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Walker Budget Targets Downer Woods

Provisions buried in budget bill eliminate protected status of conserved forest, the sole natural area on UWM campus.

By - Mar 4th, 2015 12:03 pm
Downer Woods

Downer Woods

A provision in the huge budget crafted by Gov. Scott Walker and his administration would end the protected status of Downer Woods, the long-conserved forest on the main campus of UW-Milwaukee whose history may go back to Native American days. The 11.1-acre preserve that borders N. Maryland and E. Edgewood avenues is the sole remaining natural area on the campus, a publicly-accessible conservancy protected by Chapter 36 of the 2010 Wisconsin Code. But buried on page 511 of the budget bill are several provisions that would drastically alter its status.

Specifically, the budget bill calls for deleting legal provisions “requiring that the portion of the Downer Woods designated as permanently reserved woodlands be set aside exclusively for the purposes of community enhancement and relaxation.” It would also remove provisions “permitting the portions of the Downer Woods designated as park and woodland areas to be used by UW-Milwaukee as recreational and aesthetic corridors.” And it eliminates a requirement that the university “prepare and implement a Downer Woods natural area management and restoration plan to ensure that the area… is managed properly as a natural area.”

These deletions could smooth the way for the potential development and/or sale of the property. In 2013 the legislature granted the governor broad power to sell many state properties, including college and university assets, without public notice and with only limited input from legislators.

Beyond the 11.1 acres of fenced-in forest are nearby woodlands and parkland that might also be endangered. The entire Downer Woods property totals 21.4 acres and includes historic buildings that were part of the old Downer College and are now used by UWM. Language in the proposed budget also deletes “provisions specifying that the buildings of the former Downer college be preserved and may not be razed without prior approval of the Building Commission.”

None of these legal changes were requested by UWM, according to Kevin O’Connor, who handles communications for external affairs. “UWM did not ask for the changes to state law that remove the legislative protection for the Downer Woods property and buildings,” he says. “The University has no plans to develop or sell the Downer property or buildings and is presuming that the current protections for Downer Woods would be maintained by the Public Authority that is being proposed for the UW System.”

Did the UWM Real Estate Foundation request these changes? “No, this is the first that I have heard about this,” says David Gilbert, the foundation’s president.

“It’s indicative of how the Walker administration is operating with this and other proposals, which is not to talk to local officials,” says state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), whose district includes UWM.

The UWM Field Station has been managing the Downer Woods forest since 1998. Its staff have spent years removing dense stands of invasive species, including buckthorn, honeysuckle and garlic mustard. James Reinartz, field station director and biological sciences professor, says these efforts have paid off and that many native plant species have returned. In an article in UWM’s alumni magazine, Reinartz said “Our ultimate goal is to get the property back to being a beech-maple forest.”  He noted there is evidence “the site may have been a Native American gathering spot at one time.”

Reinartz and other professors in the biosciences and conservation programs use Downer Woods as an outdoor classroom and research site. The creation of a trail system has also made it appealing for recreational use by students and neighborhood residents. Active community support for protecting the urban woodland played a role in its ultimate preservation.

Walker’s budget includes numerous controversial provisions, including several high-profile items that have recently gotten attention and pushback. These include a $300 million cut in state funding for the UW System, freezing the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund for land conservation for approximately 13 years, and major cuts to the number of staff scientists at the Department of Natural Resources.

The Downer Woods change, Larson says, “is just a glimpse at what’s happening statewide with preserved land. Maintenance is being cut back and preservations are being removed and the door is open wide for development. There is no long-term plan for the state anymore.”

The Walker administration has so far not replied to requests for comment as to governor’s rationale for making these changes. In his “The Political Environment” blog, former Journal Sentinel reporter and city official James Rowen called the provision a “stick-in-the-eye to a neighborhood which voted heavily against him.”

Exact Language of Walker Budget Provision:


(p) Delete the following provisions related to the Downer Woods located on the UW-Milwaukee campus: (1) provisions requiring the UW-Milwaukee Chancellor to prepare and implement a Downer Woods natural area management and restoration plan to ensure that the area of the Downer Woods designated as the conservation area is managed properly as a natural area; (2) provisions requiring that the portion of the Downer Woods designated as permanently reserved woodlands be set aside exclusively for the purposes of community enhancement and relaxation; (3) provisions permitting the portions of the Downer Woods designated as park and woodland areas to be used by UW-Milwaukee as recreational and aesthetic corridors; and (4) provisions specifying that the buildings of the former Downer college be preserved and may not be razed without prior approval of the Building Commission.

Update 7:45 p.m. March 4 by Urban Milwaukee Editor Bruce Murphy: Walker’s spokesperson Laurel Patrick emailed me to offer this explanation for removing the statutory protections for Downer Woods: “In order to create the UW System Authority, references to the UW must be removed from state statute to allow the proposed authority, if adopted, to create their own policies. The land will continue to be public land and we don’t anticipate there will be changes to its use.”

That sounds reassuring but raises another question: are all statutory references to the UW System and its 13 four-year colleges and 14 two-year colleges being struck down through the vehicle of a budget bill? I asked Patrick this and will update when I get a response.

Categories: Real Estate

21 thoughts on “Walker Budget Targets Downer Woods”

  1. Frank Galvan says:

    Guess whose hand got caught in the cookie jar…again!

  2. Chelsea says:

    Is there someone useful I could write a letter to? I think its important to retain the wild areas that still exist in urbania.

  3. Rich says:

    @Chelsea, seems the area senator (Chris Larson) is aware, but visit, choose “Regular Voter”, enter your information, confirm, and finally access the “My Clerk And Elected Officials” section to find everyone that represents you.

  4. Dave says:

    Drafting error?

  5. George C says:

    Wow, I grew up 3 blocks away and have many fond memories in the woods, would be absolutely disgusted if this area was destroyed

  6. Gee says:

    Please note that the same paragraph in Walker’s bill also removes protections of the beautiful, historic Downer buildings — and their national landmark status is not sufficient to prevent destruction of those, too. Please, yes, write your legislators!

    (As for “drafting errors,” also please note that Walker lied, as the bill still deletes the Wisconsin Idea — and so much more that is dear to us.)

  7. Alan says:

    All walker is able to do is gut the beauty of Wisconsin. Just wait to see what he would do to the entire country given the chance!

  8. Ralph says:

    Writing letters? How quaint. The only way to stop this would be to make a very large… ahem, “campaign contribution” to a certain high-ranking state executive.

  9. Jeff Pawlinski says:

    My cynical self thinks this budget proposal may be a long range plan to clear space for an on-campus UWM Arena, which UWM has long sought.

  10. Andy Smith says:

    See that huge area to the northeast of the Klotsche Center in the aerial photo? It’s a beautiful, wooded area … a pleasure to look at, walk through, be in and experience. By contrast, the “Downer Woods” is a morass of overgrown and unkempt so-called ‘natural’ ‘forest’ (except there are none of the natural forces of the “forest” to keep it in check and “forest-like.”) SUCCESS IS NOT MEASURED BY GOOD INTENTION, it is measured by actual result– a concept lost on Liberals generally. That huge plot of land is of vital importance to the future success of UWM, for dorm towers, for parking ramps, for an on-campus convocation center and competition arena, for future halls of learning. It is WASTED in its present state. The area on the northeast corner of the campus should be renamed Downers Woods, and the mess that now bears that name should become the next 30-year plan for the future success of the university which is now JAMMED to its limits. Think people. Think! That’s all we ask you to do– don’t emote, think!

  11. blurondo says:

    Obviously a developer has already made a down payment on the land via Wrong-way Walker’s campaign account.

  12. Barbara Notestein says:

    Downer Woods: As a former State Representative who represented the Eastside for 14 years, I spent much time dealing with Chapter 36 which governs the UW System, including the Downer Woods.

    I think the question at this point is whether the budget can be amended to restore the Downer Woods provisions. I see no reason why the Authority, which has to be statutorily created, can’t be required to abide by this language as well if it redrafted to apply to the Authority, if the Legislature moves forward with that form of governance.

  13. Margaret says:

    Conspiracies theories are always amusing, but really I don’t think that anyone at UWM wanted the Downer Woods provision–it is valuable to all of us. After all we are members of the community that values Downer Woods. The same can be said for the provision that would all razing the Downer College Buildings and indeed a great many other provisions which are extremely unwelcome to many of us who work at UWm and I would think to the community that relies on our services. READ THE BILL CAREFULLY. fLEXIBILITY IS BY NO MEANS ALL THAT IT CONTAINS, BY A LONG SHOT.

  14. Jerry says:

    I would be very, very careful with Walker removing U W from all provisions and mandates. I suspect that this is not legally necessary and he has other motives once he has eliminated U W from existence. This PUBLIC AUTHORITY IS MOVING WAY TOO FAST AND SHOULD NOT BE IN THE BUDGET….IT SHOULD BE A STAND ALONE ISSUE. With Walker being able to appoint all but two of the regents to oversee the public authority the U W SYSTEM is in for a major screwing. Walker cannot be trusted and the ink won’t even be dry on the paper work creating the public authority and he’ll begin dismantling campuses!

  15. Marie says:

    To anyone concerned about land stewardship issues, including Downer Woods and the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, here’s what an aide to Chris Larson recommends:

    “Right now people who want to advocate need to contact members of the Joint Finance Committee and their own legislators. Dems, I would think, will do an amendment to remove the provision in JFC and on the floor when we get there. They should call and email.

    People should also show up to the public hearings around the state if possible. Here is the list of them as far as we know – I don’t have specific times at this point:

    Wednesday, March 18- Brillion High School
    Friday, March 20- Alverno College in Milwaukee
    Monday, March 23- UW Barron County in Rice Lake
    Thursday, March 26- CAL Center in Reedsburg.”

    As Barbara Notestein wrote above, there does not seem to be any need for the governor & legislature to be tinkering with the fine points of regulations that govern a specific UW campus, especially 20 acres of protected land and buildings. The potential to create a UW authority has nothing to do with this issue, since all laws affecting UW will need to be changed, if and when such an authority is formed. One possible reason for deleting these Downer Woods protection provisions is to set the stage for a stealth land sale or development project that can fly under the radar, especially before a UW Authority is created, which will not happen overnight.

  16. Eastsider says:

    I will have to agree with Jeff, on campus arena anyone? I think we should all wait for further details to emerge before coming to any conclusions, but if a true panther arena were to ever come to fruition, this is the only possible location. I am a UWM alumni, and I have never once stepped foot in Downer woods, even during my cherished times at Sandburg Hall. If this provision goes through with the bill, there is no way they sell to a private developer, just no way. Then again…

  17. Gee says:

    Andy Smith, you’re decades behind and are just reacting to — well, I don’t know what, but not the story. Read it and other coverage closely. The Downer Woods have been cleared of invasive species, restored as a natural habitat for classroom use, etc. And the nature conservancy continues to be needed for the reason that it was created, as a crucial connector between the lakefront and the river in the larger ecosystem of the area. Remove any one of those, the others will suffer and decline.

    And Margaret, correct; the coverage also tells us that UWM states that it did not seek this provision, but that just means that UWM was not part of conspiring to delete these protections from state statutes But who was behind it, and why did Walker put it in a budget bill?

  18. Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey says:

    My best guess is that they are trying to do as much irreparable damage as possible to the old progressive, pro-worker, pro-environment, pro-education Wisconsin, and embezzle/give away as much as possible of what we own: so that when they lose power (as they inevitably will) there is no risk of the old Wisconsin ever coming back.

  19. JD says:

    I lived next to Downer Woods for two years in Sandburg Halls. I never saw those woods as anything other than an eyesore and an artificial restriction on the primary purpose of UWM: education. I’ll be honest: the “woods” seemed to me to be nothing more than a weed-choked lot. There are many natural wooded areas in the city that are substantial habitats (Havenwoods State Forest to name just one). As long as the Downer lot is NOT USED for a Sports Arena (UWM already has several), but for UWM campus classrooms, labs, and more housing (perhaps for grad students and research assistants) to help fulfill and strengthen UWM’s role as the state’s primary URBAN university, I would support ending the status of these “woods,” with the idea that a compensatory plot of land is found nearby to preserve more, genuinely biologically significant habitat, such as land near the Milwaukee River Greenway. These “woods” are artificially suppressing the size of UWM’s campus and can’t possibly be considered anything of biological significance. I can’t say how many times people say UWM’s campus is “landlocked” and can’t grow, and this land could be used for education which is a significant economic and cultural engine of the state. There are THOUSANDS of SQUARE MILES of woods in Wisconsin that are genuine wooded habitats of significance. To cast this as “bad republican policy” seems a stretch. I don’t support Walker at all, but I call these “woods” exactly what they are: a barrier to the mission of UWM.

  20. Marie says:

    JD, how long ago did you live in Sandburg Hall? There’s been a steady effort since 1998 to remove invasive buckthorn and other junk plants in Downer Woods, and the native trees and natural habitat are returning. Woods in many county parks face the same issue.

    Downer Woods IS used for education. It’s been a “lab” for biosciences and conservation courses for decades, and the site of ongoing research. Also, as Gee noted, Downer Woods also is an important habitat link between natural areas near the MKE River and those in in Lake Park etc.

    UWM has wisely expanded throughout the East Side, into downtown and Walker’s Point (Freshwater Sciences), and now the Innovation Campus in Wauwatosa. So being “landlocked” is not such a critical issue. Having a small amount of green space and a modest nature preserve helps to make the main campus livable and is valued by the neighborhood. While huge preserves are certainly valuable for many reasons, experts say parks must be located nearby to serve urban residents.

  21. Nona Kyle says:

    Downert Alumni have contributed much money to preserving Downer’s heritage. Unfortunately, we appear to be treated as Cinderella–stay in a corner and shut up. It sounds like future plans will include the destruction of the Downer Buildings. We obviously would rather look at abandoned buildings because Milwaukee companies have moved production abroad and leave buildings in ruin. Are we the next Detroit? YES. I guess low-income housing might improve the neighborhood. Those building have a good life span of at least 20 years. Wonderful.

    Can’t we save any of our history? How old is the Louvre, Big Ben etc. We are a throw away society. I suggest we start sending all the foreign made junk back to the Country of Origin for their landfills.

    Keep the green space. Keep the buildings. Keep Downer alive.

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