Stewardship begets salamanders, clean water

spotted salamander“Doctor Herp” called about 6 p.m. on a cold and rainy night recently and asked if we wanted to check out salamander matings in an ephemeral pond on a choice piece of Kettle Moraine land.

I declined and headed for the hot tub, but my wife Kine, educated as a biologist and a hugger of all species, said yes. She donned her waders and joined Gary Casper, the state’s best-known herpetologist, for what they considered an ideal outing.

They happily reported that the wet spring had a positive effect on biological processes and that there will be an abundance of small herptiles later in the season.

Of note, the property is owned by the Cedar Lake Conservation Foundation and was purchased with a grant from the Wisconsin Stewardship Fund. Critics of conservation efforts may sneer at the preservation of friendly environs for salamanders, but they are misguided. If the salamanders, toads and frogs are in trouble, we are in trouble, too.

Let us count the ways that preserved lands and the Stewardship Fund make a difference in our lives:

• Hundreds of cross country skiers use the same land east of Big Cedar Lake during the winter months on trails groomed by volunteers from the Fox Hill Nordic Ski Club. They make for a healthier community.

• Even more hikers, birders and dog walkers use the trails in the other three seasons. Open access is guaranteed under Stewardship rules.

• The ephemeral ponds allow for slow absorption of rain and snow melt back into the underlying aquifers and filter the run-off to Cedar Creek, the Milwaukee River and eventually Lake Michigan. Those would be our drinking waters.

• Any absorption upstream reduces flooding downstream.

• The lands surround Fox Hill, one of the finest kames in the Kettle Moraine, thus protecting its scenic contribution to our county.

This encounter with the salamanders may not seem pivotal in the grand affairs of mankind, but it embodies some larger issues that we need to be thinking about. And it is a timely issue because a group of accounting types in the Republican Part have raised the possibility of deleting all the funds for the Stewardship program.

The fund, which was created by bipartisan cooperation between Democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson and Republican Gov. Warren Knowles, has spawned the creation of 55 land trusts in Wisconsin. These trusts, along with other organizations like Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and The Nature Conservancy, have been providing the matching funds to protect lands that can be used for hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing and all manner of recreation.

One of the most active has been the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, which has protected more than 5000 acres, much of it along the banks of the Milwaukee River. Along with funds for absorption areas from the Department of Natural Resources and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewer District, Stewardship dollars have mitigated downstream flooding. That indirectly helps to cut raw sewage outflows into Lake Michigan.

The Republicans cut the funding for Stewardship from $83 million to $60 million for the very tight 2011-2013 budget. It was necessary because of the huge deficit entering that biennium. But the economy is stumbling to higher ground, so the austerity argument no longer applies. (In comparison, the Republicans in Madison are dumping more than $600 million in new dollars into the under-managed Medicaid program.)

Meanwhile, we’re not doing so hot when it comes to protecting our natural resources. West Bend is down to 700 feet for drinking water; it was 50 feet in the old days. Germantown is drilling down to 1200 feet. And Waukesha’s wells are sucking radon. A lot of municipalities are considering a default to Lake Michigan water.
Lake Michigan levels are at all time lows.

And Milwaukee Riverkeepers gave the Milwaukee River Basin a Grade “D.”

Here’s are pieces of the assessment: “Generally, turbidity readings in the two watersheds (Kinnickinnic and Menomonee) were very poor; dissolved oxygen and chloride grades were only mediocre; and both received failing grades for phosphorous, conductivity and indicators of bacteria.”

As for the Washington County parts of the assessment, “The Milwaukee River Watershed, consisting of the North Branch, East and West Branch and South Branch watersheds. as well as the Cedar Creek sub-watershed, dropped from a B- to a C in 2011. “ Some of the metrics were OK, but the whole watershed received an “F” for conductivity, phosphorous and bacteria.
Filtration helps all of those issues, which is why the land trusts have been accepting easements and buying lands along the riverbanks.

I have always had a hard time figuring out why conservatives in the GOP have gone anti-conservation. Conserving valuable resources, like our drinking and recreational waters, is a conservative thing to do. It should be looked at as an investment, not spending.

Conservation is also good politics. All polls show that a large majority of Americans, including hunters and anglers, are pro-conservation.

The GOP shouldn’t let short-sighted accountants drive the bus.

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  • Waring Fincke

    Well said.

  • Mary L.

    Cheers for farsighted leaders like John—and for the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and all of the other private/public partnerships and conservation organizations that help make our state more environmentally sound. It is health, it’s recreation, it’s sane development (can’t do that without clean water)—and just all around it is making WI a better place to live.
    And that is a damn handsome salamander, too!

    • JohnTorinus

      I assume it’s a male????

  • Joan Rudnitzki

    Fabulous article –

  • Marjie Tomter

    Awesome, John. I am sharing this with the Ozaukee Treasures Network and Treasures of Oz.

  • James P. Lenfesey

    John – I too don’t get what is conservative about cutting funds for land and water and air conservation. Minnesota’s last great Republican governor, Elmer L. Andersen, was an ardent conservationist. Today the Republican Party nationally has adopted an anti-science agenda, denying the facts of climate science, something I thought I’d never see since the Scopes Monkey Trials. Check out Goldman-Sachs ex -partner Mark Tercek’s new book, Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, about the massive financial services given ALL of us by natural systems. FYI, he is now CEO of The Nature Conservancy.
    Jim Lenfestey
    PS. No surprise that Kine headed right for the swamps, bless her. See you both at Jodeyfest.

    • JohnTorinus

      Yes, business accounting seldom takes into account all costs, such as the costs of using clean air and clean water. If economics is the dismal science, accounting is the foggy science.

  • Mark

    The emphasis on the GOP has turned to money and “self”. It’s shamful of what this party has become as I have been an ardent supporter of most GOP candidates in past and now vote as an independent. I think many, like myself, are doing the same. Until “money” and “self” are removed from politics we will continue seeing self serving and dysfunctional decisions made on the part of rule makers.

    Another case in point is the metals mining initiative being undertaken by the Governor and Wisconsin Legislature. In their zeal to get something passed quickly we could end up destroying an intrinsincally valuable pristine part of our state. Aquilla is opening up a high grade metal mine along the Menominee River about 20 miles north of Marinette where I live. They are completing the discovery process and are in the final stages of permitting that have taken them roughly 10 years or more to complete. Probably will start production in about two years if the final permit is approved by the State of Michigan. Let’s see how well their enviromental controls “really” work and how much fresh water is processed and wasted before we forge ahead with Wisconsin mining. If it dosen’t work, we may have a distasterious condition that no amount of money can fix.

    • Scott

      Mark, I hope you feel the same about MMSD and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett dumping millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into lake Michigan. They seem to think that Lake Michigan is their own personal toilet and see fit to dump as much whenever they seem fit to do so.

      I doubt you or anyone commenting on this page will be bothered by that so I would expect no reaction from any of you.

      • JohnTorinus

        Give several generations of Milwaukee leaders some credit. There used to be more than 50 dumps a year of raw sewage. Since the deep tunnel project and other measures, they have been reduced to an average of two per year.
        There’s still a lot of work to do, including separation of the sanitary and storm water sewers. That project has started.

        • Scott

          Sorry John but any dumping is unacceptable. You guys are always blaming the poor farmer for runoffs into the rivers or in the poster above mine blaming iron mining.

          Milwaukee has continued its dumping and gets a pass from people like yourself and especially the EPA who seem to be wearing horse blinds whenever they have a turd dumping into the lake.

          People with so called environmental concerns seems to pick and choose what they are offended by and it is really starting to get old listening to it.

  • James Maurer

    No Reason For Optimism on the Environmental Front in Wisconsin. Evers/Barnes continue Walker/Stepp DNR Legacy.
    Preston Cole is the worst Wisconsin DNR Secretary pick since Cathy Stepp. In fact Mr. Cole was endorsed by Cathy Stepp and then re-appointed to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board by highly partisan Governor Walker.
    Since his re-appointment Mr. Cole continued to read, fain interest and even ask questions and thank (for that touch of legitimacy) then completely ignore, sound legitimate science presented to the Board. Time and time again he voted for corporate polluters, Walker contributors (Kohler) and business interests over the protection of our clean air, water and environment.

    Now Governor Walker Tweeted his support for Preston Cole. What a slap in the face for Wisconsin’s natural environment.