In 2016 I was part of an environmental assessment at the site of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) planned boat launch to Army Lake in Walworth County, Wisconsin. My heart sank at the time, because I knew the site. It held the last best remnant of oak woodland acre for acre of any site in southeastern Wisconsin. Just why the woodland there remained in such good condition while the surrounding upland areas became choked with buckthorn, bush honeysuckle, and Asian bittersweet is a matter of conjecture, but it just might be that this island escaped the hard grazing of the early 1900s. There are other such islands, and while not quite so jaw-droppingly intact, they all tend to be in better shape than nearby uplands.
The WDNR had purchased the woodland several years prior for the purpose of the boat launch. There was access to the island by a narrow lane of old fill that had been put in for access to a small lakeside tavern (now long gone) in the early part of the previous century.
The assessment was specifically to delineate wetlands and flag the locations of forked aster (Eurybia furcata), a state-threatened species that had been found there during a prior assessment associated with the land purchase in 2012. I found and flagged several patches of forked aster scattered around the island. I emphasized to the WDNR property manager, who was present for the assessment, just how special the woodland was. He assured me that the impacts would be minimal, sticking largely to an existing mowed loop, but it was going to be a paved, American with Disabilities Act-compliant launch.
I contacted some local stakeholders and advised them of a public meeting (listening session or some such thing) about the launch, warning about potential impacts to something precious and irreplaceable, and I promptly got an upset phone call from the property manager (though I appreciate him not going straight over my head like the Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas Coordinator did a few years later). In hindsight, I kind of wish he had called my boss. It might have freed me up to more strongly oppose what was about to happen.
Aldo Leopold wrote (and this resides in my profressional email signature), “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” What happened at Army Lake wasn’t just wrong, it was insane. Really, the forked aster was the only thing there with protected status that might have helped it, but that’s also insane, because communities support rare species; it’s not the other way around. …and the project led to take of some of the forked aster I had flagged. Was there any public notice of this incidental take or permit before the fact? No. Work began without a permit, and one was issued ex post facto. The WDNR is a resource conservation agency that operates in the public trust. Conservation all too often defeats itself.
Seeing this was a gut punch. It was a failure. This was a hill worth dying on. I’m happy to say that there are folks working to protect what is left and minimize the impacts. I also have learned a lot from this place and drawn inspiration from it. I was able to share it with a few people before the launch went in. Still, it’s difficult for me to look past what happened. It’s yet one more thing that my kids won’t see in full glory. Europeans came to the Midwest and stole this benevolent landscape for pasture, crops, mines, and development; when will we stop savagely destroying it?