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Will the Zoo Interchange Reconstruction Threaten the DNR Forest?

Heavy equipment staging and concrete crushing might go ahead on the county grounds

Sep. 4, 2013
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Zoo Interchange
On Sept. 10, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) will award a contract for work to be done on the Watertown Plank Interchange and the Highway 100/Union Pacific Railroad bridge over I-94 as part of the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange reconstruction.

The winning contractor will have to store and stage its equipment somewhere—and crush the concrete that will be pulled up during the project—from October 2013 through 2018.

Unfortunately for local students and wildlife, the DOT is considering using up to eight acres of state Department of Natural Resources (DNR)-owned forest.

The DNR’s land on the Milwaukee County grounds in Wauwatosa, in addition to providing much-needed urban woodlands in an increasingly developed area, is meant to be a destination for the in-the-works Forest Exploration Center and its environmentally focused charter school. The school and potentially the center itself could move into one of the nearby Eschweiler buildings and use the forest and parkland for educational purposes, although building a small facility in the woods is also a possibility.

“I think the whole purpose of the forest, from the moment that it was transferred to the DNR 12 years ago, was to be used for educational purposes and recreation,” said John Gee, the recently retired executive director of the Forest Exploration Center. “I think that crunching concrete on it for five years will take away those uses.”

Gee is concerned about the short-term impact of the heavy equipment as well as its long-term effect on the land’s flora, fauna and students.

“I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t drive a lot of wildlife away because of the noise,” Gee said. “And between the dust pollution and the noise I don’t think it’ll be very useful for years to come as an educational vehicle for schoolchildren.”


Dust, Noise, Development

Emlynn Grisar, a spokeswoman for the DOT, insisted that no final decision has been made about the contractor for or location of the project and that the DNR forest isn’t the only parcel of land that could work. The DOT won’t be able to select a site and nail down the logistics of the project until after a contractor is picked.

“We have looked into various sites within the WisDOT right of way [and] DOT-owned land,” Grisar wrote in an email to the Shepherd. “Alternate sites are adjacent to residences, commercial properties and natural resources.”

Eric Nitschke, southeast regional director of the DNR, said that the parcel being considered had been used as a staging area for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s (MMSD) equipment during its recent flood basin construction and currently stores sheet piling for the Zoo Interchange project. He insisted that if the DOT uses this land, the forest wouldn’t be touched and would be limited to a patch of gravel and topsoil. Access would be limited to Swan Boulevard, which cuts through the site.

“It wouldn’t be in the forested area,” Nitschke said.

Nitschke said that the Forest Exploration Center would see a long-term benefit from the project because it would lead to a new permanent access road that could be used by the center if it builds a new facility.

“One of the benefits that the DNR sees in this is with our tight budgets these days it is difficult at times to upgrade properties,” Nitschke said.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Jim “Luigi” Schmitt, whose district includes the county grounds, said he’s been part of the discussions about the staging operations. Originally, Schmitt said, the DOT had wanted to use county-owned land in the northwest quadrant of the county grounds, the site of a sheriff’s substation and other county facilities.

But new roads cutting through the grounds, as well as the development of UW-Milwaukee’s Innovation Campus and the Milwaukee County Research Park, have scuttled that plan.

“The ideal place would have been the northwest quadrant,” Schmitt said. “But they can’t do it.”

That’s when the conversation turned to the DNR land, Schmitt said, although the DOT hasn’t held any public hearings on the matter.

“Everything is coming out now more and more,” Schmitt said. “I think the DOT and DNR hope that this is something that’s out of sight and it has to be done. But you can’t keep anything like this quiet, of course.”


Can It Be Done?

Another wrinkle is whether the city of Wauwatosa will green light the project or if the DOT needs its approval in the first place.

Wauwatosa Mayor Kathleen Ehley argued that the five-year project would need the endorsement of the city’s Common Council.

“Of course the state trumps everything else,” Ehley said. “But our city zoning code states that anything over two years is not a temporary situation. So there would be some formal application that would have to be considered by the council.”

Supervisor Schmitt said that he hoped that the DOT would consider a landfill site in Brookfield, which could be turned into a park after the project is finished.

“That just seems to be a salvation,” Schmitt said. “I know some Brookfield people won’t be happy. But I think there are a lot of people who would be happy to make lemonade out of lemons.”


‘A Slice Through the Aorta’

“Could Goliath grow another head?”

It’s easy to sympathize with Barb Agnew’s frustration.

As the head of the Friends of the Monarch Trail, she’s taken on the challenge of protecting the natural habitat of the butterflies’ migration corridor on the county grounds.

It hasn’t been easy, thanks to the near-constant construction on that land.

The potential Zoo Interchange staging and concrete crushing area is adjacent to the monarch’s fragile habitat and MMSD’s flood-retention basins.

“You take the woods, you take the basins, you take the animals that go to and fro,” Agnew said. “And then you put this huge mechanical operation in between. It’s two steps forward and five steps back. We were finally starting to get the basins to function for the wildlife. It’s like putting another slice right through the aorta of a semi-healing ecosystem that is totally unique here.”

Until a final decision is made, Agnew said she will be speaking up for the monarch butterflies, whose population nationally last winter was 59% lower than the previous year, which itself was at an all-time low.

Each type of butterfly needs a different kind of host plant, she explained. Her group is working to protect the monarchs’ host plant, the milkweed, which is in short supply on the county grounds, as are the open fields that butterflies and other pollinators require.

“If you take out milkweed you wipe out the monarch,” Agnew said. “For us to be so close to wiping out such a common plant and such a resilient species means we are doing something really wrong. This is sort of a microcosm of what’s going on across the United States. The developers say, ‘We just need a little more room, we just need to build in that bioswale.’ And little by little it gets chipped away.”


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