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Taking the initiative
How the people of northern Wisconsin and the DNR took a fresh look at the future of a special region.
Up North. It's as much a state of mind as it is a location on the map. For some, northern Wisconsin has been a temporary escape from the rigors of city life. It's where urban dwellers can hike or camp in the shade of cool green forests and marvel at the clear waters of lakes and streams. The small towns of the region are reminders of times that were somehow simpler.
For others, the North has long been home – a place where families have been raised and lives have become intimately tied to the land. Community names such as Rhinelander, Iron Belt, Goodman and Lac Du Flambeau recall our native and immigrant heritage, and remind us of the resources that fueled the northern economy from the earliest times. It's never been easy to earn a living in the North, whether from forest products, mining, or tourism. But for those that have stuck it out, the rewards are many: a sunrise over a quiet lake, the tug of a big walleye on the end of the line.
Clearly the northern third of Wisconsin means many things to residents and visitors alike. For the Department of Natural Resources, recognizing the balance between the psychology and philosophy of the region can at times be a daunting task – enough to prompt Secretary George Meyer to open a study of the Department's role in the North shortly after he was appointed in 1993.
The study, which eventually became known as the Northern Initiatives Project, brought DNR staff together with hundreds of people from every corner of the North who raised concerns and proposed ideas. The project fostered new working relationships destined to change the way decisions about natural resources are made in the region.
The people spoke...and kept on speaking
"We really weren't sure where to begin," said Dale Urso, DNR North Central District director. "The task seemed so large, and the region so diverse." After discussions with DNR staff from across the North during the winter of 1993, one thing seemed clear: the Department probably plays a larger role in the economic well-being of the region than it does in other parts of the state. Bill Smith, DNR Northwest District Director, observed that the mainstays of the northern economy – forest products, outdoor recreation and tourism based on a national reputation for clean air, water and soil – are directly affected by the DNR's administration of the North's natural resources.
Consider the effect that reduced sport fishing bag limits and changing fishing regulations have on the ability of a resort owner to secure advance guest reservations. Or think about the economic impact when more hunter's choice permits are available in the region, attracting thousands more visitors who become customers for northern restaurants, motels and businesses.
Called upon to make more and more decisions with the potential for economic as well as environmental impact, the Department needed a broader view of the region and its people. The Northern Initiatives Project received its formal charge from the Natural Resources Board in June, 1993. The project goals were to:
A wide-ranging public involvement effort kicked off during the winter of 1994. "It was with a clean sheet of paper, and an open mind that we asked citizens from across the North to tell us about the natural resource issues and concerns facing the region as it relates to the DNR," said Urso. "Our project motto became, 'You talk, we'll listen.'"
And people talked! During town meetings, at presentations before civic and local government organizations, and in response to DNR questionnaires and surveys, people shared their concerns and hopes for the region. Many said that this kind of project "should have been done long ago."
Most people identified the following key issues as critical to northern Wisconsin in the years ahead:
A draft report on the Northern Initiatives Project was presented to the Natural Resources Board at its September 1995 meeting in Hayward. The revised report endorsed by the board – "Northern Initiatives: A strategic guide for DNR management in Northern Wisconsin in the next decade, 1996-2006" – contains a guiding principle, four vision statements and associated issues and strategies.
Some editorial license was taken by DNR staff to clarify and reduce duplication, "but the visions, issues and the strategies contained in the report are substantially as presented by the public," said Urso. "This report truly marks a change in emphasis for this agency, from one of decision makers deciding what's best for the region, to a recognition that resource management can and should be a collaborative effort between the Department and the customers it serves."
Although the report is short, it is long on substance, and puts the Department clearly on record as willing to tackle some of the tough resource issues facing the agency and the North in the decade ahead.
Moving from proposal to action
The question remains: What are we going to do to bring the report to life and begin implementing the strategies it contains? As Myron Schuster, chair of the Governor's Northern Resources Council put it, "The time for planning has ended. Now it's time to move to the next stage of the project."
The next stage is action – and things are happening. Right now, the entire Department of Natural Resources is being reorganized to better serve customers. Northern Initiatives took the perspective from the beginning that the North really is a unique, regional entity; it's no accident, then, that the DNR's new reorganization plan strongly focuses on northern Wisconsin.
"We will end up with a northern region of 18 counties that better represents the area, and service centers offering customer-friendly "one-stop shopping" where people can get the information and assistance they need," Smith said. "Plus, more decisions will be made at the local level with increased public input."
Sparked by the Northern Initiatives, plans to tackle difficult issues are taking shape. One proposal seeks to open a dialog with people who use and provide motorized recreation equipment – snowmobiles, ATVs, boats, wave runners and the like – to arrive at a mutual consensus that would ease user conflicts on trails and waters.
During the September Natural Resources Board meeting, board members specifically requested that the Department move forward on proposals to protect wild lakes and shorelines in the North. Several members recognized the development pressure on northern shores and asked DNR staff to return to a future board meeting with information on how to address the issue.
Other project proposals on deck include drafting of a Department communication strategy geared to the needs of the rural North, building a regional trails network, finding more ways to cooperate with local zoning commissions and administrators, and opening discussions in the North on sustainable economic issues.
In the end, Northern Initiatives will move the Department of Natural Resources toward becoming more of a resource and technical consultant to the North. The agency's work will not be conducted in isolation. The Department, together with citizens, landowners, municipalities, businesses and associations, will focus on reaching consensus on the many hard decisions everyone will be called upon to make regarding the North in the years to come.
As we heard often throughout the Northern Initiatives Project: "DNR decisions affect the lives and livelihoods of a great many people who live or visit the North. Therefore, it makes sense to involve those who are affected by DNR's decisions."
That was our commitment going into the Northern Initiatives Project, and it remains our commitment for the future.
The people's voice
More than 1,000 people attended 20 public forums and more han 2,000 who answered surveys told us how they feel about northern Wisconsin and how they hope to see it in the future. Their comments were consolidated into a guiding principle and vision statements to help DNR staff carry out their duties with greater understanding of the region's special qualities and needs. Here are a few excerpts from the report:
The Guiding Principle
The Vision Statements
People often feel strongly about their independence in making decisions on their own land, but question their neighbors' decisions. Land use planning is a delicate balancing act between concerns people have about their own land and concerns they have for the character of their communities, regions and the state as a whole.
It is DNR's intent to build partnerships to retain the character of Wisconsin's northern cities and countryside in ways that all the state's citizens value.
Northern Wisconsin's economic and environmental well-being are intertwined. The region's economic foundation of tourism, recreation and forest products depends on governmental policies at all levels that provide for clean air, water and soil. Public and private partnerships can complement and enhance economic growth without sacrificing the region's environmental integrity. Both public and private landowners need financial and non-financial incentives to achieve long-term stewardship of our Northern lands.
Recreation in northern Wisconsin is many things to many people. We hunt, fish, bike, hike, canoe and pitch tents. We also use the latest motorized equipment to power ourselves across snow and waters or pull a recreational vehicle to a full-service campground. Each is a legitimate activity, and each has the potential to cause conflicts among users. We will work with lake property owners, friends groups, local governments and recreational groups to manage recreational uses on thousands of miles of roads, trails and watery byways across the North.
School systems, tourism, businesses and local citizens all have a responsibility and an opportunity to educate about the unique natural resources found in northern Wisconsin. DNR will place a premium on using its educational resources to train others and to learn from local education efforts.
Dave Daniels is the Northern Initiatives project manager for DNR based in Rhinelander, Wis.