“Here’s our thistle! This is a rare, very rare plant,” retired wetland ecologist Pat Trochlell exclaimed as she stood at the edge of Lake Michigan on a clear, windy and unseasonably cool day in October.
“You can see the leaves are just, really incredibly beautiful,” she said, pointing to the fuzzy blue-green leaves of Pitcher’s thistle, a federally endangered plant that grows on sand dunes near the shore in Wisconsin’s Kohler-Andrae State Park.
“I shouldn’t be standing on these. These are really sensitive here,” she added.
While it may not look like much at first glance, to Trochlell’s trained eye, this is a rare and fragile dune system of global significance. The habitat was created over thousands of years, continually shifting with the wind. The dunes are held together without soil by roots, supporting several threatened species of plants and insects.
Trochlell, who retired in January after 37 years with the state Department of Natural Resources, leads the way down a cleared path, away from the beach and through the nearby woods, past a security camera posted to a tree. The trail separates the state park from scattered wetlands on property owned by Kohler Co.
“Ah! There is water in the wetlands! So I think all the rain helped in getting these wetlands really wet,” she said of swamp-like spots that dot the property. “They are really crucial for amphibian nesting.”
According to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, statewide there are just 10 such sites, all of them small, which contain both interdunal and ridge-swale wetlands.
Trochlell has surveyed the Kohler property three times as an ecologist for the DNR, most recently after the company proposed building a public 18-hole golf course on a 247-acre site adjacent to the state park.
Her impression: “I was thinking this is one of the most special places I have ever been.”
DNR’s final environmental impact statement for the project from January states that of the 5 acres of “very rare” and “imperiled” Great Lakes Ridge and Swale wetlands on the Kohler site, about 1.5 acres would be filled to build the golf course and others will experience “secondary impacts.”
“In general, the Great Lakes Ridge and Swale wetlands at the site have exceptional floristic diversity and are relatively free of invasive species. These wetlands support threatened and endangered species habitat functions and are important breeding grounds for amphibians,” the DNR found.
Trochlell said the DNR completed its environmental assessment before seeing detailed plans from Kohler — backwards of the normal process. She assumed Kohler’s request for a wetland permit, required to build the golf course, would never be granted. She was wrong.
Despite their assessment that rare wetlands would be impacted, the agency okayed the wetland permit for the 18-hole course, which would also require removal of up to 120 acres of forest. Trochlell believes the loss of trees, installation of fertilized turf and other changes would negatively affect the area’s dunes and wetlands.
Trochlell: DNR pressured to approve project
Trochlell determined the project did not meet state standards. But she said her bosses told her the permit should be approved no matter what.
“I was in a meeting with managers … and I asked the question of what would happen if we wouldn’t sign off on these permits, and I was told that if we didn’t sign off on these permits, we would be … moved to another job or fired, I think that’s how I interpreted it,” Trochlell recalled.
This is not the first time Trochlell has spoken out.
Earlier this year, Trochlell testified against another DNR-issued permit. Based in part on her testimony, an administrative law judge in May overruled the wetland permit issued by DNR to Meteor Timber allowing for destruction of rare wetlands in western Wisconsin to build a frac sand mine.
The judge ruled that staff had inadequate information to grant permission for the project. Interviews and emails obtained by Wisconsin Public Radio show DNR staff were told to approve the Meteor Timber permit, despite a lack of details about the project and its impact.
Gov. Scott Walker’s DNR secretary, Dan Meyer, is considering whether to override the judge’s decision — an authority that has rarely been invoked.
Walker’s office directed questions about the Kohler project to the DNR. The department declined a request for an interview, citing ongoing litigation, which has stalled the project. DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the agency “makes permit application decisions based on law and sound science.”
Kohler has previously generated uneasiness over plans for its property adjacent to Kohler-Andrae, one of Wisconsin’s most popular parks with more than 400,000 visitors a year.
Jim Buchholz, who worked for the DNR for more than 36 years, including 28 years as Kohler-Andrae’s park superintendent, recalled that just before his retirement in 2014, Kohler had proposed to use its property for a “tented forest” campground with yurts.
Buchholz said he opposed the placement of yurts near rare dunes and Kohler’s request for state land to build a road to the site. According to Buchholz, he and other state park staff were left out of the decision-making meeting on that project, which ultimately was not built.
“I certainly was dismayed to see how decisions on the use of state lands were being made right out of the governor’s office and rubber-stamped by hand-picked DNR secretaries who were also selected by the governor based on patronage to his ultra-conservative views and pro-business efforts without regard to the public’s right to use and control their own public lands,” Buchholz said.
He also opposes this project. Buchholz said in testimony before an administrative law judge in June that “DNR’s preliminary wetland approval allowing the destruction of rare, globally significant wetland areas does not follow the agency’s own wetland preservation standards.”
Kohler vows minimal site impact
Kohler Co. is known for its bathroom fixtures, golf courses and the five-star American Club in the village of Kohler. In the 1930s, the company purchased 468 acres of land along Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County, and donated nearly half to what is now the Kohler-Andrae State Park. The rest of the land is what is now slated to be a golf course.
To build the course, Kohler says it must destroy nearly 4 acres of wetlands. The company plans to cut down half of the trees on the property, create an irrigation pond, golf cart paths, a clubhouse of up to 16,000 square feet, a 22,000-square-foot maintenance building and an entry road.
“We remain committed to implementing a plan that will avoid, minimize and mitigate potential impacts from the public golf course,” Dirk Willis, Kohler’s group director of golf, said in a statement.
The company promises to remediate destroyed wetlands through programs that allow it to sponsor the restoration or creation of wetlands elsewhere.
“Kohler has worked to avoid wetlands as much as possible, while still meeting the basic project purpose to develop a world class 18-hole golf course. All Lake Michigan near shore wetland resources are being avoided, including interdunal wetlands,” the company said in its 2017 permit application.
In general, the company says it will do minimal grading to the terrain and will landscape with native species.
Because of the natural beauty of the lakeside setting, Kohler hopes the project will become one of the world’s top golf courses. A consultant hired by Kohler projects the course would bring nearly $21 million a year in economic activity to Sheboygan County, create 227 permanent jobs and generate $1.1 million in annual tax revenue.
To pave the way for the project, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved a swap of 4.6 acres of state parkland and a nearly 2-acre easement for 9.5 acres of Kohler property with a house and several storage buildings. In order to approve the land swap, the board had to declare the portion of the state park property no longer necessary for conservation purposes.
As Buchholz walks through the park he ran for nearly three decades, through sandy dunes and old growth forest, he points out the land to be traded to Kohler for the entrance road, clubhouse and maintenance building. He believes the swap of state park land creates a bad precedent.
In the past, “Nobody would ever have considered giving that land away, but times have changed,” he said. “Things have changed politically. Things have changed a lot.”
Negative effects foreseen
Trochlell believes that under the Kohler Co. plan, the rare wetlands will become overrun by invasive species, and standing water will be polluted by the nutrients from fertilizer. She fears development will change which plants and animals can survive there.
“Our whole ecosystem is based upon having species that interact with each other. When you lose one part of that, we don’t know how it’s going to affect all the other parts,” she said.
Scientists including University of Wisconsin-Madison senior lecturer Quentin Carpenter, an expert in wetland flora and fauna, have raised concerns that the DNR did not consider the full environmental effects of the golf course plan.
“It is simply not possible to rearrange the landscape, add vast quantities of imported soil and water and the other infrastructure needed to grow and maintain the many acres of exotic grasses, added roads, hospitality structures, hundreds of clients per day along with those who tend to their needs, and expect to preserve much of the original landscape, rare habitat and its denizens,” Carpenter wrote to DNR in 2015 on behalf of Friends of the Black River Forest.
Carpenter questioned whether placing a septic system in the sandy soils would contaminate the groundwater and whether an irrigation pond would attract the destructive presence of geese.
An archeological study of the Kohler Co. property found over 25,000 historic and prehistoric artifacts, including stone tools and ceramics dating back more than 3,000 years. In addition, a group of Native American burial mounds exists on the site; Kohler says they will not be disturbed.
The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology reports tens of millions of birds migrate through the region each year and depend on the trees, half of which would be cut down for the golf course, as a spot to rest before crossing the Great Lakes.
Lawsuits filed against the DNR by the environmental nonprofit, Friends of the Black River Forest, have challenged both the granting of the wetland permit and the swap of state land.
Kohler Co. execs big Walker donors
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign database, top Kohler employees have donated $43,500 to Walker’s campaigns since 2009. The Kohler family, including chairman Herbert V. Kohler Jr., is worth $6.8 billion, according to Forbes.
To DNR veterans, businesses seeking influence with Wisconsin’s environmental agency is not new. What has changed, they say, is how the department responds.
“What DNR is doing is behind closed doors, rewriting the law but directing staff to ignore what the standards are and issue permits that are contrary to those standards,” said George Meyer, who served as DNR secretary from 1993 to 2001 under two Republican governors.
Meyer said many long-term DNR employees have left citing similar concerns.
“You’ve lost scores of years of institutional memory and expertise,” said Meyer, who now leads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
He said the Kohler and Meteor Timber decisions send “a signal to staff that are still there that their decision could be overridden at any time depending on who the applicant is and what kind of political connections they have.”
As an attorney working on surface water and wetland issues for the DNR for 34 years, Michael Cain was behind the adoption of some of the most stringent wetland laws in the country. In recent years, the state Legislature has reduced some of those protections.
“What we used to talk about was protecting the wetland gems,” Cain said.
Cain retired in 2010 with the goal of stepping away from the world of environmental protection. He now feels he is unable to do that.
“The concern that brought me off the couch was that laws were no longer being enforced.”
According to Cain, during his time at the department, staff were supported in enforcing the law.
“We routinely had pressure from politicians and from people with money, I mean that’s part of the landscape in a regulatory agency, but we were always able to stand up to that, and in my personal experience …. I had the capacity to walk down the hall to the secretary’s office and knock on the door and sit down and say ‘This is what we need to do to comply with the law,’ and I was never told, ‘We can’t do that, we won’t do that.’ ”
Those changes reflect the ongoing statewide debate about whether environmental regulations have gone too far — or not far enough.
It is a local debate too. Kohler Co. worked with Sheboygan officials to have the land annexed into the city after key officials and residents of the town of Wilson, where the proposed golf course would be built, expressed opposition to the project.
Attitudes on golf course vary
At the Charcoal Inn South in Sheboygan, about a 15-minute drive from the Kohler property, several customers declined to be interviewed about their thoughts on the project.
“You don’t want to talk to me,” remarked a man eating at the restaurant.
“Capitalism is great,” said another who declined to talk.
Steven Lilyquist, a 37-year-old cook, threw a burger on the grill behind the restaurant counter.
“Honestly, I’m not really particularly for or against it. I mean, golf is a great thing. It’s a great sport,” he said. “As long as we’re not endangering a bunch of animals and everything, I say go for it.”
A drive through the village of Kohler, past the design showroom of bathroom fixtures, past the Kohler Waters Spa and the American Club hotel, offers glimpses into a community that is well-manicured and feels like a cross between a wealthy suburb and a college campus.
At the Woodlake Market grocery store near the center of town, a group of Kohler Co. landscaping employees stops to pick up snacks during a break.
Randy Demaster, a seasonal landscaper for Kohler and a retired construction worker who has helped to build several other Kohler golf courses, said he expects to work in quality control on construction of the new Kohler course. Demaster’s role would be making sure the project follows the plan and that wetlands are protected. “What’s the hold up? Let’s get going,” he said about the delays the project has faced.
“I like the idea of having another course close by,” he said. “(It’s) another opportunity for people that come to visit. There’s many visitors (that) come from all over the world that come here and golf.”
Demaster believes many people in the area support the project, and he does not understand why residents of the town of Wilson do not. Noting the tax revenue the golf course would generate, Demaster said, “I don’t know why they’re not backing it 100 percent.”
Demaster believes there will be little to no negative environmental impacts from the course.
“They (Kohler) are very concerned and conscientious about the environment,” he said. “That’s why they are trying to keep everything in place as much as possible and work around it.”
The sand dunes, Demaster added, “can really make an attractive course.”
‘A sacred place’
A few times a week, Mary Faydash walks along the beach south from her home through Kohler-Andrae to visit the shore and the forest of birch trees interspersed with evergreens. She says she sees foxes running, and bald eagles flying over her house.
“To me and to many people in Wilson, it’s a sacred place,” she says.
Faydash is a retired teacher who visited the area along Lake Michigan — and marveled at its natural beauty — for 20 years before moving to the town of Wilson in 2013.
Over the past four years, Faydash has become self-taught in the ecology of the landscape, the details of Kohler’s application and what she sees as the politics of its approval.
Faydash organized opposition to the project through her group, Friends of the Black River Forest, named after the nearby river. A former anti-Vietnam War activist from the 1960s and ‘70s, she says she carries the ethos of that time with her.
“What’s motivated me is the incredible corruption,” Faydash said. “A billionaire feels that they can run roughshod over not only our rights, but our health.”
For now, administrative and court challenges in Dane and Sheboygan counties to the wetland permit, the environmental impact statement and the land swap have halted the project.
Said Faydash: “I don’t think … you can destroy an ecosystem which is very rare because you can afford to.”
Editor’s note: Christa Westerberg, a Madison attorney who provides legal services to the Center, represents Friends of the Black River Forest, which has filed legal challenges to the Kohler Co. project. Westerberg did not provide legal services related to or participate in the writing or editing of this report.
Sarah Whites-Koditschek is a Wisconsin Public Radio Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Funding for the fellowship comes from The Lux Foundation in Milwaukee. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.