MAY 3, 2006

Group seeks more river protection

By UNKNOWN, Dells Events

About 30 people gathered at Vertical Illusions and took the first steps in forming a group to protect the Wisconsin River at the Dells.

The group, which will be called the Stewards of the Wisconsin River, will meet again on Wednesday, May 10 at 7 p.m. Before that meeting, a steering committee composed of Tracey Baggot, Bill Brown, Jean Brew, Easton Dreher, Leander Hagan, Kristin Helland, Hiroshi and Arlene Kanno, Debbie Kinder, Mary Larson and David Simerson are to write a mission statement.

Kinder and Dreher, owner of Vertical Illusions, organized the meeting of those interested in the river that was held April 26. Kinder began the meeting by asking those attending to introduce themselves and give a reason for being there.

The introductions ranged from Dreher's saying he wanted to see more hiking, biking and trails in the area, to many who said they loved the river and wanted to see it remain as it is. Others said they had the river in their blood or were "river rats."

Kristin Helland said she wanted to see the legacy of the Dells continue, while Laura Mattei said, "The river is the Dells. I don't want to see anything more built on it."

While about half the crowd were natives of the area, about half were those who had been enticed to the area by the river and the city.

After introductions, Kinder turned the floor over to Steven Rodenkirch, the DNR's manager of the natural area. Rodenkirch has been manager of the area since about two years after it was acquired by the DNR in 1994 from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. He started with only duties associated with the natural area but since then he has been made manager of Rocky Arbor State Park and two other smaller natural areas.

The DNR, he said, has 1,800 acres in the natural area and a lot of that is river frontage. State natural areas, he said, are the most protected of the land the state owns and it will never be sold. It will never be developed by private individuals, he said.

The state would like to buy more land along the river, he said, but when it has made recent attempts, it has been outbid and other properties have not been for sale.

When asked whether the DNR buys development rights, Rodenkirch said it does, but the department has had mixed results using them. When development rights are purchased, the property owner retains the land, but cannot develop it with buildings.

Since the DNR acquired the land, Rodenkirch said it has cleaned up two "superfund" sites on the property, tore down the buildings at Cambrian Lodge and put up signs marking the property. Up until 2000, Rodenkirch said he had "fairly good funding" for the natural area, but since then he has lost half of his budget.

The old Cambrian Lodge property, off Stand Rock Road on the west side of the river, will be developed in two to five years as a day-use park with access to a beach there, Rodenkirch said. It will not have boat access.

The RiverWalk trail will also be developed on the east side of the river will be developed and an interpretive center. The walk, Rodenkirch said will not be along the cliffs, but will be well away from the riverbank.

The interpretive center will be at what was the Firemen's Park off Illinois Avenue. Rodenkirch said he would like a Friends group formed that could help set up and staff the interpretive center.

The center could have a concessions area where the group could sell Friends T-shirts, he said to which Gisela Hamm exclaimed, "Oh, good lord!"

Pick up litter
A Friends group could also help with picking up litter, removing garlic mustard and Japanese barberry and other general maintenance project, Rodenkirch said. The Friends groups, which many state parks have, are tax exempt and raise funds for parks, he said. "The DNR is out of money. We have a bare bones budget. The department has gone through huge budget cuts," he said adding that the Friends groups help meet park needs.

Several of those at the meeting indicated little interest in forming a Friends group, but rather wanted a more political group that could act as an advocate for the river.

Sue to stop the blightHiroshi Kanno, who said he wanted a group that could bring a lawsuit, said that what he is interested is finding a legal way to stop the "blight on the river."

"Everything that has been done at Chula Vista has been done according to regulations," said Rodenkirch. He also pointed out to the group that the state's regulations protect the Wisconsin River at the Dells in the same manner any other river is protected. The DNR only requires a 75 foot set back from the river.

Rodenkirch said towns, counties and municipalities are free to enact much stricter limitations about set backs and what can be done along the river.

Bill Brown, a former city alderperson, said the political side is not easy since the Dells is where four counties come together. A group would have "lots of people to deal with" locally.

Kinder said the city is rewriting its zoning ordinances and will require a 200-foot conservancy zone along the river. That zone has been indicated on zoning maps, but could not be found in ordinances, she said.

When it was suggested that the city coordinate with other municipalities and townships along the river, Brown noted that the city tried extraterritorial zoning with the townships around it. It lapsed, he said. "There was no support for it. None." Brown also said that Dells Mayor Craig Casey meets with the officers of the surrounding townships regularly.

Several alternatives to a Friends group were suggested including an advocacy group and a land trust.

Dreher suggested a combination of business and advocacy with tourists being able to purchase wristbands that would give them discounts at participating businesses. Then 10 percent of that money would go toward purchasing land along the river to protect it. "We could make something revolutionary. It would be the first attempt to be green. We could promote that the whole tourism business is green."

Frank Weinhold, who with his wife owns Louie's Bluff, suggested forming a group like the Lower Wisconsin River Board.

One person said worked with fishing groups and Friends with the Lower Wisconsin River Board. For the DNR to listen to groups, he said, it first needed to do "good works" and raise funds so that the DNR would know the group.

Clean up projectTim Hansen of La Crosse suggested forming a clean up group to bring many people in to clean up the area.

Kanno said he agreed with the need to keep up maintenance along the river, but also saw the need for advocacy.

Brown suggested the group needed a few volunteers to sit down and sketch out the focus for the group and what it wants to do. Ideas for lawsuits and picking up garbage, he said, were not close together. If a group tries to do everything, its prospects for being around in three to five years were zero, he said.

Mary Larson said she could see that being combined, but to be just a Friends group was not strong enough. She also suggested a small group bring together a focus.

At that point, Kinder closed the meeting and asked those interested in volunteering to be on a steering committee to give her their names.