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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1998

Removing carp, controlling lake weeds and drawing down the water level are part of the plan to restore freshwater marsh conditions at Big Muskego Lake in Waukesha County. © Randy Schumacher.

A time for action

A mix of projects shows how we're doing as ecosystem management moves from theory to practice.

Natasha Kassulke


Removing carp, controlling lake weeds and drawing down the water level are part of the plan to restore freshwater marsh conditions at Big Muskego Lake in Waukesha County.

© Randy Schumacher.
Building partnerships | Balancing user needs
Local leadership | Lessons learned

Two key components of the revamped DNR are managing resources along natural geographic boundaries and getting more staff into field offices that are closer to the resources they manage.

The state has been carved into 22 Geographic Management Units (GMU), the borders of which are defined by nature rather than road maps. The boundaries follow natural drainage patterns.

DNR employees with diverse training are assigned to water, land and technology teams in each GMU. Biologists, botanists, engineers and technicians focus on the same issues to assess natural resource and environmental needs from many perspectives.

"The goal is to protect sensitive habitat and solve problems in a more comprehensive, more efficient way," says Susan Sylvester, division administrator for DNR's water program.

To steer toward this direction, each GMU team was directed to develop Integrated Ecosystem Management projects to test if staff can pool their skills and budgets, and work effectively with the public to benefit natural resources.

In all, 49 projects (22 on public waters, 20 on public lands and seven on combined water and land) were funded and will be tracked this year. From revising the Brule River State Forest Master Plan which guides forest management decisions for the next 15 years to removing a dam on the Iron River to improve sportfishing, IEM projects aim to move ecosystem management from theory to reality.

Building partnerships

An important goal for each project is to form partnerships with people who have a stake in the outcome. Whether that means forming work agreements with other agencies, planning with other levels of government, seeking grants with citizen groups or meeting with individuals, partners have a place as planners, workers, fund-raisers and goal setters.

The projects bring people together who have a collective investment in protecting resources. For example, in the La Crosse River valley between the city and the Village of West Salem, bottomlands are feeling the squeeze from rapid development. The DNR, the Gunderson Lutheran Medical Facility (a major landowner in the area), and the La Crosse County Department of Zoning and Land Information are creating a land-use plan for the area.

"We want to work with partners to highlight the value of the river valley and promote its protection locally," says Craig Thompson, the La Crosse/Bad Axe Water GMU leader. Partners hope to restore an unbroken stretch of 250 acres of contiguous wetland for wildlife and recreational activities.

On-ground surveys supplemented with computer mapping will show options for roads, homes and nature. The partners are measuring water quality, and documenting the populations of several endangered and threatened plants, animals and insects, including Blanding's turtle, great egrets and blue suckers.

Balancing user needs

Another IEM project taking the long view stretches across Oneida, Iron and Vilas counties. The public is helping develop goals and visions to manage our largest property – the 221,000-acre Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, the nearby 18-mile Bearskin State Trail, and the 4,096-acre Powell Marsh Wildlife Area.

The master plan will guide decisions and actions for the next 15 years, says Dennis Leith, forest superintendent. The plan will examine the land and the social climate, taking into account economics, ecological conditions, and the forest's two million annual visitors.

To launch the project, potential partners were invited to attend open houses. Last spring, more than 80 people visited with DNR staff during the two-day introduction. Public meetings got people talking about goals. Since then, forest managers have been meeting local, regional, and statewide organizations; forest users; Native American tribes; fish and game groups; neighbors; and other interested individuals.

"Our strength is very committed team members who bring a variety of skills to our planning process," says Lyle Hannahs, a planner for DNR's Northeast Region. "There's a real commitment to communicate with the public." Those who choose can receive newsletters and other mailings, attend open houses, and stay up-to-date by visiting a Web site that tracks master plan progress.

Balancing needs on a big landscape also is at the heart of the Buena Vista Marsh partnership project in Portage County. This 84-square-mile marshy area, formerly tamarack and alder swamp, has been cleared twice – once during the logging cut-over, then a second time for dairy and grain crops, which proved impractical. The area reverted to grazing lands and bluegrass farms. During the droughty 1930s, dams and ditches were constructed to store water for firefighting and irrigation. Many of the ditches now contain some of the best populations of native brook trout found in the state.

In the 1960s, center-pivot irrigation made possible the vast fields of potatoes and other vegetables we see there today. The flat, wet country with networks of drainage ditches also seems a natural area for expanding cranberry cultivation. The stage is set for a classic struggle over water use, quality and quantity.

Cranberry bogs.
Ditches adjoining cranberry bogs in Portage County contain excellent brook trout populations.

© Robert Queen

The goal of the Buena Vista Marsh project, according to Tod Planer, a county agricultural agent for UW-Extension in Wood County, is to protect the brook trout population and maintain water quality in the drainage district while providing for sustainable agriculture. The project seeks working solutions to environmental problems like silt buildup and low flow in the ditches that support brook trout.

The groups coming to the table to talk include the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Portage County Drainage District, area cranberry growers, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and sporting groups. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is a major landowner, managing 10,000 acres of prairie chicken habitat. Early discussions have focused on different interests' needs, projects and future plans. Along the way, everyone is learning about the unique value of the Buena Vista Marsh, the agricultural industry it supports and the natural habitat it provides.

"It is difficult work because potential partners have divergent viewpoints," says Tom Jerow, project leader. "Getting all these people to the table is difficult, but I think it's worthwhile."

Local leadership

Local leaders and residents are major partners in the Big Muskego Lake project. The 2,177-acre lake in southeastern Waukesha County suffered annual algal blooms fed by nutrients from agricultural runoff and discharges from a sewage treatment plant.

Residents from Muskego and nearby Wind Lake discussed their expectations with DNR staff, city and township officials, sporting groups and lakeside property owners. Big Muskego couldn't be changed into a deep, clear, Northwoods-type fishing lake, but it could be a much higher quality freshwater marsh. They focused on a plan to raise water quality, improve habitat for wildlife, and increase the fishery.

"On Sept. 15, 1995 the gates opened on Big Muskego," says Randy Schumacher, one of the project managers. Water levels were drawn down to expose about 1,200 acres of lakebed. Nonnative plants (about 80-90 percent of which was Eurasian water milfoil) dried out and native plants grew back. Today, less than five percent of the vegetation is cattails and milfoil. Swaying bulrushes temper the wind and allow other natural vegetation to return.

In 1996, game fish were transferred to other waters, and 390,000 pounds of carp were removed from the lake and feeder ditches. By November 1996, the lake was ready for stocking. Today, yellow perch, largemouth bass, bluegill, northern pike and walleye are establishing populations in Big Muskego.

"Before the project, the water clarity was less than one foot," Jim Jackley, DNR's wildlife biologist for the area, says. "Now you can see three to six feet to the bottom of Big Muskego."

An electric fish barrier constructed at the outlet of the dam in Muskego prevents carp from entering through a creek. If power fails, there's a back-up generator and alarms will alert three neighbors (a local landowner, an alderman, and a Lake District manager).

"The fact that these people are willing to be called in the middle of the night if there is a problem with the barrier shows an amazing level of commitment by our project partners," Schumacher says.

In addition to the state investment of $850,000, a local sportsmen club donated $37,000 to build a public boat launch; another group donated the land. Ducks Unlimited donated $150,000 to build three one-acre waterfowl nesting sites. Wisconsin Electric Power Company donated $3,000 to build six osprey nesting platforms. The Audubon Society is considering hatching osprey young here to bring the osprey back to Southeastern Wisconsin.

The birds are already back. Waterfowl populations of mallards, teal, pintails, Canada geese and others are expected to start nesting at Big Muskego, and about 53 of the endangered Forster's Tern call this area home.

"DNR staff have more than 20,000 hours invested here, but a project of this scale couldn't have been done without partners," Schumacher says.

Lessons learned

Each project has found some common strategies to success. Creating incentives rather than relying solely on regulations, focusing on habitat and ecological communities rather than on individual species, and identifying geographical boundaries can help frame the issues and drive action. Balancing user needs fairly and sharing data with all interested parties keeps participants motivated. Using results from on-going monitoring to adapt approaches means projects can be refined as they move forward.

Above all, trust, cooperation and patience are the keys to success. Through sincere and frank discussion, a measure of good faith, and commitment from all parties to support the effort for the long haul, the IEM projects can usher in a new era of managing our resources and ourselves for a healthier, more sustainable environment.

Natasha Kassulke writes about environmental issues and programs for DNR's Water Division.