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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

DNR grants provide funds for rural firefighters to purchase protective clothing and equipment. This portable reservoir holds water for firefighting in remote areas. © Chris Klahn
DNR grants provide funds for rural firefighters to purchase protective clothing and equipment. This portable reservoir holds water for firefighting in remote areas.

© Chris Klahn

June 2002

Packaging progress

There's an art to combining grants and loans so communities get a bigger bonus from public aid.

Megan R. Matthews

Subscribing to sanitation | A new route for riverside drives
Salvaging local economies | Planning plantings around power lines
Taking the heat to suppress wildfires | A helpful package
Getting more to the lakeshore

Each year DNR staff distributes more than $200 million in loans or grants to Wisconsin communities for a broad spectrum of activities. Wisconsin offers environmental and outdoor recreation grants for more than 30 different programs – everything from wastewater treatment plants and recycling, funding outdoor trail and land purchases, building boat launches, buying equipment to fight forest fires and preventing runoff from farmfields and city streets.

Over the years, we've gotten skilled at putting together grant offers and efficiently tracking expenditures, but we realized we had more to offer communities, said Kathy Curtner, who directs the Community Financial Assistance program. As we reviewed the grant requests, we better understood improvements communities wanted to make and  problems they were trying to solve. We knew about lots of different grant and loan programs offered by various state and federal agencies and nonprofit groups. We knew that aspects of the community problems might qualify for several different aid programs. And we knew if the communities could raise some matching funds on their own, we might leverage that money to get more grant aid for their dollars.

When DNR reorganized in 1995, one of our goals was to pull together the grants writers who had been working separately on wildlife, fisheries and environmental programs into one program where we would share expertise in securing grants, administering grants and working productively with communities.

Here's a look at some of the programs where that cooperative approach has made a difference.

Subscribing to sanitation

Lake Como Beach is a subdivision on the north shore of Lake Como, 946 acres of prime recreational water just north of Lake Geneva in Walworth County. The area was developed back in the 1920s when the Chicago Sun Times newspaper bought a tract of the shoreland, divided it into 20 x 100- foot lots, and offered readers lots as a subscription premium; one lot for every year they would extend their subscription. The region is a short commute from the Chicago metro area and offered the opportunity to own camping space or build a weekend/vacation getaway.

Since lots were small, many built modest cottages that were quite close together. The developer provided streets, but no water and sewer services. So individual septic systems and drinking water wells were built on the small, contiguous parcels. In addition, local geography offered other challenges. The area is riddled with springs. Over time, some of the septic systems failed and wells became contaminated.

Clearly the tight-packed development was ripe for a community well and collective sewage treatment, but those costs are darn high and expensive to install on turf that has been developed for 80 years. The estimates ran as high as $24 million for the 1,000 homes and businesses in the affected area.

By working with community planners, local elected officials and the Lake Como Sanitary District, state grant managers helped Geneva Township receive $30 million in US Dept. of Agriculture Rural Development Funds, $11 million in DNR wastewater treatment grants, another $4.4 million in zero-percent loans. That was well over half the cost of a new public well and sewers to provide safer water, protect human health and stem the flow of nutrient-rich waters into Lake Como.

"Without this money I don't think it could've been done. It was a good thing for our community," said Hubert Jensen, the General Manager of the Lake Como Sanitary District.

A new public wells and sewers have also increased property values, renewed interest in remodeling some of the homes and increased the tax base to further revitalize the community.

A new route for riverside drives

Sometimes it just takes a nudge to kick start a community. The Village of Tigerton, in southwestern Shawano County, is home to beautiful wide-open woods that run along the Embarrass River and people who stay there for the peace and quiet. It's hardly a place you'd figure would embrace an ATV park, but you'd been surprised how much pride and harmony now surrounds that community's newest recreation attraction.

The community wanted to make use of tax-delinquent lands along the river. Local ATV riders and civic leaders had an idea that was long on vision but shorter on cash. Gary Hanson, DNR's recreational trail coordinator for the Northeast Region helped that vision blossom. ATV trail funds helped purchase 584 acres land along the river, but it sparked a much bigger project. The community staked out and developed 20 mile of ATV trails winding through wooded hills and along the river. For riders who were more interested in testing their riding skills than seeing nature, park developers  built a challenge riding courses of hills and turns.

Part of the relaxation and thrill for ATV enthusiasts is the chance to relax outdoors with good friends. So the park included 37 scenic, wooded campsites near the trails and a community center to host group events and public meetings. The center also houses restrooms and showers for campers.

Motorized trails aren't the only attraction. The Embarrass River ATV Park now includes a hiking trail that follows the river through a gorge. Walkers can also reach some quality fishing holes on the riverbanks. Some quality fishing hole, with fishing holes and wildlife.

An ATV rider uses the practice loop built as part of a larger ATV park project along the Embarrass River in Tigerton. © Village of Tigerton
An ATV rider uses the practice loop built as part of a larger ATV park project along the Embarrass River in Tigerton.

© Village of Tigerton

Volunteers from the local ATV club provide much of the labor required to keep the park operating at minimal cost, greet visitors and keep the park clean.

Hanson notes the park has been good for the whole community. "Downtown businesses support the park too. It's a draw that has increased traffic in the area. In fact, some businesses in the village got together to develop a safe, legal way to link the recreation area to nearby businesses. They are in the final stages of connecting a permanent trail from the village to the ATV park so people can get in and out of town offroad safely." Additional money came into the community through a new gas station, restaurant, convenience mart and motel, which located with a few miles of the trails and park.

The park has been so good for Tigerton that they had to make room on a wall of the community center for a plaque from the Governor honoring the project as one of the top ten rural economic development projects for the year.

Salvaging local economies

A recent waste reduction and recycling grant will not only keep tons of waste out of landfills, it will keep quality housing more affordable in the capital city. The grant to the Dane County Habitat for Humanity underwrote part of the cost to open a "ReStore" in Madison. ReStores are retail stores that offer quality building materials at 50 to 75 percent off the normal retail price. The goods are donated to Habitat by contractors who have surplus supplies from their building projects, and demolition crews that salvaged perfectly reusable materials when older buildings are renovated or removed. Based on experiences at other ReStores across the country, Dane County can expect to keep an estimated 100 tons of construction supplies our of area landfills in the first four years of operation.

More than 50 ReStores now operate across the United States and Canada where Habitat for Humanity housing crews are building affordable homes. The stores provide community benefits in three ways: they offer quality building materials at a fraction of the new price, they divert tons of usable materials from landfills, and the proceeds from ReStore purchases raise enough funds to pay for 10 new homes annually, according to the Habitat for Humanity website.

Planning plantings around power lines

Communities grow and spread, but trees can't get up and get out of the way as new housing and businesses take root. DNR urban forestry grants are partnering with Xcel Energy in northwestern Wisconsin to replace trees on community property and private lands where trees were planted too close to power lines or where established trees are growing along proposed new transmission routes.

In this partnership, DNR grants buy new trees or other appropriate plantings and underwrite planting costs; Xcel Energy donates the fees for tree and stump removal. The program doesn't relieve the pain of losing mature trees, but it does ease the financial sting of such losses. The projects are completed at no financial cost to the property owner or the community. The Community Tree Removal program was piloted in Clear Lake in 1994. Other participating communities include Dresser, Hudson, West Salem, La Crosse, Menomonie, Durand, Tomah, Sparta, Viroqua, Altoona, Bayfield, Ladysmith, Park Falls, Athens, Neillsville, Holmen and Thorp. Currently the program is expanding into Galesville and Chippewa Falls.

Another urban forestry grant administered through the CFA funded a booklet for sixth graders that shares reasons to nurture community trees. It's offered free of charge to all public school teachers. Dave Stephenson, DNR's urban forester in South Central Wisconsin notes why it's valuable to plant that idea in tomorrow's leaders. Studies show  social, economic and environmental assets in a community appreciate in value in communities that treat their trees as valuable assets too. "Properties with healthy trees are more valuable, and people tend to linger longer at commercial properties with trees, spending more money."

Taking the heat to suppress wildfires

Almost half (46 percent) of Wisconsin forested and there are large areas where fire departments are few and far between. To muster firefighters when needed, public foresters rely on assistance from a network of volunteer fire departments to quickly spot, contain and extinguish wildfires. These volunteer crews are often financially strapped as rural fire fighting departments spend their limited funds buying equipment to put out burning buildings like homes, apartments and businesses.

Fighting wildfire takes a different approach – you're trying to extinguish burning brush and trees, on rough terrain, often off-road. The vehicles have to be more sturdy and more mobile. The personal gear has to be lighter weight since wildfire suppression is often done on foot over hundreds of acres.

The DNR's Forest Fire Protection (FFP) and Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grants help community firefighting volunteers buy lightweight fire-resistant shirts and coveralls, helmets, chainsaws and radios to improve communication to prepare for wildland fires, says Ken Terrill, Forest Fire Operations Specialist "This year, it appears communities need tools and equipment.  Given grants, rural communities can install dry hydrants that allow them to draft water from ponds or rivers in remote areas, and set up emergency fire numbering systems to quick locate and respond to rural fires.

To qualify FFP grants, organizations sign agreements with the DNR to help suppress forest fires, train their staff in wildfire techniques and provide the proper equipment.  Currently more than 660 departments that have these agreements to better protect their rural residents, their firefighters and forested landscapes.

A helpful package

DNR grants are but one of 12 partners helping local government and conservation groups develop a trail system for hiking, walking, running, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and nature education.

"Sometimes our grant programs don't fit into a neat little niche and we try to figure out how a package of grants can best protect the resource.We all put our heads together to make something happen," says Diane Conklin, DNR Community Services Specialist in Spooner. DNR grants were bundled into a long-term project to protect watersheds that feed into Deer Lake, five miles east of St. Croix Falls. The area first received a lake planning grant to analyze pollution sources and plan water quality improvements. That work led to nonpoint source grants that helped clean up watersheds and acquire land. Then trail grants gave the public access to the restored areas.

Cheryl Bursik, program consultant for the Deer Lake Conservancy says, "DNR grants helped finance and guide the work of the Deer Lake Conservancy from project planning, to implementing water quality projects, to providing recreational trails."

Walking trails now wend through a 20-acre prairie, a reclaimed gravel pit, woodland springs and restored wetlands. New sediment basins are capturing runoff from agricultural lands and more than 20 truckloads of discarded tires were removed from area streambeds. The Deer Lake Conservancy area has become such a community asset that they developed a tour guide to the walking trails and recreation areas.

Jim Miller, co-founder and past president of the Deer Lake Conservancy says, "we grew from a project that principally benefited lake water quality into a community and educational resource that benefits the entire area."

Cooperators included the Polk County Land and Water Resources Department and the Parks Department, the DNR, the Natural Resources Conservation, Pheasants forever, Ducks Unlimited and the Wisconsin Conservation Corps. The UW Geological Survey also worked on monitoring lake quality, partnering with Amery High school to get students involved.

Getting more to the lakeshore

Lakeshore improvements at Bender Park in southern Milwaukee County were 40 years in the making. The park is in Oak Creek on Lake Michigan between the mega-marinas at Milwaukee and Racine harbors. The park site was purchased and developed in the late 1960s- early 70s using Federal Land and Water Conservation (LAWCON) funds. DNR added more than $3 million in the past several years through development, shoreline enhancement, clean vessel and recreational boating grants. Milwaukee County's investment is even bigger. Now the lakeshore park has a launch site and ramp with room for 100 boat trailers, parking lots, a weather protected harbor with breakwater structures, a pavilion, lake front promenade and picnic areas, walking trails and restrooms, and a pump out station for boats to prevent waste from going into Lake Michigan.

"Our grant managers in Community Financial Assistance work as a team," says Kathy Curtner. "When we receive proposals, we try to package available state and federal funds to make it easier for customers to reach their goals in conserving and protecting natural resources. Sometimes, in cases like the Deer Lake Conservancy, we help them accomplish more than they originally planned. Those partnerships we form with local government and nonprofit organizations stretch their resources and their imaginations to envision innovative ways to protect Wisconsin's environment."

Megan R. Matthews communicates about community grants and recycling issues for DNR's Bureau of Communication and Education.