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Editorial: When the future is now
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The first step in any successful operation is good planning. Two recent announcements in that regard bode well for the future of Wisconsin's environment and for smart and successful growth.

The first was made by the state Department of Natural Resources, which released a report listing 228 places across Wisconsin that should be preserved for future generations. The list includes such treasures as the Milwaukee River, the Bong grassland in Racine County, the Blue Hills in Rusk County and the upper Chippewa River.

The idea was to identify those areas most important for meeting Wisconsin's conservation and recreational needs over the next 50 years. The "green print," as one DNR official called it, does not say the parcels are necessarily off-limits to development but simply that these are the places the state should try to protect.

That's a point developers can appreciate as much as environmentalists (not that the two are mutually exclusive). "If the environment goes down the tube, so does real estate," said Tom Larson, director of land use and environmental affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association. Of course he's right. And that is especially true in a state with Wisconsin's rich environmental heritage.

For their part, environmentalists appreciate the sheer size of the task at hand. "We can't put the whole burden on the DNR," said Derek Johnson, director of habitat protection for the Wisconsin chapter of the Nature Conservancy. "It will take an incredibly diverse melting pot of strategies." As well as an equally diverse melting pot of developers, environmentalists, local and state officials and ordinary citizens working together to get the job done.

But the DNR has taken the first important step by creating a solid list with which all those groups can work.

The other good first step has been suggested by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, which wants to study water needs in the southeastern portion of the state.

Studying those needs is critical. As development continues to put pressure on water supplies, there is a danger of seriously weakening area aquifers and other sources. Matching potential developments with adequate sources of water is important lest the sewer wars of the past become the water wars of the future.

There are some things that should be off-limits. Lake Michigan water, for example, should not be diverted over the subcontinental divide that runs through Waukesha County. As required by international treaty, the waters of the Great Lakes should remain in the lakes' geological basin.

SEWRPC has not suggested such a diversion, but it did call for an analysis of the laws governing diversion. We're not sure why that would be necessary. We also wonder, with all due respect to SEWRPC, whether it is the right agency to conduct such a study and whether participating counties will be willing - especially in these tight times - to put up their portion of the $1 million cost of the three-year study.

Still, water issues are only going to become more contentious and more critical to development in the near future. It's important that a coherent, regional approach be created to deal with them. And the good people at SEWRPC are to be commended for suggesting the first step in developing one.

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