Political Gridlock Poses Biggest Threat to Lower Wisconsin River

By Elizabeth Souder and Annaleigh Wetzel

Wisconsinites have relied for centuries on the Wisconsin River for recreational use, economic gain and an escape to nature, but increasing political polarization may threaten this longstanding natural resource.

Beginning below the dam at Prairie du Sac and continuing until the Wisconsin meets the Mississippi, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, or the LWSR, is the “longest free-flowing section of river anywhere in the Midwest,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. Its abundance of rare wildlife species, many outdoor activities and scenic beauty are all factors that draw thousands of visitors to the Wisconsin River every year.

In 1989, Wisconsin Republican and Democrat legislators came together to pass Act 31, establishing the LWSR and the Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board, or LWRB. The board focuses on protecting the Riverway’s natural aesthetic by controlling permits for building and recreational use. The law also founded the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, a fund designed to acquire land to preserve the Riverway, including provisions for water quality and wildlife habitats. Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget plan would freeze the Stewardship fund until 2028 and strip the DNR of more than 60 employee positions, an action some believe threatens LWSR protection.

Executive Director of The Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board Mark Cupp has been with the board since its inception. Originally planning to oversee the project for its first two or three years, Cupp has been the board’s only director in its 25-year history.

“When the Riverway Board was created, it was probably one of the last great bipartisan compromises in Wisconsin,” Cupp said. “And since that time we’ve seen polarization of politics, and the ability for bipartisanship to come together is almost nonexistent in the current political climate.”

As a result of Gov. Walker’s proposed budget plan, the DNR has been forced to significantly reduce staff, leaving many positions vacant or in danger of elimination.

Gov. Walker’s office could not be reached for comment, and DNR Director of Communications, Bill Cosh, declined to comment on the possible effects of the budget plan on the LWSR, DNR or Stewardship fund.

“You can just see the decimation that’s occurring at the Department of Natural Resources right now in cutting all of these positions, and it’s just a shell of its former self,” Cupp said. Cupp explained that the budget plans to remove many DNR scientist positions, jobs that are crucial to continuing environmental research for the Riverway.

The budget may also jeopardize the DNR board, which currently has jurisdiction to propose and pass policy, a power that the budget proposal suggests disarming. Instead it recommends the board scale back to an advisory organization rather than a regulatory authority.

Vice President of the Sierra Club and former member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, Spencer Black, who authored the Stewardship fund and the Lower Wisconsin Riverway Act, is unsupportive of the governor’s plan, as well as the lack of communicative dialogue across party lines regarding its implications.

According to Black, until the unveiling of the proposed budget, the Stewardship fund had allowed the DNR to buy land from willing sellers. This ensured the safety of natural landscapes, such as the LWSR, that may otherwise have been endangered.

“Scott Walker’s budget is proposing to, for all practical purposes, eliminate the Stewardship fund, which has been essential to the success of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway,” Black said.

Another issue that divides Wisconsin residents and politicians is hydraulic fracturing, or frac sand mining in the LWSR. In 2012, Pattison Sand proposed building a mine in Crawford County, an area that partially encompasses the LWSR.

“It just tears the fabric of the community apart,” Cupp said about the proposed mine. “You have some people who are all for it under the concept of economic development and job creation, and others who see the environmental costs, quality of life issues, human health problems associated with it.”

Angela Moody, a Pattison Sand spokeswoman, said in an email that the company is committed to following protocol set by the Mining Safety and Health Administration, the DNR and the LWRB.

Conflict on the Wisconsin River is not new. University of Wisconsin Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies William Cronon stated that rifts regarding the river stretch back hundreds of years.

Cronon explained that the Wisconsin River played a dominant role in the early logging industry in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin is also one of the most dammed rivers. But damming did not occur without controversy. Though loggers built some dams in the northern part of the river to increase power to float timber, a divide arose when other private entities sought to dam the river for hydropower. Cronon said that in one instance, loggers even blew up a dam several times to prevent blockage of the river.

Today, we see a similar split. Between those interested in investing in our economy and those focused on maintaining the Wisconsin wilderness, conflict often arises, but resolutions do not. According to Cupp, the schism between Democrats and Republicans is making reform and forward movement difficult. This stagnant political environment and the seeming inability for elected officials to work together may impact what lies ahead for the LWSR.

This concerns many who have spent their careers working towards LWSR preservation, as they view the Riverway as one of the most valuable resources Wisconsin has to offer.

In 1989, Black and Cupp were on opposite sides of the aisle in creating the Riverway. At the time, Cupp was working as a Republican legislator, and Black as a Democrat. Yet they achieved compromise in passing Act 31, agreeing that the Riverway deserved protection, regardless of political alliances.

“How amazing it is that within half an hour drive from major metropolitan areas you actually have these 92 miles of free flowing river that is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people every year, that in many places doesn’t look very different than when Marquette and Joliet first paddled down it more than 300 years ago,” Black said.

Now in 2015, invasive species, algal blooms and other environmental factors are of lesser concern to those who have fought for the LWSR. Instead, gridlock in the state’s Capitol may be the most pressing issue facing the Riverway and its future.

“It’s a gem,” Black said. “But like any gem, you have to protect it. And if you don’t, the values of that Riverway could be lost.”