Environmental activists held a rally Thursday outside the Wisconsin State Capitol building to demand Gov. Tony Evers block part of the Kohler-Andrae State Park from becoming a golf course.
A 2018 land-exchange agreement between the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Kohler Co. granted 247 acres within the park for the manufacturing company to build an 18-hole golf course, a rotary and four-lane road. As a result, close to three-quarters of the designated area would be clear cut.
Kohler-Andrae State Park is located near Sheboygan and is renowned for its sand dunes bordering Lake Michigan, according to the DNR. The park’s wetlands and forested areas nurture biodiversity in the area.
Demonstrators from Sierra Club Wisconsin and grassroots group Friends of the Black River Forest (FBRF) called on Evers to overturn this agreement, who has many appointees on the Natural Resources Board, according to Cassie Steiner, a senior campaign coordinator for Sierra Club.
“We are expecting [Evers] to listen to what is now up to over 30,000 people,” said Mary Faydash, an FBRF representative.
FBRF has garnered the support of Wisconsinites through numerous petitions since the land-swap agreement took place.
Sen. Chris Larson and Rep. Darrin Madison, both Democrats from Milwaukee, attended the rally and signed a letter opposing the agreement.
“When folks are silent about their pain, they’ll kill you and say that you loved it. A lot of species are crying for help. And a lot of folks are silent. And that’s why I decided to sign on to the letter,” Madison said.
Larson said the park teaches the importance of land protection and natural resources to younger generations.
"I had my own kids doing the same thing of walking through and showing them the respect and showing them how important and how rare this land, this natural resource really is,” Larson said.
Biodiversity loss and Indigenous displacement build worry
Maureen McCoy, a demonstrator and member of the Sierra Club, worried the land agreement would significantly decrease biodiversity and lead to the destruction of Indigenous burial sites.
The land and shores, which are the traditional homelands of Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Sac and Fox Nations, were taken by the U.S. in land cession treaties throughout the mid-1800s.
“We need to protect those burial sites as part of our efforts to reconcile with the Indigenous peoples of this area,” McCoy said.
Kohler-Andrae State Park is also home to tens of thousands of species, according to FBRF.
Rebecca Gilman, secretary and co-chair for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, said the land is a resting site in spring or fall for thousands of migratory birds, some of which are threatened or endangered.
She said the bird population is steadily decreasing in North America, with a 30% drop since 1970, according to a Cornell University study.
“We have to save this for the birds and for the other wildlife that depend on it,” Gilman said. “Birds are in decline like never before.”
Steiner worried golf course runoff will contaminate water systems provided by Lake Michigan.
The construction on the shore would lead to a “runoff of chemicals into the water which further damages the habitat and the shoreline, which is eroding, too,” Steiner said.
The legal standing behind the agreement
The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the land-exchange agreement in 2020. The FBRF filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin DNR in 2021, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2022 they lacked legal standing to file a lawsuit.
“This has affected environmental groups who are trying to use the legal system to save the environment and it’s affected us as individuals. You have no redress for an agency in your state,” Faydash said.
Still, FBRF and other environmental activist groups continue to fight for the reversal of the land-exchange decision. The Sheboygan County Circuit Court revoked Kohler’s wetland fill permit in 2021 which marked a huge victory, Faydash said.
Currently, the land-exchange decision is under review by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.
“Biodiversity loss is a very important factor in climate change, so the time is now to stop doing this and to let Kohler know that we don’t approve of their plans,” said Rose Both, a Sierra Club member.