The current controversy over user conflicts and the impact of mountain biking in Manganese Woods has highlighted major problems with the overall planning and subsequent decision-making for certain parks in Milwaukee County. Landscapes of high ecological quality are perhaps most at risk.
Manganese Woods borders the southern Root River Parkway and contains “some of the largest old growth hardwoods in the park system,” as described on the Milwaukee County Parks website.
“The stand is in the southwest corner of the site. Mature northern red oaks and sugar maples provide a dense canopy over the predominant ground flora, including a number of rare plant species. “
The approximately 200 hectare nature reserve is mainly located in Greendale. Some areas extend as far as Franklin. It is immediately west of South 92nd Street and is part of Whitnall Park and across from the golf course. Much of this geologically unmistakable landscape is located in rolling hills, layered rocky outcrops and deep gorges that were shaped by glacier events at least 12,000 years ago, the last ice age. The other significant cultural history of the place includes the largely undocumented presence of indigenous peoples and remnants of later agriculture from the settlement period
The multi-layered history of Mangan Woods once also included horse riding and cross-country skiing trails – going back many decades. The Rock Sports Complex, a relatively new for-profit company and spur of the nationwide Oak Leaf Trail, is now bordered by manganese forests to the south. Around eight residential properties also border the forest.
This conservation area is also crisscrossed by at least four miles of intertwined trails that serve mountain bikers and pedestrians twice. With around ten official and rogue starting points that have no uniform signage or flames, these haphazard paths act as unrestricted paths, much like busy intersections with no traffic signs.
“Intensive exploitation and ever-increasing soil compaction are detrimental to Manganese Woods undergrowth, eroding some areas and endangering the fragile banks of the Root River,” said Dain Maddox, a retired hydrologist and mediator for the US Forest Service who runs the property recently visited. The Root River watershed winds through parts of the counties of Waukesha, Milwaukee and Racine before flowing into Lake Michigan at Racine.
The need for a comprehensive approach
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Parking systems protect land and at the same time offer space for relaxation, solitude and renewal. Mangan Woods’ landscape simbroglios could be a touchstone for any high quality natural landscape managed by Milwaukee County Parks. Several critical policy questions emerged from the recent county board hearings during the Mangan Woods discussions. For example, have we as a community developed a consensus that the highest quality landscapes should be preserved under public administration prior to settlement?
“Milwaukee County is fortunate to have some extraordinary native scenery within 15,000 acres of county parkland,” Stephen McCarthy said this week. As a landscape architect, he worked in public institutions for 35 years and focused on the planning, design, restoration and conservation of natural areas that serve several landscape uses.
McCarthy is currently a landscape architect for the nationally recognized green infrastructure program “GreenSeams” for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District. Previously, he was development and resource manager for the Lake County Forest Preserve, a county system of preserved native landscapes north of Chicago. Along with planning and designing numerous forest reserves, he designed 24 miles of hiking trails for a nationwide system along the DesPlains River that traversed numerous high quality native landscapes.
“Has an overall inventory and assessment of environmental conditions been performed throughout the Milwaukee County Park System? If so, which areas should be protected so that they are not compromised or destroyed by inappropriate use? McCarthy asked. “We cannot make intuitive decisions about possible effects on high quality native landscapes.”
Most people are familiar with the idea that parks improve what is known as the quality of life. Many people are familiar with the newer concept of “Values for ecosystem services. “It was developed and modeled by the US Geologic Survey (USGS). The agency’s website states: “By integrating the natural, geographic, economic and other social sciences, we can better understand how ecosystems provide value to people and how that value can be protected and enhanced.”
“Recent studies have shown that we can actually identify and quantify the economic benefits of each park,” said McCarthy. The landscapes that significantly support economic vitality include forests, prairies and wetlands. However, each park is part of our overall green infrastructure system and therefore a certain level of ecosystem services. This economic contribution can be quantified and classified based on the way it serves air quality, water quality, aquifer replenishment and flood protection. “The simple fact is that natural landscapes work for us day in and day out, promoting health and wellbeing, and having a positive impact on the bottom line of our community,” he said.
Return on Public Investment
The Milwaukee County’s Board of Supervisors is responsible for overseeing the state’s park resources. An essential role for government personnel is to provide relevant and transparent information so that lawmakers can make appropriate decisions. “We know more about the economics of parks and green infrastructure today than we did a decade or two ago,” he said. “As a result, it is important to inform the public about the macroeconomic advantages of parks, especially about nature reserves that are being preserved and those that are used for recreational purposes.”
Public recreational paths are designed for the free and open enjoyment of all people. In particular, in urban and suburban settings, hiking trails are being developed by government agencies, said Peter Harnik. He is the retired founder of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and its statewide ParkScore index. “In general, one or more public authorities own the land used for a trail and set guidelines that regulate its use,” he said. Once a trail or trail system is in place, a governing body can delegate maintenance to park staff while maintaining long-term oversight to ensure that proper management is for the common good, he said.
Milwaukee County Park officials have delegated the construction and maintenance of hiking trails in Manganese Woods to Metro Mountain Bikers, a nonprofit group of volunteers of special interest. According to various reports, this partnership has existed for around 15 to 20 years. The Milwaukee County Parks Mountain Bike Trails website lists the Cone Alpha Mountain Bike Trail, a four-mile, single-lane, narrow trail in Franklin with some steep or rocky sections. There is no mention of the trail being in Mangan Woods. The county page has links to a map of the Metro Mountain Bikers where the mountain bike trail system, located entirely in Mangan Woods, is outrageously renamed “The Rock Bike Park.” Several starting points in the manganese forest are directly accessible from the Rock Sports Complex.
It’s unclear whether Metro Mountain Bikers was responsible for all of the existing trails in Mangan Woods, and whether those trails were based on professional designs developed and monitored by Milwaukee County Parks staff. In any case, in the course of time practically all paths have developed into paths that are shared by bikers and hikers. Many are not labeled, which means that they were created randomly by users. Fat tire marks have been seen in tire or muddy areas on rogue trails and on recent visits. No existing hiking trails are clearly marked and reserved for safe walking and bird watching.
A Milwaukee County Park map of the proposed Manganese Woods trail reconstruction shows many – but not all – of the existing trails and indicates new “priority” trails for bikers and hikers. However, a map is only one part of professional landscaping – not a specific plan. In addition, no narrative has been published describing specific objectives and monitoring of the hiking trail reconstruction project, which began in late 2020. No documents have been published giving details of how such goals could be achieved.
Milwaukee County Parks senior officials did not respond to requests for planning materials, including a “three-season vegetation study” mentioned by Ramsey Radakovich, the department’s operations manager, during park committee hearings. The Wisconsin Open Records Law aims to ensure that the public has access to public records from government agencies at all levels. Wisconsin defines records as any document, regardless of its physical form, created or held by an agency. Supervisor Patti Logsdon recently received an undated study of Manganese Woods trails from a paid consultant and shared it publicly. The document was mentioned in recent hearings of the Radakovich Park Committee as a reference to the redesign of the hiking trails.
The park officials also did not respond to questions about whether signage and path closures will be part of the Mangan Woods reconstruction, and whether a landscape architect developed the design, until this article was published.
Respect and balance different interests
Manganese Woods exists in a complex environmental matrix, Maddox said. It is owned by Milwaukee County, is in other government areas, and is adjacent to other entities. “The fate and delicate balance of this extraordinary, fragile forest depend as much on what the district officials, the neighboring owners and visitors do as it does on the forces of nature. We all have an interest in the future of these forests and this watershed, “he said.” We need to come together in an open public forum and work together to develop a long-term plan for these unique resources that will be shared. “
A Decision / Regulation (21-407) The amendment to Chapter 47 of the Milwaukee County Code of General Ordinances relating to the establishment of trails within the Milwaukee County Parks System, including any changes to designated trails, “passed a 3-2 vote on the Parks, Energy, and Environment Committee. The entire County Board of Will will vote on the resolution at its meeting on April 22nd at 9:00 am Earth Day.
In the long run, the Manganese Woods controversy could spark wide-ranging discussions about the management and protection of all resources within the Milwaukee County Park System. It could also inspire people concerned about the future of any number of old park resources to come together to find a sustainable way forward.
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