The Bold Grab of Kohler (Part I)

The DNR is giving away your state parkland so Herb Kohler Jr. can build another golf course

On the shores of Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County, Kohler-Andrae State Park – also known as Terry Andrae or “the Dunes” — is peaceful and glorious on a windswept October morning.  An RV and a couple of cars pull into the visitors center parking lot, where I sit crammed into the front seat of Mary Faydash’s Mini Cooper taking notes.  The tourists have big smiles on their faces.  The air temperature is around fifty degrees, but these people are nature lovers.  They’re here for the beauty.

I wonder how park visitors will react when the they pass a 22,500 sq. ft. golf-course maintenance facility on their way into Terry Andrae?  Or when the quiet stretch of road bounded by wetlands that now leads into the park becomes a busy rotary?

It won’t have quite the same vibe.

Those are the plans Kohler Company has for Terry Andrae.  Kohler wants to develop a golf course on land own by the company north of the park.  That in itself is a problem, since the Kohler property contains rare “ridge and swale” wetlands that experts call “globally significant.”

But Kohler also wants a piece of Terry Andrae to locate the entrance and a maintenance facility for what would be the newest of three swank Kohler golf clubs in Sheboygan County.  Mary Faydash is one of the leading lights of Friends of the Black River Forest, a small but dedicated Sheboygan County group that has filed suit to stop the proposed golf course.

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has supported Kohler’s plans for a new golf course, giving the company everything it asked for, including a “land swap,” in which the state trades ten acres of land in Terry Andrae to Kohler in exchange for a few unwanted acres owned by the company.  (Kohler’s other choice was to locate the entrance on the land it already owns.)

The way Faydash describes it, the DNR said, “‘We would like to take these parcels of land out of the state conservation inventory because it’s no longer needed for conservation purposes.’  That was the only way they could get the land free to give it to Kohler.”  In exchange, says Faydash, Kohler offered land that is inaccessible and “not prime” because it “had been bulldozed.”  Kohler, she says, “made a deal with DNR to give them those 10 acres in exchange for land they want in the park.”

And that’s just one of the problems the Friends have with this deal.

Crucially, there’s the permitting.  Faydash contends that the DNR was working with the Kohler Company for four years, with the public largely unaware, before Kohler even applied for a permit to build the golf course.  “When we read [DNR’s] final EIS (Environmental Impact Statement),” Faydash says, “there were so many problems, we decided we had to file suit to have the permit over-turned.” The DNR, she says, “misleads, omits, and diminishes impacts.”

A DNR spokesperson contacted me to say the agency is unable to comment on the Kohler-Andrae case due to pending litigation.

The Friends’ attorney, Christa Westerberg of Pines Bach in Madison, says they are challenging two decisions of DNR: the decision to issue a permit for a golf course on the rare interdunal ridge and swale wetlands on the Kohler property; and the decision to swap a section of the park for land owned by the company.

According to Westerberg, the land swap challenge has been “filed and put on ice” in Sheboygan Country circuit court while the Friends await a decision by an administrative law judge on the wetlands permit and the DNR’s environmental impact statement (EIS), which forms the basis for the permitting.  The hearing was held last June.  A decision is expected sometime this fall.

Ridge & Swale Wetlands Need Protection

According to the DNR Web site, “dry ridges and wet swales” are caused by wave action along the coast of Lake Michigan.  “In between each ridge caused by the withdrawing waves is the wetland, the swale,” explained Steve Leonard, executive director of The Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor.

The Ridges Sanctuary is a 1600-acre nature preserve and land trust, home to one of the few remaining interdunal ridge and swale wetlands in the world. Leonard explained that these wetlands are “globally significant” because of being “formed by the movement of Lake Michigan over the past 1100 years.” Ridges and swales are critical to protect, Leonard said, because they tell the story of the Great Lakes over time.

Ridge and swale wetlands, like the ones on the Kohler property, are threatened because of “all the development” taking place in the Great Lakes region, Leonard said.

In fact, Leonard told me, there are only 95 examples of interdunal ridge and swale wetlands left.  “And 70 of them are in Michigan.  The remaining 25 are spread through five states and Canada.”

Why it Matters

The threat to the wetlands on Kohler’s land comes at a time when the Wisconsin’s wetlands, most of which are in private hands, are particularly vulnerable. Last March, the state legislature passed Act 183, which opened the way for formerly protected state wetlands to be developed. According to Tracy Hames, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, 80 percent of Wisconsin’s wetlands are located on private property. The Wisconsin legislature’s action gives property owners broad latitude to deploy the backhoes.

However, as Hames explained, so-called “isolated” wetlands are critically important in preventing floods, improving water quality, reducing erosion, supporting rare plants, and providing habitat for trout and waterfowl.

For its part, Kohler insists it is doing everything possible to maintain the integrity of the site – while turning it into a premier golf facility.  A Kohler Company Web site called www.proposedgolfcourse.com states that the company has taken a “balanced approach” in order to “reduce wetland impact, provide protection for wildlife and habitat and help remove invasive species.”

Destination Kohler, Kohler Company’s hospitality division, already operates two golf clubs, Black Wolf Run at the American Club, and Whispering Straits on Lake Michigan in Sheboygan, which will host the 2020 Ryder Cup. Both are 36-hole courses. The company also owns a golf club in St. Andrews, Scotland called The Old Course Hotel.

The proposed course, like Whispering Straits, will be designed by famed golf course designer Pete Dye. Mary Faydash, who has never met him, claims the 79-year-old Herb Kohler Jr. wants the new course to add to his “legacy.”

Herb Kohler’s legacy is already considerable. Besides employing 2,400 Sheboygan County residents, Kohler Company has established a famed art center and supported numerous civic causes. Kohler is known as a socially progressive company that touts its vision of a “sustainable” future through its plumbing products.

Compared to, say, Foxconn, with its hideous environmental and labor relations track record, the Kohlers can be seen as the good guys. Nevertheless, they are also the guys with the money. And in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, the money gets what it wants.

So the Friends of the Black River Forest have had to develop a lot of tenacity in putting nature first. “As a grassroots group, we’ve held this golf course off for five years,” Faydash says, held it off with brat fries, auctions, rummage sales, information sessions, and open houses with speakers.

That’s brat fries versus Herb Kohler, Jr.’s $7.5 billion.  Herb Kohler is currently ranked #60 on Forbes’ list of wealthiest Americans. And though he no longer runs the privately held Kohler Company – his son David has been CEO since 2015 – his is the name opponents associate with what they think is a very bad deal for the people and wildlife of Wisconsin.

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