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Cynthia A. Denny: Despite legacy of conservation, Kohler eyes golf course on precious land

Cynthia A. Denny: Despite legacy of conservation, Kohler eyes golf course on precious land

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Mary Faydash, co-founder of Friends of the Black River Forest, has been fighting the proposal to build a golf course on and near Wisconsin’s Kohler-Andrae State Park for four years. “What’s motivated me is incredible corruption,” Faydash says. “Billionaires feel they can run roughshod over not only our rights, but our health.” She was photographed at Kohler-Andrae on Oct. 11, 2018.

Martin Pattison and John Michael Kohler were two extraordinary men who sought to preserve Wisconsin’s natural resources.

Both developed lucrative companies at the turn of the century. Both married extraordinary women and founded families. The homes they built are now historic landmarks. And land they owned was donated for use as state parks.

But the gifts that one of them gave faces an uncertain future.

In the late 19th century Pattison, an iron mining tycoon, built the 42-room Pattison House in Superior. In 1917, when he learned of plans to build a “power dam” on the Black River that would have destroyed his beloved Big Manitou Falls, he secretly bought up 660 acres from landowners along the river to stop the project, donating the land for a state park.

Improvements were made in 1935, and the park and waterfalls are still an attraction today. Pattison’s former home in Superior is currently the Fairlawn Mansion and Museum, an affordable county museum that highlights its architecture and design.

Compare that to the legacy of John Michael Kohler. A former mayor of Sheboygan, he turned his father-in-law’s ironworks into what later became Kohler Company, primarily known for its plumbing products. Grand civic and business enterprises have long been part of the Kohler legacy in Sheboygan County, including an entire town named for the company.

In 1966, Kohler donated 280 acres of land on Lake Michigan to the state Department of Natural Resources. This was merged with Terry Andrae State Park to the south to create Kohler-Andrae State Park.

Since then, Wisconsin has invested in the park’s campgrounds, picnic areas, trails and roads. Improving the park’s facilities and programs is an ongoing effort. And yet, the master plan that was developed to “assure that future property management and development plans would be consistent with the needs of park visitors while protecting the park’s natural resources” has never been completed.

Now the Kohler Co. has proposed building a golf course on 247 acres of land adjacent to the park that includes rare dunes and the last remaining stand of old-growth forest on the Lake Michigan shore. It wants to use five acres of park land in the southern portion of the park for a maintenance storage facility, for which it traded nine acres to the DNR. In 2018, the DNR approved the swap.

But Mary Faydash, a spokesperson for Friends of Black River Forest, has said that the land “is so ecologically significant and it was left in its natural state for the public to enjoy, for recreation, study and viewing wildlife in their natural habitat.”

She and others say that this rare piece of coastal landscape is the wrong place for a golf course. 

In late May, a Sheboygan County judge denied Kohler Co. a wetland permit for the project, which Friends of Black River Forest have opposed. The project also needs a master plan amendment from the DNR to proceed. It should not be granted. Opponents are calling for a complete review of the project and its potential impacts.

The descendants of John Michael Kohler should rise to the great spirit of philanthropy found in Terry Andrae and Martin Pattison, and not stubbornly persist in a plan that can only harm their family’s legacy.

Cynthia A. Denny is a member of the Sierra Club-Wisconsin Chapter Lands Team and has served on the executive boards for Sierra Club-California and the Cal-Nevada Regional Conservation Committee. This column was produced and distributed by Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine.

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