Milwaukee County Strengthens Protections for Natural Areas
July 29, 2022 | Topics: Issues
An ordinance updated to address foraging, invasive species, and killing wildlife
By Eddee Daniel
From tiny woodlots in neighborhood parks to substantial acreages in parkways along rivers, Milwaukee County is blessed with—yes—a wealth of nature! Two thirds of Milwaukee County Parks land, over 10,000 acres, is left in a natural state: our “urban wilderness.” However, it takes vigilance, effort, and precious resources to keep them that way. Paradoxically, the wilderness must be not only protected but managed and maintained.
Over time, the quality and integrity of these natural areas has been threatened in various ways, sometimes inadvertently by the very people who love them. For example, it is all too easy to unwittingly spread invasive species. Some would like to forage for edible plants, a practice that harkens back to pre-modern times and may suggest a kind of back-to-the-land philosophy. To that end, earlier this year, propelled by proponents, several County Board Supervisors attempted to revise an existing County Ordinance to allow foraging in the park system.
Foraging may be acceptable—or even an important source of sustenance for people living with food insecurity—in other contexts. Many Wisconsin State Parks outside Milwaukee County allow for it. However, the pressure such practices exert on fragile habitats in densely populated areas is extreme. In an email reply to my inquiry about it, Natural Areas Supervisor Brian Russart explained it this way: “Foraging leads to loss of biodiversity, reduced food resources for native wildlife, creation of social trails that compact soil, the spread of invasive species, and crushing of other native plants. The natural areas within the park system are typically quite small and cannot sustain regular harvesting activities.”
There are additional reasons to restrict—and avoid—foraging, he says: “There are a number of natural areas within the park system, such as the Little Menomonee River Parkway and lower Milwaukee River Greenway that have had historic soil contamination. While work is ongoing to clean up sites where we know about historic contamination, harvesting wild edibles from areas such as these could pose unknown health risks.”
The issue is not insignificant, and is especially problematic in those parks in more urbanized parts of the county. According to Russart, “It has become nearly impossible to find any wild leek or ramp populations anymore, and there is plenty of suitable habitat where it should be growing. Most people don’t realize that it takes 7-years for a wild leek to grow from seed into a plant large enough to harvest.”
Mushrooms are another popular foraging item. Russart has received many reports over the years from people who have observed others removing large quantities of mushrooms and other edible plants from the parks’ natural areas—“sometimes gunnysacks full.” A related problem is poaching of wildlife. The Parks Department, in conjunction with DNR wardens, regularly removes illegal deer stands from natural areas, for example.
The foraging proposal was denied by the County Board following an outcry from the citizens of Milwaukee County. But it had a galvanizing effect. In consultation with the Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas staff, the County Board ended up revising the ordinance in question (47.08) so that it provides even stronger protections in other important ways as well. The updated ordinance now includes an entirely new section entitled “Protection of Nature.”
Here, in abbreviated form, are the new provisions:
(A) No person shall harvest, collect, deface, or disturb, in any manner, any portion of a native plant or native fungi within the Park System.
(B) Invasive species can be removed within the Park System only by Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Culture (DPRC) staff or those authorized through written permission from the DPRC. Planting of any vegetative material within the Park System without the written permission of the DPRC is prohibited.
(C) The harassment, capture, injury, or killing of native wildlife within the Park System is prohibited. Introduction or release of any animal, wild or domestic, within the Park System without the written permission of the DPRC is prohibited.
(D) Natural areas designated by the Southeastern WI Regional Planning Commission as “Natural Areas of Local, Regional, or State-wide Significance” or designated as “Critical Species Habitat Areas,” will receive a heightened level of protection. Only hiking, biking, running, bird watching and similar passive recreation activities are allowed and only on designated trails.
As an advocate for keeping natural areas natural, I for one am delighted to hear about this development. But I’m also fond of plucking a handful of black raspberries now and then when I come across ripe ones on my excursions in the parks. So, I was delighted again when Russart assured me that, “The County Board did want Parks to be lenient on individuals walking along designated trails in the park system eating the occasional handful of wild raspberries as they are walking, because the impact would be minor and the plants are typically found along trails.” Whew. Of course, I would never go into the woods carrying a bucket in order to load up on more black raspberries than I could eat in the moment.
Another exception to the rule is harvesting fruit from designated orchards in the park system. (Did you know we had orchards? They are in Washington and McGovern Parks.)
In closing, Brian Russart would like you to know this: “Citizens that observe illegal foraging in the park system are encouraged to call the Parks Ranger Hot-line (414-257-7777) as they are observing these activities. This way Parks can respond immediately, and appropriately address the situation.”
The featured image at the top is from the Nature Trail in 71.8-acre Noyes Park, Milwaukee.