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Wetland meeting draws crowd, discussion limited by time
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Gays Mills Economic Development Association’s Julia Henley led a meeting to discuss development options for the wetland, locally referred to as the Cutoff Slough, which is located on the northern edge of the village near Highway 131.

The meeting, held on Saturday, Dec. 6, filled the boardroom at the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center, which is located adjacent to the wetland area.  Henley, a GMEDA board member, was unable to facilitate the completion of the agenda after the initial introductions took longer than anticipated.

The time allowed by the two-hour meeting was sufficient only for an introduction of each person in the room, a short lecture on the importance and goals of economic development planning and brand development by Henley, and a presentation by Tracey Hames of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association on the function and form of wetlands.

Unaddressed due to lack of time was a statement of any specifics on development proposals by the GMEDA committee on which Henley serves, the Gays Mills Trails And Wetlands Advisory Group. Also not discussed were a collection of development suggestions by attendees in response to either those proposals or the information presented by Hames.

Henley stressed that she was running the meeting and participating in the investigation of development possibilities as a volunteer.

The Gays Mills Economic Development Association is an independent group with nine members that meets monthly to discuss and develop economic development strategies. The organization is not a committee of the village board, nor does the village board have oversight of their activities.

Board members of the organization are Henley, Jerry Raha (Chairperson), Rick Busch, Steve Mickelson, Ritchie Stevenson, and Gays Mills Village Clerk Dawn McCann. Non-board members of the group are Gays Mills Village Trustee Ed Block and Kickapoo Culinary Center Director Brad Niemcek.

Henley is also the former economic development and flood recovery coordinator of Gays Mills. The paid position was funded through flood recovery grants.

The village clerk serves on the GMEDA board by their request to answer questions about village ordinances and perspectives, according to McCann. She stated she has not been attending the monthly meetings recently.

The discussion of wetland development options at GMEDA was a continuation of previous public discussion, according to Henley.

“I have a long history in environmental action, activism, making things happen on the environmental side. I also work in economic development,” Henley told those gathered for the meeting, before asking them several times to set aside their anger and to be respectful of the meeting.

“There had been talk about a boardwalk to connect Gays Mills, a trail along (Highway) 131 to connect the historic and mercantile districts,” Henley said. “And let me point out this was incorrectly reported recently. There was in fact grant money to build that. It was basically turned down. The money went away because a few people turned up and weren’t happy. It doesn’t matter that the rest of the community wants it, needs it now.

“There is a plan, there’s an idea, to connect all areas of the town, non-motorized,” Henley continued. “It would be a wonderful asset.”

Henley listed other ideas discussed by GMEDA, including a viewing deck behind the village hall and wetland health and use, as well as the possibility of making the pond deeper. She also stressed that the economy of the village was larger than the residences contained within the village boundaries.

Henley then asked those present to sign in with their name and email address for future communications.

“We will use your time here as volunteer time and leverage it for some grant money,” Henley said.

Some attendees made comments on their concerns, while introducing themselves. While most said they came for more information and an interest in wetland conservation, some took the time to raise specific concerns.

Robin Babb and Mary Murphy-Babb expressed concern over development planning involving private lands occurring without the landowners being asked to participate at the outset. The Babbs own property on which part of the wetland is situated.

Robin Babb also expressed his concern over the decision making and planning of any proposal process, noting that the community that would bear responsibility for the long-term cost of a project should be making the decision on any development.

“My concern is that… the local economy is very weak,” said Peter Knapik.

Knapik went on to say that he saw tourism as the best venue for bringing money to the economy, though after having been involved in the effort to develop a trail the length of the river, he was unsure that it was a plan he saw going anywhere at the moment.

“I would love to see some community embrace the idea of a trail system that would connect it to another community,” Knapik said.

“My personal perspective, living in this community the short time that I have, is recognizing that fragmentation includes more than the physicality,” said Rachel Jovi, a new homeowner in the community and the regional small business consultant for Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation.

Jovi went on to referencing the need for a safe path to connect the older and new portions saying she hoped “we are able to drill down and figure out how to do that.”

“All of this is so hard and I understand the frustration of anyone who has come to meeting after meeting,” said Edie Ehlert.

Ehlert is a former resident of Gays Mills, who now lives between Mt. Sterling and Ferryville. She is also a founder and board member of the Crawford Stewardship Project.

“I have to say I have been through multiple upon multiple meetings, as so many people here have been,” Ehlert said. “And it only really works when people can look at one another and recognize that the divergent opinions are valuable. This is everyone’s volunteer time here.”

Another former resident, Jack Knight, expressed a desire to hear more specifics on the proposals. He also suggested that wetland developments here might dovetail well with the State of Wisconsin’s wetland restoration and remediation program goals.

Knight noted that the impact on wetlands from dredging, either positive or negative, was dependent on its purpose and extent. If done properly under the right circumstances, it had the potential to improve a wetland, he said.

Sara Gibbs, a resident who relocated out of the floodplain, cautioned that building any sort of structure, be it a walkway or viewing deck, would be subject to the impacts of flooding.

“Maintenance is where the money is spent,” Sara Gibbs said. “It is public, therefore the village will be liable. The structures, etc., they will be destroyed. I am very concerned about the wetlands. They need to be left alone. They are doing what the wetlands need to do.”

Sara Gibbs attempted to bring up the Gays Mills Mercantile Center, when Henley cut her off to say it was not part of the discussion.

Henley also noted in response to concerns expressed by John Gibbs that the trail discussion with GMEDA’s Gays Mills Trails And Wetlands Advisory Group was for repair of the trail bed and possible installation of culverts.

“Being focused on protecting what we have is vital,” said Kate Vereschagin, a Gays Mills resident and former village board member.

Vereschagin went on to say that she likes the idea of a trail connecting Gays Mills to other communities, but that everyone needs to be on board for it to happen.

“If there is a good reason to do a little dredging, that is proven and true and forward motion, that’s great. If it would be destructive,” Vereshagin said and then paused. “But the only way we are going to know that is if we educate ourselves.”

Jack Knowles spoke in favor of some form of development of the wetlands as an educational resource, saying it was impossible for children to learn about nature from “a cement pond and plastic playground equipment.”

“I think Julia’s (Henley) efforts as an educator over the years, and by the way in all fairness, I rent office space to Julie, so know her personally, and we have had discussions about the issues involved here,” Knowles said. “And one of the main goals is to educate and expose young people to the wonders of nature, which I believe is the number one way to maintain and continue with the natural areas.”

Tracy Hames of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association offered a Wetlands 101 orientation on resource issues relating to wetlands.

“A lot of what we do is working with local wetlands protection and care, promoting wetlands as solutions to local planning,” said Hames.

Hames identified the wetlands habitats for those gathered – shrub carr, sedge meadow, riparian wetlands, meadows, floodplain forest, beaver-created and ox-box slough.

The different wetland forms are found in different areas of the watershed. Gays Mills is located in the lower-middle section of the Kickapoo Watershed, an area typically hosting riparian and shrub carr habitats.

Healthy wetlands function to capture and slow the flow of water, Hames explained. The portion of the watershed Gays Mills inhabits, is that whose function is to reduce the energy of water flow.

Important to that are healthy side channels, where you will typically find a lot of activity, Hames continued, including a lot of dead wood debris.

Healthy wetlands help reduce erosion resulting in cleaner water. They reduce flood impacts, sometimes quite dramatically. They produce a more diverse plant and animal life. They provide important fish habitat. Wetlands also help protect channel structure of the river and the creeks that feed it, by reducing the scouring effect of floods.

Hames noted that the Kickapoo River has been changed over the last two hundred years by human activity, much of it resulting from wetland loss.

He identified wetland loss causes as field tiling (drainage), dams, development, roads and culverts, removal of debris (cleaning), and extermination of beavers.

“Up to two-thirds of the water in a river is flowing in the ground,” Hames explained. “When you remove obstructions, water is pulled (from the soil) to the channel with a faster flow.”

Restoring wetlands has multiple beneficial impacts. In addition to reducing flood impacts, it also benefits native species by recreating conditions that allow them to successfully compete with invasive species. He went on to point out that we are spending significant money and time fighting invasive species.

“So I have to talk about these guys,” said Hames as he brought up a slide of a beaver. “Beavers are critical to watershed health, especially in the upper portions of the watershed. Beavers are often the ones creating the wetlands that help capture water, letting it soak into the ground.”

Hames noted that they are critical to trout habitat, but they have been largely removed.

“They are a keynote species,” Hames said.

Beaver dams not only hold backwater, they help capture sediment, keeping it from washing into the waterways.

In the case of the Kickapoo, any watershed impact affects approximately half a million acres, Hames noted. He showed a topographical map showing the intense convolution of the Kickapoo watershed.

“Those are mini watersheds within watersheds,” said Hames.

More specific to Gays Mills, Hames noted that there is a physical narrowing of the landscape directly above and below the village. That creates physical impediments that help hold water back, creating wetlands above the points of impeded flow.

With the end of Hames presentation, Henley noted that the time allotted for the meeting was up. Since the agenda had not been completed, she told those assembled that she would recommend that the GMEDA continue to facilitate discussion of connecting housing in the new development to the historic district and to the Kickapoo Bottoms, as well as developing programming that would protect the wetlands through educational efforts.

“I would like to see an advisory committee formed,” Henley said. “We will start with you people. Hopefully, we can come up with a recommendation to go to the board and say this diverse group of people, educated, concerned passionate people, would like to see this happen so we can get buy-in, get it funded and make things happen.”