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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: Jim Meeker

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 revision process.

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.

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