Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Planning Habitat Restoration in Milwaukee River Greenway

Project will clear invasive species, improve habitats for plants and wildlife.

By - Jan 13th, 2023 04:37 pm

Milwaukee River and North Avenue Bridge. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

When the Milwaukee County parks system is discussed, it’s often referred to as a jewel or a gem. It’s been given the moniker of Milwaukee’s “Emerald Necklace” to describe the way the parks encircle the county — a derivative of what famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted called a “Grand Necklace of Parks.”

Milwaukee County Parks is now in the early stages of a revitalization and restoration project for what is undoubtedly an important link in the county’s emerald necklace, perhaps even the crown jewel: the Milwaukee River Greenway. Milwaukee historian John Gurda called this “sprawling, urban wilderness” of nearly 900 acres “one of our community’s greatest natural treasures.”

Natalie Dutack, a parks department employee, is in charge of the new project, which will try to restore some of the natural plant and wildlife habitats that prevailed along the Milwaukee River. If everything goes to plan, the department will recreate a unique habitat native to the area that has been missing from the river corridor for some time.

“The Emerald Necklace design not only was providing areas for people to recreate in, at the end of the day it preserves some habitat that you really don’t see in Milwaukee anymore,” Dutack said in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. “Along the rivers there are wetland and forest habitats that are not commonly found in southeastern Wisconsin anymore.”

The project is focusing on a seven-mile stretch of the corridor containing approximately 600 acres, seven parks, the Milwaukee River Parkway, Cambridge Woods, and 240 acres of natural habitat. The parks in question are Kern, Lincoln, Estabrook, Gordon, Riverside, Pleasant Valley and Hubbard — the latter is a park owned by the City of Shorewood.

These natural areas are part of the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern. An unfortunate designation comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and generally means they are considered to be seriously environmentally degraded. The parks department is working with Shorewood and the Urban Ecology Center and the River Revitalization Foundation on the project, “So it’s a big multi-partner effort,” Dutack said. The project is also working in coordination with other remediation projects in the estuary, including an EPA project aimed at remediating pollution in the waterway that is expected to run from roughly the Estabrook Dam to North Avenue.

The entire project from planning to implementation will be funded through a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Grant. These grants are funded by the federal government and passed through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to local partners like the parks department.

Degraded meadow and floodplain along Milwaukee River. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

The parks project is focused on the upland area of the river corridor, the hills and meadows that line the Milwaukee River. The degradation in the area has been occurring for more than 100 years. Industry and urban development have contributed to this in various ways. The North Avenue Dam, for example, flooded areas along the river until it came down in 1997. The polluted water contaminated the soil in the floodplains that now sit dry. But, as the parks department notes in its restoration plan for the greenway, a new “ecologically destabilizing event” is occurring as emerald ash borer contributes to a rapid loss in forest canopy.

Habitat restoration for a project like this one, Dutack explained, can be highly complex in detail but is easily broken down into two general phases of work. First, invasive species removal, then revegetation with a diverse range of plant species that will improve the resilience of the habitat.

The project is focusing on three habitats common along the greenway which include floodplain forest, southern mesic forest and sedge meadow. The latter is a type of meadow that was known to have existed in this area, but does not anymore, Dutack said. Areas along the river that are filled largely with tall grasses like Reed Canary Grass and Phragmites — both invasive — would be cleared out for new plantings native to sedge meadows.

The improvement and restoration of these habitats will open up areas to sunlight and improve conditions for native plant species, and even wildlife, to return to the area. If it works, bird watchers will likely notice an uptick in the species of bird that can be found along the corridor, Dutack said. Areas packed with invasives like buckthorn will be opened up creating new views of the river and areas to explore. The greenway is already home to 479 species of plants and nearly 300 unique species of animals.

Restoring these habitats for plants and animals to what they were prior tp industrialization and development of the region is nearly impossible. But this project is an opportunity to polish this piece of the emerald necklace and provide some resiliency to this rare wilderness that runs through Milwaukee.

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Categories: MKE County, Parks

One thought on “MKE County: County Planning Habitat Restoration in Milwaukee River Greenway”

  1. Jaimcb says:

    I’m happy to hear that Milwaukee County secured funding for this project. I’m hoping there are more projects ahead in other “needy” areas.

    One, in particular, that I hold precious, is Jacobus Park pond. Much improvement has already occurred in the park with several trails with plant and tree identification markers. There are ongoing efforts to remove garlic mustard and other invasives. And naturalizing all around the pond is impressive. But I watch the pond being taken over by lily pads, themselves invasive, and scummy surfaces. In the warmer months, children play along the edges of the pond, searching for frogs and other critters. When the pond freezes over, we used to see ice skaters of all ages out there. Later, it became populated by hockey players. But, in the past several years, nada!

    This is an historic place. A pond, a lodge with a warming area for skaters. A small playground, a splash pool. C’mon, guys, let’s get some funding to restore the pond! ( I’m hoping someone from Milwaukee County reads this)

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