Wednesday, March 4, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth 

John Gurda receiving honors in 2013
The growing community anger over Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to delete conservation and architectural protection for Downer Woods -- a beloved nature haven and historical beacon of the UWM campus--   could quickly radiate statewide. 

Legislators in 71 counties outside Milwaukee are only now becoming aware of serpents within the thousand or more deletions and adjustments in Walker’s two year budget proposal. But their own residents are already there in blogs and bothersome questions to local editors and officials. They are worried about their own backyard, from absence of regulation on frac sand mining to manure dumped directly into nearby rivers.

That search for their own hidden  “Downer Woods” problem is engaging citizen researchers, the everyday citizens who more quickly uncovered the assault on Downer Woods.

Their exposure of how Walker was trying to delete laws on the books under Gov. Tommy Thompson stirred noted historian and influential writer John Gurda to comment even ahead of local media, local politicians and UWM’s denial of any involvement.  

"For well over a century, Downer Woods has survived threats from developers, overzealous university administrators and invasive species,” Gurda wrote me.  “It would be a tragedy if this remnant of our ecological past fell victim to a governor who's entirely willing to sacrifice long-term beauty for short-term gain. Scott Walker literally can't see the forest for the trees."

Minutes later on March 3, UWM spoke out to the state citizens.

Tom Luljak speaks for UWM
“UWM did not ask for the changes to state law that remove the legislative protection for the Downer Woods property and buildings,” said Tom Luljak, the vice chancellor of university relations and communications and also a popular moderator on WUWM radio, Milwaukee’s home for NPR. “The University has no plans to develop or sell the Downer property or buildings and is presuming that the current protections for Downer Woods would be maintained by the Public Authority that is being proposed for the UW System.” 

But Walker would appoint the majority of the “Public Authority” under his budget proposal. So the UWM hands are technically tied. Madison holds the purse strings that affect the fate of the “distinguished survivor” -- as Gurda calls the Downer Woods.

Downer Woods is an early crack in the mammoth Walker budget glacier creeping over the state. What precious resource or family heritage is under threat in your town?  In counties west, north and south of Milwaukee, questions are being raised that could turn “Where Is Your Downer Woods?” into an investigative mantra.

Already being discussed are  power grabs involving campus energy plants, friendly greenery suddenly opened up to unwanted retail, wetlands and grassy knolls your kids play on vanishing in shaky land deals as Walker freezes conservation purchases for 13 years, research parks closed, community zones removed from local control,  voucher and charter schools expanded with taxpayer money  regardless of what parents want or children need,  under-reported removal of fiscal oversight on private for-profit colleges.  

Few local citizens, however, have the time and resources of those well funded minions of ALEC and the Walker bureaucrats who concocted so many incursions that can’t be explained away as “drafting errors.”

Artist Terese Agnew
“Small towns and suburbs that relish their independence and thought that voting Republican would secure their status are hardly sacrosanct and in for a surprise,” noted Terese Agnew from her farm workshop in La Farge. The artist who lives in Vernon County was a UWM student before her quilt art landed internationally in prestigious museums and PBS showcase events. “Every community has to now examine the hidden foundation stones that will be removed.”

That is, if Walker’s 2015-17 political platform passes.  Agnew called these monumental policy changes “a belligerent maneuver that doesn't belong in a $68 billion two-year budget.”  

While budget awareness is growing town by town, region by region, local investigations have been sidetracked, some think deliberately, by the unexpected and now dominant right to work (for less) legislation.

“Labor knows how to organize, rally and make noise across the state on RTW even if we know we’ll lose the good fight,” said John Drew, not only a leading figure in the state UAW but a recent UW system regent. “But right next comes the budget items and you’re right,” he said in a phone interview. “The issues are too diffuse and spread around for organizational focus.”

John Drew
These RTW hearings and rallies may  exhaust community fervor and  outrage ahead of the  less centralized  outrage and fervor needed district by district to deal with the radical and questionable budget that lies dead ahead for the legislature.  It’s here that many of Walker’s plans can be derailed.  So, Marathon. So, Green Bay. So, Stevens Point.  Where is your Downer Woods?

Conservation experts are no longer alone in believing Walker is nibbling away piece by piece on the grace notes that made Wisconsin feel special – local control, concern about nature and education, once untouchable elements of neighborly life, the heart and soul of the Wisconsin Idea. So far mainly the conservation insiders and a few independent journalists such as James Rowen in his popular blog have been taking apart the impact step by step, and there is far more to uncover.

Both sides (though don’t expect the Republicans to openly challenge Walker’s machine) are hostile to his budget’s reliance on borrowed money and massive cuts to education, conservation growth and health care. Outspoken Democrats and cautious Republicans in Capitol hallways and lavatories see much of this budget as proof of Walker’s hubris, carelessness with details, focus not on Wisconsin but on his national ambition to be president. It’s a bit pie in the sky to think the  wiser heads in the legislature will yank him back from a cliff of his own making.

But that could also be his game, Drew and other state leaders suggest – Walker chops off 12 inches, the legislature gives back two inches and everyone pretends that’s a good result though maybe a foot should have been added in the first place. 

For now until local communities get their act together, Downer Woods is serving as the state’s  primary teaching moment. It has become more than petty taking of trees, grass and strolling pleasure from his staunchest lefty opponents.  

UWM represents some 28,000 students from across the state and a $1.5 billion impact on the state’s economy.  Hundreds of thousands more for decades have relished Downer Woods, which represents the sanity of escape into nature for all walks of life and politics.

Such enthusiasm permeates the state. Even sportsmen who confess aloud they once supported Walker are ticked off (and if a “righty” is ticked off, imagine what’s happening on the other side, writes Dan Durbin) for shelving citizen involvement in natural resources. 

Reliance on Downer Woods among students and families is well known to UWM. “Many people tell us about their fond memories of playing in Downer Woods when they were kids,” Luljak recalled. “One told me that many years ago he and his family even buried their pet dog there.  Today, our scientists conduct research in the Woods and it is a teaching laboratory for our students.  It is indeed a special place.“

“If you want to take away the shared imagination, the understanding of how we are linked as living creatures, as problem solvers, start by taking away green spaces," said an emeritus associate professor of film studies at UWM, Rob Danielson, in an email. Recalling that a third of student films he supervised were shot in Downer Woods, Danielson pointedly noted, “Green space provides a blank canvas for the creative mind. Grocery stores, offices and dormitory towers cannot do this.“

Like many others, Danielson perceives the Downer Woods deletion as a down payment to Walker’s real estate compadres.  It is an open secret that developers have long been salivating to get their hands on the pristine acreage. In Walker’s world, it seems, woodland silence and natural elements within the bustle of a city cannot be as potent as condos, offices  and retail.  

Luljak emphasizes that UWM has not yet been approached by a commercial developer. But, he concedes, if these changes are adopted, the barrier to direct orders from Madison has been removed.

If you examine the language in just this one tiny Walker’s proposal as Rowen did – and it is buried within massive changes to the University of Wisconsin system that take away $300 million in two years, some $40 million of that from UWM – it’s obvious he opened the door wide for future land grabbers. 

His 2015-2017 budget wording deliberately repudiates step by step laws passed in 1997 when GOP Tommy Thompson was governor and conservation and ecological education was a central concern of the state.

Section 32 specifically deletes any effort by the UWM chancellor “to prepare and implement a Downer Woods natural area management and restoration plan to ensure that . . . the conservation area is managed properly.”  Right now that encompasses 11.1 acres.

It also eliminates any legal provisions designating Downer Woods “as permanently reserved woodlands to set aside exclusively for the purposes of community enhancement and relaxation.” It then deletes that any portion”designated as park and woodland areas to be used by UWM as recreational and aesthetic corridors.” Those could affect 33 acres.

Last and for many most horrible given the architectural history, his law would delete provisions “specifying that the buildings of the former Downer college be preserved and may not be razed without prior approval.” 

His budget is clearing the woods for commerce.

“So short-sighted. I walked Downer Woods with joy for 17 years,” recalled Agnew, who has long been noted for the social insight within her art.  “I can’t imagine the possibility of its being gone. Did you know you can smell quince trees in the woods?  Quince trees!”

This treatment of the land primeval is not accidental. Walker’s budget also freezes land purchases for the next 13 years under the highly regarded Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program
Nor is this Walker’s first time at the nature destroying rodeo. Many recall such  land dealing  even when he was Milwaukee County Executive involving county grounds.  

Generations of families who tramped Downer Woods have long made allowances for population progress. They have fought the battle on town and gown fronts and architectural concerns, forcing UWM to balance the old “natural” building styles with the new “brutality” as some call the more modern designs.  The rolling landscapes, open spaces and walkways have been preserved to make an appealing campus.

Protecting Downer Woods even affected the 1977 building of the Klotsche Center, which is set way back and hardly visible along the Edgewood Avenue stretch of Downer Woods. Approval required special effort to maintain the woods while giving UWM some needed athletic focus. A  sense of community partnership is essential. The vast neighborhood around Downer Woods in Milwaukee and Shorewood includes not only professors and professionals (lawyers, physicians, accountants) but working class families, renters, students and highly educated and politically involved citizens.

Seeking to mesh nature with growth in the original Downer Woods borders of Edgewood and Hartford avenues north and south and Downer and Maryland avenues east and west actually helped UWM push its biggest new developments toward Kenwood Avenue and along the  west end of the campus, expand its dormitories into Riverwest,  encourage retail along North and Oakland avenues and create customers for new restaurants and retail shops running right toward Downtown. Some traffic pressure,  some disputes between partygoers and retirees remain lively,  but the balancing act has also had positive results.  

Walker has sought to deflect criticism of his reduced UW system budget by saying he’s only chopping 13% (ignoring last budget’s $66 million cut), that he is giving  UW more freedom to consolidate and maneuver – and that UW also asked him to eliminate redundancy in regulations. That became his administration’s defense when progressives went ballistic attacking his ill-timed deletion of campus sexual abuse reporting through deans of students, saying such statistical reports are still required by federal law. But by neither expanding nor maintaining how new students or parents learn the campus record of sexual misbehavior – well, that’s hardly just about redundancy. 

Much of the budget is like that – economic or bureaucratic explanations of changes while underneath there are rewards being given and controls removed.

In Downer Woods, no such defense is available. UWM didn’t ask for this.  Nor were the neighbors or the students eager for more Big Macs and Walgreens within a heartbeat of the great mansions of Lake Drive and the center of  aesthetic fever for  urban preservation.

Local officials – none of whom contacted want this – are girding for battle. But they are also waiting for other communities to find out: Where Is Your Downer Woods?

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for and movies at domsdomain.


  1. Thank you for your excellent and thorough (and distressing) analysis. In my own more personal post I asked the question "why Downer Woods?" You have answered it. FYI, mine comes with photos:

  2. So, people of Wississippi, how dya like your governer– his spelling– now?

  3. Thanks for making this threat to Downer and so many other precious places known. There have been brief scares in the past as idiots have mentioned it as a place for parking or dorms but those were easily beaten back by wiser heads. This new threat will take a lot of people contacting their legislators and if need be actually putting their bodies on the line if it looks like bulldozers are on their way. We need to protect the woods.