A steep bluff topped with green trees meets meets the Lake Michigan shoreline with a rocky beach.

A Rallying Cry for Transparency: Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs

A roadblock in receiving funding from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program turned the public eye to the ways anonymous objectors can impede critical conservation initiatives.

Located just 30 miles north of Milwaukee, Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs stands as a 131-acre testament to Wisconsin’s natural beauty: steep clay bluffs, deep gorges, mossy cedar woods, and a section of undisturbed Lake Michigan shoreline that stretches for nearly three-quarters of a mile. The area provides a habitat for many wildlife species and serves as a resting spot for migrating birds along the Lake Michigan flyway. Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT) had long set its sights on protecting Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs not only to safeguard its natural ecological value but also to add recreational access along the lake and alleviate pressure on the increasingly popular nearby Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Laura Schulte shared OWLT had been fundraising for almost a decade to turn the Port Washington property into a preserve and their approved request for a $2.3 million Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Grant was seemingly the last piece of the puzzle. However, the Wisconsin state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) reviews all Knowles-Nelson Stewardship grant requests over $250,000 and any member of that committee can raise an anonymous objection for any reason. On the last day of the review period, an objection was raised against the Cedar Gorge-Clay Banks project, halting it indefinitely.

Months later, the committee offered a reduced grant of $1.6 million, but OWLT’s attempts to schedule a hearing to accept the lower amount were met with silence. “We’re not having open, transparent to the community conversations,” said Ozaukee Washington Land Trust Executive Director Tom Stolp. “We’re being forced in these back channels, behind closed doors to take this lowered grant amount because it’s the best offer.” 

Despite the roadblock, OWLT refused to give up. They rallied supporters and donors to spread the word through media and urged Ozaukee County residents to contact their representatives. Hundreds spoke up, outraged about the dysfunction and lack of transparency in the passive review process.

OWLT’s project was never heard by the committee, but public pressure ultimately played a significant role in securing the future of Cedar Gorge- Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve. In August 2022, Governor Tony Evers stepped in and allocated $2.3 million through the American Rescue Plan Act for Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs along with four other conservation projects that had been stalled in committee, detailed Laura Schulte in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

“Despite strong public support for Cedar Gorge and this project receiving one of the highest scores from the DNR of all the projects they considered, the Joint Finance Committee hid behind an anonymous objection and refused to give the public a say on the future of Cedar Gorge and how our public dollars are spent in our community,” said State Rep. Deb Andraca in an Ozaukee Press article. “Gov. Evers was willing to do today what the Joint Finance Committee refused to do,” continued Andraca, a staunch supporter of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs project and member of the JFC, noting that this allocation was the same amount OWLT was slated to receive from the DNR’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

Despite objections and delays, OWLT successfully purchased the property, ensuring Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs would be available to all. Shortly after they closed on the property, ownership of the Clay Bluffs Cedar Gorge Nature Preserve was officially transferred to Ozaukee County for permanent protection, and OWLT will retain a conservation easement. “It belongs to the people of Ozaukee County and will be preserved forever,” Stolp said in an Ozaukee Press article.

Featured image by Aaron Volkening, 2022

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