Yahara River Trail 2 (copy)

This aerial view shows part of the Lower Yahara River Trail where it crosses a bridge between Upper Mud Lake, right, and Lake Waubesa. 

The thousands of drivers who jam the Madison area's South Beltline every day are undoubtedly oblivious of why it is that the six-lane highway traverses a nearly mile-long bridge as it passes over Mud Lake Marsh and the Yahara River just south of the city of Monona.

Therein lies a story of how a then relatively new federal law helped save what today is a valued wetland — a law that Donald Trump's administration, hellbent on eviscerating environmental safeguards, now wants to weaken.

It's been nearly 40 years since the location of the South Beltline was the hottest issue in town. By the 1970s, the old four-lane beltline between the John Nolen interchange on the west and I-90 on the east (now mostly known as Broadway) had become hopelessly clogged and dangerous. Horrific accidents happened with regularity, all too many resulting in fatalities. People and local governments along the highway were demanding something be done.

But, the state Department of Transportation's plans to solve the problem included moving the Beltline south of its existing route, filling in more than 71 acres of marsh on both sides of the Yahara River and building a relatively short bridge span across the river.

The plans were met with outrage from those who saw filling in a large portion of Mud Lake Marsh as a huge environmental disaster. The marsh was one of the last remaining stormwater filters, especially for Lakes Waubesa and Kegonsa and the southern Yahara watershed.

In those days, Wisconsin had a state office called the public intervenor, a position that served as a watchdog over governmental decisions affecting the environment. Then-Attorney General Bronson La Follette appointed a young attorney named Kathleen Falk to the post, the same Kathleen Falk who went on to become Dane County executive and most recently served in President Barack Obama's administration.

When the state Legislature gave the green light to the DOT's plan to fill in a significant piece of the marsh, Falk "intervened," citing the then relatively new National Environmental Policy Act as her authority to demand alternatives to degrading the already fragile wetland. Department of Natural Resources Secretary Buzz Besadny got involved, too, invoking Wisconsin's own version of the national act.

In the end, the DNR and the DOT compromised on the Beltline we know today. Instead of destroying 71 acres with fill, the compromise reduced the loss to less than 21 acres. The DOT agreed to restore those marshland acres elsewhere along the route, helping maintain wildlife habitat and natural plant growth.

The wetland has become even more important today in the face of climate change and rising water levels along our chain of lakes.

But, the Trump administration sees that all as an impediment to big construction projects where federal money is involved, like highways and pipelines. Requiring thorough analysis of possible environmental damage and allowing citizen input takes too much time and wastes money as far as Trump's people are concerned.

The senior director of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out that roughly 95% of federal projects are not affected by the law, but in the cases that are — like Madison's South Beltline — the consequences need to be considered.

As the NRDC's Sharon Buccino said, "Don't let the president turn back the clock five decades to when the government was inclined to give big industry a pass and let the people pay the price."

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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