Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Changes Coming to Brown Deer Disc Golf?

Parks wants to protect natural areas. Disc golfers say it will ruin best course in Milwaukee.

By - Jun 18th, 2024 11:16 am

(Top) Map of existing course layout. (Bottom) Map of wetlands and wooded areas Milwaukee County Parks wants to protect. Maps by Milwaukee County Parks.

Milwaukee County Parks is planning to change the layout of the disc golf course in Brown Deer Park.

The parks department wants to move some of the course’s popular holes out of wooded areas, where there are “ephemeral wetlands, numerous rare plant species, and a diversity of sensitive wildlife,” according to a webpage for the project. But many disc golfers are unhappy with the proposed redesign and feel it is yet another instance of their sport being given short-shrift.

The Brown Deer Park disc golf course was created in 2007. Over the years Parks has come to understand that “certain holes of the disc golf course are negatively impacting some of those unique natural features,” particularly  the woodlot, the department noted.

Milwaukee County Parks has declined interviews or to share additional information with Urban Milwaukee about what plant and animal species are being impacted, and to what degree, until after staff can update plans and maps for the course.

Current maps from the department show one hole is located inside an ephemeral wetland identified by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC). And five holes are located in woodlots designated as having rare plant species and diverse wildlife.

“Over time, the Parks Department has tried different methods to reduce those negative impacts and keep the holes in the woods, but those attempts have been unsuccessful. Because of our responsibility as land stewards, it is necessary to make changes to the design of the course and protect it and the other park patrons,” according to the department’s project page. “The biggest challenge is relocating the 5 existing holes inside the woods, as many users enjoy that part of the course.”

The local parks friends group also supports the redesign.

“This area is one of the last remaining native Beech Tree woods in the County, and should never have been subjected to disc golf being put in this area in the first place,” the Friends of Brown Deer Park said in a comment posted to the project page. “The trees are being killed by the striking discs, and Parks has had to spend countless hours, resources and money trying to rig protections with snow fencing and other barriers around the trees, none of which last very long or are particularly successful at preventing this damage.”

The friend’s group is not against disc golf, however, the course does make it difficult for other park patrons to use the area, said Rob Guilbert, a member of the friends group. Natural areas staff told the friend’s group the Beech trees is very susceptible to damage, Guilbert said.

For many local disc golfers, however, the proposed redesign could mean losing their favorite course.

“Brown Deer is and has been, what everyone seems to call the crown jewel,” Mike Harrington told Urban Milwaukee. “It is the best course, the most challenging course, in Milwaukee.”

Harrington is the owner of The Disc Golf Experience in Menomonee Falls and the state coordinator for the Professional Disc Golf Association. “I’m about as connected to disc golf as you can be,” he said.

Variety and challenge are what disc golfers want, he said, and the holes running through wooded areas or over water at Brown Deer Park have those in spades.

Many local disc golfers are angry with Parks’ plans to redesign the course, which is made evident by the breadth and tenor of the comments posted to the department’s project page. Harrington cites three reasons for the protests. First, the most popular holes are being moved. Second, the proposed replacement holes pale in attractiveness. Third, disc golfers’ irritation with the county began a decade ago when parks began charging fees for disc golf courses, albeit without enforcement and on the honor system.

Historically, disc golf courses are rarely installed or maintained unless there is a local club that will fund both, Harrington said. Before the county parks system began charging disc golfers fees, the local club, Great Lakes Disc Golf, had agreements with Parks to perform the majority of maintenance and upkeep for the courses. Since the switch to “pay-to-play” the course maintenance has not kept up, Harrington said.

Now, the most popular course in the system is being dismantled and rebuilt as a shadow of its former glory. For many disc golfers, this is just the latest slight to the sport they love. It feels like disc golf in Milwaukee County is “going backward,” Harrington said.

He does understand why Parks would want to protect natural areas and wetlands, he said, adding, “I question why was this never known before that there were wetlands, or that this would need to be protected?”

Most disc golfers might not understand the natural areas mission of the parks department, and its commitment to protecting natural areas, Harrington said. And while he has professional experience as a course designer, he conceded that he does not understand the protection standards or management of wetlands.

“And it’s fine, if like they’re just learning what needs to be done,” he said. “I can understand why they feel like they need to change it. I’m not saying that things can’t be changed.”

That said, with an eye toward the proposed design, Harrington thinks what the department has produced is bunk. “That is the least exciting part of the property,” he said.

Harrington thinks there are opportunities to move the holes away from the areas that are causing the department concern without destroying the value of the course that’s so loved by the disc golf community. Currently, he said, “When people get asked ‘what is the course to play in Milwaukee?’ it’s Brown Deer.”

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Categories: MKE County, Parks

One thought on “MKE County: Changes Coming to Brown Deer Disc Golf?”

  1. Colin says:

    They can find another place that doesn’t involve destroying wetlands/nature.

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