By SARAH WHITES-KODITSCHEK
Wisconsin Center For Investigative Journalism
SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — “Here’s our thistle! This is a rare, very rare plant,” the 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 lake’s shore in Wisconsin’s Kohler-Andrae State Park.
“I shouldn’t be standing on these. These are really sensitive here,” she added.
Although the dunes may not look like much at first glance, to Trochlell’s trained eye, they are rare and fragile enough to be of worldwide concern. The dunes are held together mainly by roots and support several threatened species of plants and insects.
Trochlell, who retired in January after working 37 years at the state Department of Natural Resources, leads the way down a cleared path, away from a beach and through nearby woods, past a security camera posted to a tree. The trail separates the state park from nearby wetlands.
Those wetlands, a nesting ground for various amphibian species, are now under threat because their owner, the plumbing manufacturer Kohler Co., is proposing to build a golf course there.
According to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, Wisconsin has just 10 such sites, all of them small. These sites are distinguished for having both interdunal and ridge-swale wetlands. In the case of the wetlands near Kohler-Andrae State Park, they also happen to be on property belonging to Kohler Co.
Trochlell has surveyed the Kohler property three times as an ecologist for the DNR, most recently after Kohler proposed building a public 18-hole golf course on a 247-acre site next 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, released in January, found that of the 5 acres at the Kohler site deemed home to “very rare” or “imperiled” Great Lakes Ridge and Swale wetlands, about 1.5 acres would have to be filled to build Kohler’s proposed golf course and that other land would be subject to “secondary impacts.”
Trochlell said the DNR completed its environmental assessment before seeing detailed plans from Kohler — essentially going through normal procedures in reverse. She assumed Kohler’s request for a wetland permit, required to build the golf course, would never be granted. She was wrong.
The agency approved the permit for the project, which would also require the removal of as many as 120 acres of forest. Trochlell believes the loss of trees, installation of fertilized turf and other changes would harm the area’s dunes and wetlands.
Trochlell found 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.
Gov. Scott 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. Jim Dick, a spokesman for the DNR, said the agency “makes permit application decisions based on law and sound science.”
Jim Buchholz, who worked for the DNR for more than 36 years, including 28 years as park superintendent at Kohler-Andrae State Park, said in testimony in June that the approval allows “destruction of rare, globally significant wetland areas” and “does not follow the agency’s own wetland preservation standards.”
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 along Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County, and donated nearly half of it for what is now the Kohler-Andrae State Park. The rest of the land is now set aside for a golf course.
The new course will have 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 make up for the loss of the wetlands through programs that allow it to sponsor the restoration or establishments of wetlands elsewhere.
In addition, “All Lake Michigan near shore wetland resources are being avoided, including interdunal wetlands,” the company said in its permit application.
Kohler hopes the project will become one of the top golf courses in the world. A consultant hired by Kohler estimates 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’s property, a site with a house and several storage buildings.
As Buchholz walks through the park he ran for nearly three decades, through sandy dunes and old growth forest, he points out the land that’s to be traded to Kohler. He believes the swap of state park land sets 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.”
Trochlell believes the Kohler Co. plan will let rare and delicate wetlands become overrun by invasive species and polluted by nutrients from fertilizer.
“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.
An archaeological study of the Kohler Co. property found it contains more than 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 encroached on.
Lawsuits filed against the DNR by the environmental nonprofit, Friends of the Black River Forest, have challenged both the issuance of the wetland permit and the swap of state land.
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign database, various top Kohler employees have given $43,500 to Walker’s campaigns since 2009. The Kohler family, including the company chairman, Herbert V. Kohler Jr., is worth $6.8 billion, according to Forbes.
To DNR veterans, there’s nothing new about businesses trying to seek influence with Wisconsin’s environmental agency. 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 and now leads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
He said the Kohler decision sends “a signal to staff 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 matters for the DNR for 34 years, Michael Cain was behind the adoption of some of the strictest wetland laws in the country. In recent years, the state Legislature has reduced some of those protections.
Cain, who retired in 2010, said during his time at the department, staff employees were supported in enforcing the law even in the face of pressure from politicians and “people with money.”
Said Cain: “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.’”