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The challenges of being a landlord get no easier when you are responsible for managing a large number of public lands in widespread locations. You just can't give each parcel the attention it deserves to receive.
The Berlin segment of the Fox River Locks and Dams was one such property. Created for navigating the river and commerce by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in the late 1800s, the locks and dams fell out of use once railroads started moving freight. The Corps of Engineers maintained the site as part of the lock and dam system until the 1950s and '60s, then sold the property to the Wisconsin Conservation Commission for a negligible price.
At that time, the Conservation Commission didn't own nearly as much public hunting and fishing land as its successors, the Wisconsin Conservation Department and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources now manage. The site in Berlin was initially maintained in park-like condition. But the aging lockhouses were not used, and over time, this corridor along the Fox River started to look shabby. The brush became overgrown, trash accumulated by the riverbanks. The portions of the property that edged through town looked particularly rundown and neglected recalled Jim Tomasko, a wildlife technician based in Wautoma, whose work unit includes portions of Waushara, Marquette Green Lake, Winnebago and Fond du Lac counties. The wildlife technicians develop and maintain public hunting and fishing grounds in their region.
In this case, the Fox Locks site had been purchased to provide a boat launch site and an access point for river anglers. And in Berlin, some people took advantage of the fact that the property was often vacant and unstaffed. They used it as a dumping ground. Tomasko recalls that people didn't clean up after their dogs. Others dumped garbage and tires there and the unlit spot attracted drug traffic. "There was graffiti, and even port-a-potties were dumped in the parking lots."
In an effort to head off further damage, he placed two signs on the property. One read, The DNR does not provide dumpsters or garbage pick-up here. The other warned, If the litter problem in the area continued, the property would be closed to public access.
Two months later conditions were not improving, and Tomasko decided as a public safety issue to gate off the property. That decision came just before the opening weekend of the fishing season, and it raised much more concern than he had imagined. When he arrived at work the following Monday, he had several phone messages from angry anglers and a reporter who was ready to rake the DNR over the coals for shutting the property down. Tomasko's explanation for his decision to gate the property off fired up other locals, but out of that anger came some very positive results. Neighbors, local fishing clubs, Walleyes for Tomorrow, and the Berlin Rod and Gun Club expressed their strong interest in the property. They decided to form their own neighborhood watch. The reporter's story helped too because it explained why the property had been closed.
Local involvement helped tremendously. People on watch started keeping an eye on the launch site and promptly checked-out changing site conditions. They scheduled clean-up days, cleared brush, and built picnic tables, but they didn't have the maintenance staff to keep the launch site that clean in perpetuity. Tomasko contacted local boys and girls clubs and contracted maintenance chores like mowing the grass. Then Jeff Pagels, DNR's regional leader of the Government Outreach Team, used his skills in securing recreation aids to see if he could some grant money for the City of Berlin.
Federal Sport Fish Restoration (SFR) money and state Recreational Boating Funds (RBF) can provide support to construct and maintain fishing and boating facilities. SFR, administered federally by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is funded by a portion of the federal gasoline excise tax attributed to motor boat use, plus a 10 percent federal excise tax on the sale of fishing rods, reels,creels, lures, flies, and artificial baits, and a three percent tax on electronic motors and sonar fish finders. State RBF money comes from a portion of the state gasoline excise tax attributed to motor boat use.
The state Department of Natural Resources is eligible for SFR funds, but by leasing the property to an eligible sponsor – like the City of Berlin – for a minimum of 20 years, the sponsor could receive both federal and state funds. Though there are limits on the cost-sharing, the City won a variance and got addition funding when they agreed to maintain any renovations at the boat launch.
The project turned into a win-win situation. The site was renovated and locals agreed to keep the property clean and maintained; it puts the responsibility in the hands of those who are actually near the facilities. Berlin received $200,000 and the site changed dramatically.
"The turnover in this site was unbelievable," Tomasko said. "People were afraid to go down there; now kids are riding their bikes. There are boat docks (one on either side of the dam so you can go upstream or downstream), fishing decks, nature observation posts, interpretive signs & It's beautiful." And it has stayed that way. "Most of the time," he says, "the better places are maintained, the more people respect them."
A hit on the ol' Miss
Kurt Welke, DNR Fitchburg, has similar positive things to say about the partnership he helped forge when he worked along the Mississippi River. One of the properties he managed was the Gordon's Bay Public Boat Landing in Crawford County. Here, the river itself gave the landing as harsh a pounding as any of the human users.
Welke recalls, "The place was showing its age. The boat launch was structurally failing; the concrete was destroyed. It wasn't the least bit adequate for the amount of use it was receiving."
Welke decided to work with locals to tap local enthusiasm and local work crews. DNR leased the Gordon's Bay launch to Crawford County for $1 for 25 years. That opened the door to tap local talent. The county highway commission provided the staff to do things like grading the parking lot and removing overgrown trees, and greatly reducing the need and expense of contracting out certain tasks. The local walleye club donated lots of time to the site and raised its renovation as an important issue the county commissioner. Welke now describes the landing as a "first-class facility that looks nice and is functional and convenient."
Crawford County also didn't have a ready source of funds to maintain the launch site, and along the river, you can count on recurring expenses. Every year the Mississippi deposits enough mud and debris that the parking lot has to be hosed off, the parking lines have to be restriped and, of course, the docks have to be put in and taken out. To fund this work, the county instituted a launch fee as allowed to defray costs. It drew some initial grumbling, since launch sites were previously free of charge, but visitors and users are getting their money's worth. Welke says, "[Visitors] see no trash or litter, there are good information signs, good places to park vehicles, security, lighting and bathroom facilities. It's as good as it gets in Western Wisconsin."
Getting on water in the southeast
In the Southeast region, Tom Blotz secured a partnership with a lake management district and township to build a boat landing and a handicapped-accessible parking space where four condominiums are planned for development. The condo builders were required to leave a 30-foot access strip (which was given to the Town of Merton) to provide public access to Lake Keesus. The strip wasn't big enough to provide an adequate boat launch, but fortunately DNR staff and locals purchased some additional land at the lakefront to provide one disabled parking space and room for a turnaround. As luck would have it, another 60-foot lot next door became available to Waukesha County as tax-delinquent property. DNR land agents then worked with the county to buy the parcel, which now provides even better lake access. A new small access road on more level ground provides a route to the launch site and a turnaround space.
At this same time, a new subdivision was planned near the new public access site. A parcel in that new development provides public parking less than a quarter-mile from the launch. An agreement with the lake management district will pull together ownership and management of this public parcel under a 25-year lease to the lake district. The district received federal SFR and state RBF funding to develop the public portions of the property.
"We ended up with a pretty good partnership with a number of units of government, including the lake management district, the town, the county, the Department of Natural Resources, and state and federal grants," Blotz says. The grants covered the costs of building, a road to the launch site, launch construction, an enclosure around a portable restroom, a boarding dock, landscaping and parking areas.
Blotz was especially pleased with this partnership because it is so difficult to find new public access points to southeastern Wisconsin lakes. "A lot of lakes are completely surrounded by private development – shoreland owners view the water as their lake, and they don't want the public gaining access to the water," Blotz said, despite the fact that the lake itself remains a public resource. Additionally, Blotz notes, purchasing and constructing public access sites is very expensive in this part of the state – lakefront property is extremely costly, and the public expects that the facilities that are developed will be high-quality facilities that can handle powerboats.
Through their own efforts and collective work with local and state agencies, communities are finding more ways to develop and value their access to public waters.
Darcie A. Gurley writes for DNR's Bureau of Facilities and Lands in Madison.