"The DNR’s granting of the permit was so contrary to scientific evaluation of the threat to the environment of an extremely sensitive area of ridge and swale wetlands that it fed accusations that the decision was politically motivated." "The land... ...is home to a system of wetlands and sand dunes that is so rare it is said there are few places like it in the world. The habitat it creates is so valuable to endangered animal and plant species that it is protected by state and federal law."
~ The Ozaukee Press is Wisconsin's largest paid circulation community weekly
The land is just a few miles north of Ozaukee County along a pristine stretch of the Lake Michigan shore.
It is home to a system of wetlands and sand dunes that is so rare it is said there are few places like it in the world.
The habitat it creates is so valuable to endangered animal and plant species that it is protected by state and federal law.
Even so, destroying the wetlands, grading the dunes, reconfiguring the landscape with imported dirt and planting and chemically fertilizing exotic grasses to create a luxury golf course is perfectly acceptable.
Incredibly, that is what the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said in granting a permit in January 2018 to allow development of the 247-acre golf course planned by the Kohler Co. to proceed.
That bizarre decision may forever remain an embarrassing footnote on the record of the agency that is charged with protecting Wisconsin’s natural resources, but at least, if a judge’s ruling issued March 15 is upheld, it will not enable a precious piece of nature to be sacrificed for human profit and pride.
Administrative Law Judge Mark F. Kaiser chastised the DNR for accepting Kohler’s assurances that it would come up with a plan that would protect the land, water, wildlife and plants from the golf course’s impact, determined that the development threatened significant environmental damage and declared the permit invalid.
The DNR’s granting of the permit was so contrary to scientific evaluation of the threat to the environment of an extremely sensitive area of ridge and swale wetlands that it fed accusations that the decision was politically motivated.
Critics noted Herbert V. Kohler Jr., chairman of the Kohler Co., and other company executives were large donors to the campaigns of Gov. Scott Walker, who had authority over the DNR when the decision was made.
In any case, testimony in the exhaustive five-day hearing held by Judge Kaiser added powerfully to the impression that granting the permit was at minimum badly out of sync with science.
Pat Trochlell, a wetlands expert recently retired from the DNR, testified that the Kohler golf course was the most environmentally harmful of any project she reviewed in her 37-year career at the state agency.
The DNR’s own environmental impact statement was damning as well, using such terms as “very rare” and “imperiled” and concluding that the wetlands nurture “threatened and endangered species habitat.”
In his ruling, the judge noted that besides damaging the fragile complex of shoreline dunes and wetlands, the golf course plan calls for cutting down as much as 120 acres of forest that hasn’t been logged for a century and a half.
The judge’s decision was based on science, which was entirely proper. But another standard could be applied to the golf course issue by answering this question: How does it benefit society to exchange precious elements of untouched nature for a vanity project justified more by the fame and bragging rights that would come with it than by need?
A golf aficionado with a billionaire’s deep pockets, Herbert Kohler can already claim credit for the development of two nationally recognized golf courses in Sheboygan County, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. The latter has hosted three PGA championships and will be the site of the 2020 Ryder Cup.
What is to be gained from having a third exclusive course? A consultant hired by Kohler claims the new course would generate more than $20 million a year in economic activity.
This state and the continent around it are replete with natural areas beautiful enough to generate vast sums of money as recreational venues, but they are off limits because their environmental assets are priceless and irreplaceable. And so should the proposed site for the third Kohler golf course.
Until the March 15 ruling, the foes of the project, chiefly a grass-roots organization called Friends of the Black River Forest, had been fighting a losing battle. It’s far from over—Kohler’s push has been relentless.
But dare we hope that, with a new secretary appointed by a new governor, the Department of Natural Resources will become an ally in the defense of the precious natural resources along the Sheboygan County shore that cannot coexist with a golf course?