MADISON, Wisc. – Conservation groups are sounding an alarm that a land swap between the state and a private company along Lake Michigan’s shores could set a harmful precedent for state parks and conserved lands, and are asking Gov. Tony Evers for help.
Members of the Friends of the Black River Forest and the Sierra Club gathered at the state Capitol Thursday afternoon, asking Evers to block a land swap that would transfer five acres of Kohler-Andrae State Park to Kohler Co. as a part of their plans to build a private luxury golf course.
The groups say the land swap could damage sensitive conserved lands that feature natural dunes, wetlands and sensitive species along Lake Michigan’s shores — a type of area that is now rare due to centuries of development.
Kohler Co., known for its high-end plumbing fixtures, wants to build another championship-level golf course on 247 acres along Lake Michigan, just south of Sheboygan and north of Kohler-Andrae State Park. It already owns Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, which have hosted major events like the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup. The courses have made the area a tourism destination for golf enthusiasts.
The land swap is the latest point of contention between the private company and conservation groups, who worry that the golf course will damage ecosystems along Lake Michigan’s shoreline and take away from park visitors’ experiences.
Mary Faydash, president of a local nonprofit Friends of the Black River Forest, said the groups are asking Evers to put a stop to the land swap and consider the importance of conserving such important land along the Great Lakes.
“We’re not expecting him to be a scientist, or an attorney or even a conservationist. We’re expecting him to listen to what is now up to over 30,000 people who are saying, please end this land exchange agreement, which was based on illegal and wrong DNR procedures,” Faydash said.
Here’s what to know about the land swap:
Kohler-Andrae State Park, one of last natural areas along Lake Michigan
Kohler-Andrae State Park is actually two state parks — Terry Andrae State Park and John Michael Kohler State Park — that are managed together as one. Kohler Co. donated the land for John Michael Kohler State Park to honor the company’s founder.
Kohler-Andrae State Park is located in the Town of Wilson a few miles south of the city of Sheboygan in between the Black River and Lake Michigan. It’s one of the last remaining natural areas along Lake Michigan’s shoreline and is home to sand dunes, beaches, forests and wetlands. More than 400,000 people visit the state park year-round.
Land swap will change the look of the park
In 2018, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources under then-Gov. Scott Walker agreed to give Kohler a five-acre wetland plus a two-acre easement inside the state park. In exchange, the state park would receive a nine-acre plot west of the park.
The DNR has said previously that the land exchange is a better deal for the state and will provide more usable property. The land that DNR is giving up has been independently appraised at $59,700. The land Kohler Co. is giving up includes a building, which the DNR has previously said would be used to house seasonal workers. It has been appraised at $295,000.
Part of the land swap would include planned changes to the park itself. For instance, the two-acre easement at the park entrance would be converted to a four-lane road that includes a roundabout to direct traffic to the golf course. The park entrance would be moved to the current exit.
Faydash said she believes the boggy area was chosen because it was undeveloped without park benches or trails. But it’s an important spot for birds and wildlife, she said. As a part of the company’s plans that area is slated to house a 22,000-square-foot maintenance facility.
Faydash worries that giving away state park land to private companies will set a bad precedent, fearing that the fate of state park land will depend on whoever is governor at the time.
Whistling Straits’ Straits Course in Wisconsin (Courtesy of Destination Kohler)
Conservationists worry about impacts to birds, wildlife, visitor experience
While many of the changes will happen outside the park boundaries, opponents say the impacts will infiltrate into the park boundaries.
For instance, the diesel trucks that will be present during construction may worsen air quality and the pesticides needed to maintain the golf course may impact wildlife, Faydash said. Noise pollution and traffic during tournaments and noise pollution can also affect wildlife and visitors’ experiences in the park, she said.
The environmental impacts will be especially acute for birds, Faydash said. The state park is a popular spot for birders as more than 150 bird species are known to live in or migrate through the park.
Rebecca Gilman, the secretary and co-chair of the conservation committee of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, emphasized that birds would struggle to migrate long distances without land like the Kohler-Andrae Park.
“Thousands of migratory birds use this land as a stopover site every year in the spring in the fall, and hundreds of species of birds use the woods of that area that would be cut down for a golf course for nesting and for essential habitat,” Gilman said. “We have to save this for the birds and for the other wildlife that depend upon it.”
Supporters of golf course tout economic benefit
Supporters of the golf course say that having another golf course could bring economic benefit to the area, especially if tournaments were hosted there. They have emphasized the prestige of Kohler golf courses, pointing out that Whistling Straits hosted the 2021 Ryder Cup.
The course would also bring jobs and investment, supporters say.
Kohler has said it will initially invest $25 million for the new course and has touted the economics of the project, including more than 220 new full-time jobs.
Years-long legal battles between Kohler, conservation groups and neighbors
Kohler’s push for a golf course has resulted in a years-long battle between the private company, conservation groups and neighbors of the park.
Friends of the Black River Forest challenged the state’s decision to allow the land swap, but in 2022 the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the non-profit had no legal standing to challenge the land swap.
In 2020, the Supreme Court sided with Kohler on another dispute related to the golf course project, upholding the annexation of 250 acres by the City of Sheboygan to avoid a possible denial of a special use permit from the Town of Wilson.
Milwaukee lawmakers weigh in on the land swap
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, shared memories of camping at Kohler-Andrae, and sharing the park with his nephews and eventually his children, who enjoy walking on the boardwalk across the sand.
“It’s time to undo the mistakes of the past and protect Kohler Andre State Park from harmful unnecessary development that will forever change our state’s landscape and change diminish its natural beauty,” he said during the rally.
Rep. Darrin Madison, D-Milwaukee, also spoke at the rally on behalf of the land and animals that call the portion of land inside the park home.
“When we allow corporations to be able to take green spaces away from native flora and fauna from all of the species that deserve a right to habitate land that was there before we’ve even considered occupying that land,” he said. “A lot of our species are crying for help. And a lot of folks are silent.”
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