Kettles by 9,000 acres--a reduction of more than 25%. The reduction decapitated the State Forest, eliminating the portion between highway D near Hunters Lake and the village Hartland. Unsatisfied, the critics kept up their drumbeat of opposition.

1965 reductions to the Southern Kettles shown in red
At a 1968 public hearing in the Eagle Village Hall regarding the future of the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest, Harlan Clinkenbeard, Assistant Director of the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission stated, “The Kettle Moraine represents one of the most significant natural resource areas in Wisconsin.” He highlighted the many values of the area from recreation to recharge of the groundwater aquifer and concluded his remarks with, “The importance of the Kettle Moraine to the seven-county region in which 42 percent of the state’s population resides is immeasurable and the loss of this area to urban development may cause irreparable damage to both the land and water resources of the region.”

His warning went unheeded. Again succumbing to pressure, in 1970 the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board voted to remove an additional 1,970 acres from the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest. The reduction lopped off another area from the northern tip of the Southern Kettles.

1970 reductions to the Southern Kettles shown in black
Every time I drive interstate highway 94 between Madison and Milwaukee I think about these removals from the State Forest. I see scars where a public forest was supposed to be. I feel disgust and grief.

Some will say the loss of protections for lands in Wisconsin is easier to accept than the loss of protections for lands in Utah. But that’s just Mountain Majesty Bias.

Today, most of those nearly 11,000 acres are either large lot residential subdivisions or one-story commercial developments. If the Natural Resources Board had not reduced the State Forest by almost 11,000 acres, perhaps the groundwater recharge area for Waukesha would have been safeguarded. Perhaps Waukesha would not have needed to request water from Lake Michigan. Perhaps the Ice Age Trail would have passed through a State Forest corridor for an additional 12 off-road miles. Who were the winners and who were the losers?

Perhaps Bears Ears will fare better.

Click on maps to enlarge them.

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