Sandhills, eagles, fishing and fireworks!

Sandhill Crane

Watching two girls fish in downtown West Bend of the Milwaukee River recently, it occurred to me that we have much to celebrate on the environmental front in Wisconsin and the country.

Environmentalists will always face new issues to conquer, such as the potential invasion of the Great Lakes by several species of Asian Carp and waves of exotic new mussels.

Still, looking back and taking a current assessment, much has been accomplished.
When I moved to West Bend 43 years ago, the river was a sewer – literally. The municipal treatment plants were rudimentary, and outflow pipes from industry dotted the banks of the river. All the municipal plants now operate at a tertiary level, and the pipes are gone.

The Fox River between Menasha and Green Bay was worse. It is again a recreational asset, even as dredging of PCBs continues in fits and starts.

About a dozen brown-field sites in West Bend, contaminated hot spots, mostly along the river, have been remedied. The worst one was site of West Bend Electro-Plating, just below the downtown dam. It had housed many local industries before the plating operation. Local legend said it glowed in the dark from the discarded chemicals.

It is now part of a lovely city park, capped by a stone and tree sculpture called “Place of Origin.” (Native Americans once camped there.) People fish under the dam.

Some day the dam, which once supplied hydro power and drove a mill, will be removed, just as the Woolen Mill Dam before and the Newburg Dam, which is now being decommissioned. Ditto for the Barton and Kewaskum Dams upstream.

A free flowing river is more aesthetic, better for water quality and therefore a better fishery.

The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust has been busily acquiring property along the Milwaukee River banks and acquiring conservation easements to protect the shores. It is also preserving bird layover areas along the banks of Lake Michigan in Ozaukee County. Many agencies have joined the efforts.

Forty years of work have gone into preserving the Cedar Lakes watershed. The Cedar Lakes Conservation Foundation offers a national example of what persistent stewardship can accomplish. Wisconsin has given birth to 55 local land trusts that are all doing good work with pristine lands and waters.

Before the Deep Tunnel, Milwaukee suffered some 50 over-flow dumps of raw sewage per year. Not it’s down to two or fewer. The $2 billion project was worth every penny.

Another example of an improving environment – in contrast to concerns about the negative consequences of global warming – is the return or addition of numerous species. I never saw Sand Hill cranes growing up in Wisconsin. They are now abundant.

American eagles had just about disappeared when environmentalists pushed to get rid of DDT. I saw 22 eagles on one canoe trip down the St. Croix River, and they are as far south as Washington County.

Cormorants have returned to Lake Michigan, and pelicans have appeared. So have sea ducks never seen in my lifetime.

We have legions of wild turkeys, some elk and a return of wolves, love them or fear them. Bears have never been more numerous.

My ancestors helped to clear the land of white pine and hemlock. They thought the trees would last forever. About 1910, the Pinery crashed, and they left a barren, clear-cut mess. Today, about half of Wisconsin 48 million acres is forested, more, it is claimed than in its original state.

These remarkable improvements in our quality of life are not the kind of collective win that we typically celebrate on July 4th. It’s all about remembering how delicate our democracy is and how we citizens need to pay attention and take care of our unique freedoms. Some of us have gone to war, died, or were wounded for those freedoms.

But the green instincts of most of our the people and their approval of using taxpayer dollars to fix environmental mistakes from earlier times are another cause for celebratory fireworks this 4th of July.

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  • MARY M. WILLIAMS

    Really good information for us to know any day of the year in 2012.  AND WE HAVE TO  KEEP IT UP  —

  • Tbone

    Funny Mr. Torinus how you mentioned that years back the Milwaukee river was  a sewer. I agree but during that time in the late 60’s and into the 70′,80’s and 90’s my family on a constant basis would go on our land we owned on the Milwaukee River and pick up every kind of  litter that was thrown into the river from the City of West Bend. We would have bags of cans, bottles, plastics and everything you could think of.  Tires were the biggest thing. We could almost go  on a every other day basis and  find a tire laying in the river.My Father worked tirelessly cleaning the junk out of the river on an every day basis after he retired.  Unfortunately no one ever recognized this and  what irritates me to this day is the fact how all you ever read in the newspaper is how certain volunteer groups are keeping our river clean.

        To bad you or any of the so-called volunteers never did what  my family was doing 30-40 years earlier!!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your family’s diligence. I remember when we organized a clean-up of the Milwaukee River in downtown West Bend about 30 years ago. The city provided the garbage trucks, and a couple hundred volunteers filled 14 of them.
      On the positive side today, I don’t see new dumpings in the river, very few any sway. And we canoe the river and its branches.
      When we canoe in the Kettle Moraine State Forest south of Kewaskum, we do pick up a lot of golf balls that have rolled a couple miles south of the Hon E Kor Golf Club. That takes care of my shag balls for the season.

  • Jimfest

    John – this a fantastic piece, congratulations,  One question.  Why the strange comment about climate change below?  Unless I misuderstand it?  And a comment- the $2 billion for the Mke sewer system I’m sure was a) compelled by the federal Clean Water Act, and 2) largely paid with federal tax dollars -“worth every penny indeed” but would NOT have been done with local and state money and control. As you know, I too grew up on the Fox River, now again fishable, a paper mill sewer when we grew up.  Yes, there was cost and disruption when the CWA forced a cleanup, but in the end a roll of toilet paper, a proud valley product, costs the same or less than it did in 1960.  We CAN defeat climate too if we get the federal govt on board, not fight the Obama administration on green energy every step, and throw out of office those who deny the clear scientific facts, e.g. Sensenbrenner and Johnson.  
    Your DePere pal, JIM LENFESTEY
    Another example of an improving environment – in contrast to concerns about the negative consequences of global warming – is the return or addition of numerous species.

    • Tbone

      JimFest says We CAN defeat climate too if we get the federal govt on board, not fight
      the Obama administration on green energy every step, and throw out of
      office those who deny the clear scientific facts, e.g. Sensenbrenner and
      Johnson. 

           So would you be in support of cap and trade where energy prices would skyrocket?????  If you think companies leaving this country  is bad now, pass this piece of garbage bill and watch companies leave or just plain close the doors.  Use some common sense when making your point of view.

    • Anonymous

      No question that the government has to take the lead in setting standards and providing funds.

      In that regard, I forgot to include the incredible improvement in air quality in Southeastern Wisconsin over the last two decades. We now have just a couple of violations of federal standards per year compared to dozens years back. The annual car emission testing, a huge expense, and industrial stack cleanups has really worked

      Note that The Nature Conservancy just released a poll that shows 83% of Americans are willing to see taxes raised to protect American land, water and wildife. They view conservation as patriotic. That includes 72% of Tea Party Republicans. We are a green nation.