Naturalist Jim Buchholz is worried about the wildlife in and around Kohler-Andrae State Park. Before retiring in 2013, Buchholz had served as park superintendent of Kohler-Andrae for twenty-five years, and he knows the area well. On May 11, 2019, as part of Sierra Club’s Wisconsin Loves Parks day, Buchholz took Sierra Clubbers from Great Waters Group and members of Friends of the Black River Forest on a tour of some of the magnificent dunes at Kohler-Andrae. This globally rare landscape is threatened by Kohler Company’s plan to build a golf course north of the park on 247 acres of private land.
Kohler’s plan includes taking nearly 5 critical acres from the Kohler-Andrae. The company wants to build a 4-lane road plus a rotary right through the park entrance to take traffic to the proposed golf course, which would be the company’s fifth championship course in Sheboygan County. Park land that is now a wetland would be taken to build a 22,000 square-foot maintenance facility to store chemicals and equipment.
As Buchholz took us on a tour of the park on that cool, windy May day, Sandhill cranes flew overhead while bluebirds built their nests in the white pines. The landscape appeared pristine and untroubled.
But Buchholz made it clear that many species of animals and plants are threatened by Kohler Company’s desire to impose an eighteen-hole championship golf course on this wild landscape. State surveys, he said, already contain “a whole list birds that are of special concern.”
The DNR’s Migratory Bird Report, published by its Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation, refers to the area as a single site, Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore, and identifies it as a Priority Stopover Site for the “abundance of migratory birds” who visit in both spring and fall. “More than 10,000 waterfowl and landbirds and 1,000 raptors and waterbirds are estimated to use the site annually,” the report says, “including 35 species of Greatest Conservation Need.” Among species known to stop there are Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Greater Scaup, Sanderling, Dunlin, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Merlins.
Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore is a permanent habitat for 200 species of birds. Seventeen of those species are hawks or birds of prey. “All the owls of Wisconsin are found in that area,” Buchholz said.
Among the birds that currently make their homes in the area are the boreal chickadee, ruby-crowned kinglet, black-throated warbler, Connecticut warbler, wood thrush, and hooded warbler.
Buchholz was particularly worried about the whippoorwill. “They used to be more common, but they’re declining in a big way all over the nation . . . especially in Wisconsin. They nest on the ground, so they like brushy areas to rest in . . . woodland areas with brush.”
When Buchholz was superintendent, he lived at the park’s official residence, located on the northern border of the park and the southern border of the Kohler Co. property. He observed many of the 17 different hawks and eagles that inhabit the area. “The Red-shouldered hawk, which is now threatened, was found there,” he said, along with peregrine falcons and Cooper’s hawks. A bald eagle nested on the lake shore.
Kohler’s plan calls for razing 50% to 75% of the old growth forest on the Kohler land, which will devastate nesting areas. The Kohler land contains “nearly untouched, mature woodlands of white pine, beech, and rare Lake Michigan hardwood habitat,” Buchholz wrote in public comments to the DNR. And that will impact birds, like the whippoorwill, that nest in the area.
The woodlands on the Kohler property have “not been logged out. Some of those trees are 100 or 200 years old,” Buchholz said. “There are red oaks and a few white oak, and red and white pine native to the area growing there,” as well as the “American beech, which only grows in eastern Wisconsin.”
The woodlands on the Kohler property are the last remaining old-growth forest on the Lake Michigan shoreline.
But trees aren’t the only plants at Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore that will be harmed.
“There are quite a few threatened [plant] species in that area that we know of,” Buchholz said. “The main ones closer to the lake that will be destroyed by the [golf course] greens are the dune thistle, the sand-reed grass, and the marram grass.” Also in trouble, Buchholz said, are the clustered broom rape and the dune goldenrod.
And “we do have a threatened animal species in the park,” Buchholz said. “The Blanding’s turtle, a state [designated] threatened species that lives in the park and on the Kohler land comes out of the river marsh to lay [its] eggs.”
Other impacted amphibians include “the spring peepers, the green frog, the wood frog,” which would all lose habitat, Buchholz said. “And then we’ve got the blue spotted salamanders and the tiger salamanders – they’re going downhill too, they’re not doing well in Wisconsin,” Buchholz said. Even without golf carts rolling over their turf. “And with so many trees going down, the gray tree frogs, you have to consider, would be displaced,” he added.
And of course, there are warm-blooded creatures in the area. At Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore, “we’ve got all the regular, common [mammals].,” Buchholz said. “There are a lot of deer in that area, and no hunting has been allowed there in forever,” but Kohler Company will be forced into “trapping and shooting deer because they’re going ruin their greens.”
The park is also home to badgers and grey fox, a woodland species. “On the Black River, otters come through as well,” Buchholz said. Many of the plant and animal species found in the park are listed in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory List.
The dunes themselves, and the ridge and swale wetlands found at Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore, are on the list.
And it is the dunes that have made Kohler-Andrae famous, not the ecosystem’s golf potential. For generations of Wisconsin high-schoolers, it’s been traditional to to cap off prom night with a visit Kohler-Andrae to watch the sunrise.
The dunal and ridge-and-swale wetlands found at Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore are considered one of the rarest ecosystems in the State of Wisconsin. And of course, these are dunes, comprised largely of sand. “Besides cutting down trees,” Buchholz said, “they’re not going to be able to grow grass on sand. There is no soil there, so they [will] have to bring in all the black soil to make the greens.”
Dumping black soil on sand, growing grass on rare coastal dunes, treating that grass with glyophosate, a chemical that will inevitably seep into an aquifer that provides water for hundreds of families in the area — does that sound like a good plan for your State Park and a rare habitat?
Why Doesn’t Kohler Get it?
Plant and animal species are disappearing at a faster rate than at any time in recorded history. Many people say that the “sixth great extinction” is now upon us. As a result of climate change and the destruction of their habitats by development, millions of species are currently at risk around the planet.
“Most of the causes of this carnage seem familiar: logging, poaching, overfishing by large industrial fleets, pollution, invasive species, the spread of roads and cities to accommodate an exploding global population, now seven billion and rising,” said a recent New York Times editorial.
We can now add golf courses to the list.
The New York Times editorial focused, as these discussions tend to do, on large-scale, global destruction. But the species and habitat destruction taking place on this planet today are not just happening in Indonesia and the Brazilian rainforest. They are happening right here in Wisconsin.
Herb Kohler, Jr. the family patriarch and chairman of the board of Kohler Company, once told a television interviewer querying him about his plan for a golf course at Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore that “this land deserves to be a golf course.”
Kohler and his employees, like Dirk Willis, VP of international golf at Kohler, have repeatedly misled the public by insisting that the golf course design is “miminalist” and that the land will be “preserved.” But golf courses are not natural areas, and it’s clear that the plan for the proposed golf course is, in fact, recklessly destructive. We here in Wisconsin need to understand one important fact: habitat destruction begins at home. Some of those disappearing species are disappearing right in our own backyard. We are part of the climate disruption in our state. And we can act to prevent further destruction.
Let Mr. Kohler know that his plan is not minimalist, that the proposed golf course is not “preservation.” And let him know that Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore deserves to be preserved.
Next up: Whistling Straits was a disaster, so let’s go build another one? (Why, Mr. Kohler, Why? Part 3)