Land Use Forums in Bayfield and Ashland
Counties lead to the Bad River Watershed Association
By Dorothy Lagerroos
Silt from the highly-erodable clay
banks of the Bad River enter Lake Superior. Credit:
Northwest Wisconsin, along the shore of Lake Superior,
is frequently called "Godís Country." Views
of the largest Great Lake, calming forest landscapes,
and countless inland lakes and cool-water trout streams
characterize this exquisite part of the country. This
is a place where the "pines outnumber the people,"
and most people want it to stay that way.
However, building permit applications have been doubling
every year as city dwellers nearing retirement discover
the quality of life here. Some years ago an ad hoc group
of citizens mapped out a strategy for protecting the landscape
in Bayfield and Ashland Counties in the face of anticipated
development. Starting in Bayfield County, which was under
the greatest development pressure, the group identified
planning and zoning as key measures of the strategy.
Land use and zoning ordinances are the bed-rock documents
for an involved citizenry, spelling out the "rules
of the game." Without such documents, future citizen
involvement in protecting the landscape of a county is
simply an ad hoc exercise in frustration. Bayfield County
had no land-use plan, and zoning was not well enforced.
Ashland County was worse off, with a zoning ordinance
that dated from 1934, and as in Bayfield County, no land-use
plan and no plans to plan.
Recognizing the need to increase citizen involvement
in planning for future development and to educate citizens
about tools and techniques available to citizens and to
policy makers to preserve the beauty of our area, the
Ashland Bayfield County League of Women Voters conducted
several educational forums to promote sound land-use planning
and zoning. The Ashland Bayfield County League of Women
Voters was founded in 1955, and its mission as a non-partisan
political organization is to encourage the informed and
active participation of citizens in government.
Soon after the League of Women Voters had conducted their
educational forums, Bayfield County announced plans to
revise its shoreland-zoning ordinance. Seizing the opportunity
to encourage citizen involvement in the process, the League
applied for and received a GLAHNF grant of $2000 to conduct
a public-education program for the duration of the ordinance
With grant funding we published newsletters and held
forums discussing key issues and outlining the revision
timeline. The newly formed Bayfield County Lakes Forum,
an association of lake organizations, shared its large
mailing list of lake property owners who belonged to lake
associations with us. The education project brought visibility
to the revision process and credibility to both our organizations.
The process culminated in a strengthened lakeshore ordinance
for Bayfield County.
Fresh from this success, the League turned its attention
to Ashland County. Not only was Ashland County void of
planning, there was no constituency to support either
planning or upgrading existing land-use ordinances. The
League decided that developing such a constituency was
a top priority.
With the help of a second GLAHNF grant, the League held
two preliminary programs on the need for resource planning
and attracted a handful of citizens. The Bad River Tribe,
whose reservation is in Ashland County at the mouth of
the Bad River, suggested that forming a watershed association
might be a way to attract other individuals. This was
a brilliant strategy, as it could attract people to something
they valued-namely the high quality natural resources-rather
than something they might be critical or suspicious of-namely
planning and zoning.
The drawback to this strategy, however was that most
watershed associations form around a highly visible problem-poor
water quality, industrial pollution, or dense and inappropriate
development. We had none of the above, although all were
possible in the relatively near future if we didnít take
steps. Nevertheless, we needed to find a way to excite
people into action without an immediate crisis.
The League began the watershed organization project by
inviting professional resource managers from state, federal,
county, tribal and environmental agencies to several meetings
to identify problems, resources and common strategies.
These meetings gave us a clearer picture of the potential
functions for a watershed group. With the help of these
professionals and GLAHNF, the League published four newsletters
about the Bad River watershed and sent them to the 400
people on our mailing list to help stimulate interest
in the resources and concerns facing the watershed.
Subsequently, an interim board of directors made up of
League members, a few agency representatives and some
citizens who had been identified earlier was formed to
draft a mission statement, structure, and by-laws, and
to name the first the first citizen board of directors
of the Bad River Watershed Association.
The first "real" board, elected in late 2002,
includes town and county elected officials, farmers, timber
harvesters and environmentalists. The group not only inherited
the documents from the interim board (which of course
they were invited to revise, and did), but they also inherited
the enthusiasm and momentum coming from two years of planning
and discussion, including about $15,000 in funding through
grants made to partner organizations for the starting
of the watershed association.
The mission of the Bad River Watershed Association (BRWA)
is to promote the healthy interconnection between the
human and natural communities of the watershed by involving
all citizens in maintaining the integrity of the watershed
for future generations. The purpose of the BRWA is to:
· Protect the high quality of the natural resources
of the watershed
· Promote community-wide responsible management
and use of public and private lands and waters
· Develop a full knowledgeable base for a deeper
understanding of regional systems, and the effects of
human activity on those systems
· Serve as a pro-active community forum for education,
coordination, and decision-making affecting the resources
of the watershed.
Today, after less than one year of "official"
existence, the new Bad River Watershed Association is
publishing a newsletter, has conducted a land-owner survey,
has recruited and trained volunteers to begin water-quality
monitoring, has purchased water quality monitoring equipment,
has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and is planning
its first annual membership meeting and watershed fair.
To assist in managing its early growing pains, the BRWA
is drawing from the experience and guidance of the River
Alliance of Wisconsin, who will be conducting a board
training session this summer.
Our ultimate goal in this project was to promote sound
land-use planning and zoning in Bayfield and Ashland counties.
A secondary goal was to foster strong citizen participation
in the planning process. With the efforts of the League,
Bayfield County has strengthened its shoreland-zoning
ordinance, Ashland County has decided to embark on land
use planning, has recently chosen a consultant, and has
applied for state "smart growth" funds. The
formation of the BRWA will help to serve as a voice for
the watershed and to encourage citizen involvement in
protecting the watershed from future environmental threats.
We were able to accomplish much more with the funds available
than we had originally thought.