The Butterfly Effect -- Milwaukee County, UWM fail to tread lightly, damaging environment

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Endangered monarch butterflies

In Wisconsin politics these days there is much about which to be appalled. Attacks on worker rights; attacks on public education; attacks on seniors, the disabled and the poor; and, most of all, attacks on Wisconsin's tradition of environmental quality, which would have native son and famed naturalist Aldo Leopold ("A Sand County Almanac") turning in his grave.

The most disgusting assault on the state's environment surely is the latest Republican Party push to help mining companies rape our forests and blue waters for profit with new relaxed regulatory rules allowing mini-Grand Canyons in formerly pristine forests. On a smaller but no less egregious scale, those of you outside Milwaukee County may not have heard of "Innovation Park," whose main innovation may be to help destroy important monarch butterfly habitat, chasing other wildlife and fouling wetlands. Here's some background that may make you as angry as I am.

Milwaukee County government maintains a sprawling parcel of land, most of it in suburban Wauwatosa east of US Highway 45. Milwaukee county's massive parks and parkway system notwithstanding, these county institution grounds, as they are called remain the largest open space in the state's most populous area.

Now, undeniably, the land was never meant to remain undeveloped. It was set aside by far-sighted local lawmakers for future government needs. And, over many decades, county government established a number of institutions on these lands, including the sprawling Milwaukee Regional Medical Center and other county institutions, such as those serving the mentally disabled. And while these initial developments weren't always done in harmony with nature, they happened gradually, and there always remained room to spare.

But in the new winner-take-all economy and the rush to create new (or at least steal existing) jobs, county officials (prominently including former County Executive Scott Walker) decided to amplify and widen use of the grounds, pushing development of an earlier research park for private and public entities.

Much of that development already has occurred, with a hotel, a sprawling General Electric office building and many other private projects long since completed. More lately, the Milwaukee regional sewer district dug up 90 acres, building a huge rain retention pond to limit sewer overflows -- which is great in principle, but which wrecked even more natural habitat. And, in another favorite Scott Walker project, the soon-to-come Zoo Interchange freeway rebuild (upgrading one of the state's largest freeway exchanges) will chew up even more of the grounds.

Worst of all, though, was the 2009 move by the county to sell 89 acres of the grounds to the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee for the development of the so-called Innovation Park, which would mesh university research facilities with private, high-tech-oriented facilities. On paper -- and especially TV -- it sounded exciting. But there were all manner of unsavory details and loose ends.

One could argue that these new centers of mostly business activity could have been structured to minimize if not harmonize with the rolling hills and rivers of the county grounds. But even in a task as simple as saving the most impressive manmade feature of the grounds -- a set of historic, early 20th century public buildings, the beautiful, now boarded-up Eschweiler campus -- our public officials are failing us. After extracting guarantees from Innovation's private developers that the Eschweilers would be rehabilitated and put to new purposes, it's becoming more and more clear that it will be a miracle if any of the buildings survive.

Worse, the development will seriously damage an important habitat serving all kinds of wildlife but especially hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies, who rest there in their long migratory journeys. Mighty stands of oak trees and pines have been slashed away, making ready for more than a million square feet of concrete, glass, asphalt and steel.

It may be innovation, but in the way it's now proceeding, it's also anti-life.

Shouldn't our state's university system be more atuned to sustainable development that benefits everyone, rather than mere economic development that tends to benefit a few, at long-term cost to all? Isn't that the "Wisconsin Idea"? It is indeed possible, as others elsewhere often have demonstrated, to have both development and a clean environment that remains vital and diverse, but very soon, if nothing changes, that will much less the case on these important and about-to-be-bulldozed lands.

Even some major environmental groups don't have the clout -- or, increasingly the will -- to oppose these kinds of disruptive developments. In his new book, “Take Back Conservation,” Dave Foreman describes how the traditional coalition of wilderness and wildlife conservationists "is being undermined and weakened by enviro-resourcists among funders, consultants, new staff leaders and board members... ."

Foreman says the new network of environmental exploiters "want to change conservation in these ways: Dump the ethic of wild things for their own sakes — save what is economically good; replace wilderness areas and national parks with sustainable development; remake grass-roots clubs into corporate institutions run by professionals. … Above all else, enviro-resourcists say, conservation is about people, not wild things.”

Or, more to the point, this new breed of supposed conservation activism is becoming even less about people and more about profit at the expense of people.

Can Milwaukee County citizens worried about all get elected officials or the university to reconsider or at least tamp down the damage this project will do? Well, it's going to be a lot harder if the current Milwaukee County executive, Republicans in Madison and business interests get their way and gut the power of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. That pesky, pesky democracy; it's so very inefficient when you're trying to make a quick buck. It's just another version of modern American politics and the game of co-opting the opposition or, where that won't work, neutralizing it.

Of course there's no guarantee a majority on the current Milwaukee County Board, should it survive the current coup attempt, would be more environmentally sensitive, but if you collapse and concentrate the county's political power base, there's much less chance that minority views and competing interests will get a fair and open hearing on this and other matters. Anyway, the Innovation project is moving so quickly it might not matter if the board is made into a shadow of its former self -- just like the monarch butterflies.

Now, dear reader, this is where you come in, especially if you don't live in Milwaukee County.

Jim Rowen over at The Political Environment and the Milwaukee Riverkeeper are among environmental voices pushing back against this travesty against nature. Visit Rowen's blog or Riverkeeper at http://www.milwaukeeriverkeeper.org for more information.

Then, please do consider adding your voice to the debate by contacting state, county and university officials as well as the news media. Because, right now, in western Milwaukee County, powerful interests are busy paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.

Hat tip to Capital Times columnist Patricia Randolph for the reference to Dave Foreman and his book.

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