Challenging a History of Stewardship

By Justin Mitchell

April 22 was Earth Day, an annual day of celebration dedicated to the planet and the protection of its natural resources which life depends upon.  Earth Day was first recognized in 1970 by then U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson.  Senator Nelson represented our home state of Wisconsin, and sought to instill an energy and public consciousness about air and water pollution, recognizing that without strong public participation in the active protection of these vulnerable resources, that they would quickly become exploited and impaired.

The first Earth Day achieved what was rare then and remains today:  an energetic embrace from Democrats and Republicans, who were joined by nearly 20 million Americans at rallies, gatherings, community celebrations, and marches.  From this effort came lasting changes in U.S. law that helped protect water systems, reduce toxic air pollution, and preserve many endangered species.

According to Senator Nelson: “It was truly an astonishing grassroots explosion. For the first time people were given the opportunity to demonstrate their deep concern about what was happening in their own communities and across the nation–polluted air, rivers, lakes and oceans; health threatening hazardous wastes; urban blight; pesticide and herbicide poisoning of people, plants, birds and animals; the destruction of scenic beauty and wildlife habitats. All of this swirling around them and the politicians didn’t seem to know, understand or care. But the people cared and Earth Day became the first opportunity they ever had to join in a nationwide demonstration to send a big message to the politicians–a message to tell them to wake up and do something.”

Wisconsin has long held the torch of environmental stewardship that Nelson called for.

Environmental legends John Muir and Aldo Leopold were both rooted in Wisconsin.  Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club, which has grown to become one of the most widely recognized and visible U.S. conservation organizations.  Muir also played key roles in the establishment of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Leopold is considered to be the father of modern environmental ethics, authoring A Sand County Almanac in 1949, which has sold over 2 million copies and been called one of the most important writings of the 20th century.

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program was established in 1989 to provide grants to local governments and land trusts to help purchase and conserve important environmental resources in the state.  Named after Gaylord Nelson and former Republican Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles, the program has protected over 560,000 acres of land in the state since its creation.

According to Sam Weis of Clean Wisconsin, “Over the next four decades (following the 1970 Earth Day), Wisconsin established itself as an environmental leader by being among the first states to pass a ban on DDT, strong groundwater protections, legislation to curb acid rain, a comprehensive recycling law, and some of the strongest laws in the nation to reduce toxic mercury pollution in our lakes. More recently, Wisconsin helped lead the effort to pass the Great Lakes Compact, a historic agreement between eight states and two Canadian provinces that protects our beautiful and economically important Great Lakes.”

And for its conservation efforts, Wisconsin has been richly rewarded.  Helen Sarakinos, policy director for the River Alliance of Wisconsin, recently wrote: “Clean water and strong business are enduring partners. The Dells of the Wisconsin River, the gilded resorts of Lake Geneva and Green Lake, and the healing mineral springs of Waukesha County have drawn people from all over the world to Wisconsin for generations. And these abundant gifts from the glaciers benefit our economy.”

Sarakinos writes that there is not a dilemma between jobs and the environment, as we often hear during politician doublespeak.  Instead, a growing number of Wisconsin job creators are tied to clean water.

“If tourism were a corporation, it would be the fifth largest Fortune 500 company in Wisconsin, with revenues exceeding $16 billion,” adds Sarakinos. “Tourism is synonymous with clean and healthy rivers and lakes in Wisconsin. In 2013 alone, Wisconsin had more than $1.5 billion of real estate change hands that was connected to water.”

Locally, clean water is equally important.  According to Winnebago County Supervisor Ron Hardy, “The Lake Winnebago System defines Oshkosh and the surrounding communities.  The health of the water is essential to the long-term resiliency of our economy through serving as the main driver of tourism and regional recreation. It also is essential to the health and safety of the hundreds of thousands who rely on it for clean drinking water.”

But Sarakinos warns in her column that clean water is not infinite, and more importantly, will not stay clean if not for the commitment to responsible regulation of water that ensures the “water stays clean and plentiful for the long run.”

Thousands of Wisconsinites echoed the calls of Sarakinos and environmentalists when they submitted statements to the state seeking a reversal of proposed hits to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. One year ago, state lawmakers approved cutting funding of the stewardship program by $18 million, going further by requiring that 10,000 acres of the protected land be sold.  While the petitioners lost much of this battle, a provision written by the legislature to sell an additional 250 acres per year was vetoed by Governor Walker.

Of significant concern for Weis was the proposal in 2011 by Governor Walker to eliminate the state’s recycling mandate and correlating state funding. “The Wisconsin Recycling Law has helped keep the equivalent of five landfills worth of waste out of Wisconsin landfills to date,” writes Weiss. “Recycling is supported by 90 percent of Wisconsin residents, and… our state risks moving nearly two decades backward on environmental policy.”

The recycling program, which was first signed into law in 1990 by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, was partially retained following significant response from Wisconsin citizens and from leaders of both Democrat and Republican parties, with 60% of the state’s recycling funding restored by the legislature.  However, the state’s actions showed just how vulnerable a key component of our state’s stewardship is.

In March of 2014, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Dan Kaufman on the Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine in northern Wisconsin titled The Fight for Wisconsin’s Soul, which warns that the state’s history of environmental stewardship is under attack. The article points out that the area where the proposed mine is to be located was once the focus of a speech by President John F. Kennedy, where he called it “a central and significant portion of the freshwater assets of this country.”

According to the piece, the $1.5 billion mine and its expansive size spanning many miles in length is possible because of a rewriting of laws which have served as a foundation for Wisconsin’s environmental legacy. “Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last year granting GTac astonishing latitude (following receipt of over $15 million in campaign contributions to Governor Walker and legislators). The new law allows the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine waste. It eliminates a public hearing that had been mandated before the issuing of a permit, which required the company to testify, under oath, that the project had complied with all environmental standards. It allows GTac to pay taxes solely on profit, not on the amount of ore removed, raising the possibility that the communities affected by the mine’s impact on the area’s roads and schools would receive only token compensation.”

Kaufman points out to the site study done by Lawrence University geologist Marcia Bjornerud that showed the presence of sulfides at the mine site which would be an inevitable toxic pollution to the water systems and their fish populations.  Equally damaging is the work by geologist Tom Fritz of Northland College which showed the presence of a highly carcinogenic asbestos-form mineral that would be dispersed once mining commenced.

Just this past month, at the same time the DNR proposed adding nearly 200 waterways to the list of 700 state water bodies that fail to meet basic water quality standards, state leaders have postponed the implementation of sound phosphorus pollution standards from taking effect.

According a piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the regulation bill, “Phosphorus is a plague on the state’s waters, causing algae blooms that deplete oxygen and harm aquatic life.  Some forms can be toxic, and phosphorus is considered a factor in the discovery last year of a dead zone in Green Bay.”

John Muir said, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”  He might agree, however, that an active and informed citizenry can.ν

Justin Mitchell is a founding member and former chair of the Oshkosh Sustainability Advisory Board.



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