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Groups want funds for local river projects
Foundation sets July 28 seminar to address issue
By Ed Culhane

Two companies charged with PCB contamination in the Fox River have provided more than $30 million for watershed restoration projects, but so far none are in the Fox Cities.

To date, 17 restoration projects have been approved by state, federal and tribal trustees overseeing funds obtained through a federal Natural Resources Damage Assessment, designed to compensate the public for the lost use or enjoyment of the polluted waterway.

All but two are in the bay of Green Bay or Door County.

Another 54 projects are under review. None of those are in the Fox Cities either, although $20 million to fund them came from Appleton Papers, which has since changed its name to Appleton, and its former owner, NCR.

The Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region is now stepping forward to help local municipalities and conservation groups address the imbalance by proposing area projects for NRDA funding.

A seminar has been scheduled for 2 p.m. July 28 at Heckrodt Wetland Reserve in Menasha where foundation officials will put experts on the NRDA process in the same room with municipal planners, environmentalists and the leaders of area hunting and fishing groups.

"We know there are environmental and municipal groups that have wonderful visions of what can happen with the Fox Cities portion of the river," Curt Detjen, foundation president and chief executive officer, said Thursday. "Some of these projects may now have an opportunity to be funded."

Detjen said the foundation is acting as a facilitator and does not have its own agenda for NRDA funds. "The foundation has a unique ability to convene groups around issues of concern to the community," Detjen said. "The Fox River is important to all of us in this region. There may be some collaborations among businesses and conservation groups that could result from this seminar."

The 17 approved projects will use $9 million of the Appleton Papers money. The remaining $11 million is still available.

Georgia-Pacific Corp., with two plants in Green Bay, also has reached an NRDA agreement with the state Department of Natural Resources.

That project, which awaits federal court approval, involves large-scale land purchases along the west side of Green Bay and is valued at more than $10 million.

The seven companies charged with contaminating the river are being required under federal law to negotiate NRDA settlements with the trustees, a cost the companies will bear in addition to the estimated $300 million to $400 million they will be required to spend to remove tons of PCBs from the 39-mile stretch of the Fox River. PCBs pose a threat to human health and to wildlife.

The cleanup is being managed by the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

NRDA funds are managed by a council of resource trustees representing the DNR, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Oneida and Menominee tribes, and the state of Michigan. Michigan is represented because PCBs from the Fox River have migrated north to contaminate Upper Peninsula coastal waters.

The trustees issued a restoration plan in 2002 that envisioned habitat and fishery projects within a watershed that includes the headwaters of tributaries to the Fox and the bay, a broad geographic area that stretches from Columbia County in central Wisconsin to Michiganís Upper Peninsula. It identifies the lower Fox River - the stretch from Neenah and Menasha through Appleton to Green Bay - as a priority, however.

Bruce Baker, a DNR administrator who sits on the trustee council, said Friday that most of the 17 projects already approved, such as the restoration of the eroded Cat Island chain that once protected the spawning marshes along the southwest shore of Green Bay, have been on the drawing board for more than a decade.

The majority of NRDA funds are to be used to re-establish or preserve wetlands, restore habitat for various fish species, improve water quality or improve fish reproduction. About 10 percent of the funds can be used to develop or improve outdoor recreation facilities on the river or bay.

Other projects range from a study of depleted perch populations in the bay and the possible restoration of wild rice beds on the Menominee reservation to the establishment of sturgeon habitat in Lake Michigan and the reintroduction of the Great Lakes spotted muskie to Green Bay.

"Certainly, early on, when you talk about critical habitat, you are not talking about urban areas," Baker said.

Baker said trustees are negotiating NRDA settlements with other companies, such as P.H. Glatfelter in Neenah. Those settlements could involve projects performed by the companies or cash the trustees can distribute, he said.

While there are certainly habitat and water quality projects that could help restore the Fox Cities portion of the river, especially in Little Lake Butte des Morts, there are also strong local concerns about access to the river, whose banks in the Fox Cities are mostly in private ownership.

John Shillinglaw of the Town of Menasha, a fisherman and member of several area conservation groups, said the town has easements to the river, running between private properties, that are unmarked and unused. Years ago, he said, the town even sold one of its easements so a private homeowner could expand his property.

"Ideally, some of that money should be used to provide public access to the river," Shillinglaw said Saturday.

It wouldnít be too difficult to develop simple docks where children could fish and adults could take in the view, he said.

"Iím talking about just being able to walk down to your river and take a look at it," he said.

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