The challenge of its life

As the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust celebrates 30 years, it’s scrambling to pull off its most ambitious project yet in the face of state grant fiasco, county vote

OZAUKEE WASHINGTON LAND TRUST Executive Director Tom Stolp stood near the entrance to Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Center in the Town of Grafton, one of the most popular preserves acquired by the organization that has now turned its sights on purchasing the nearby Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

As the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it also faces one of the biggest challenges in its history — acquisition of the 131-acre Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve in the City of Port Washington.

“This is our largest project we’ve ever undertaken,” Land Trust Executive Director Tom Stolp said. “This project is a very ambitious undertaking.”

The Land Trust has an option to purchase the land from Waukesha State Bank. It plans to buy the parcel, then turn it over to Ozaukee County to hold in perpetuity as a nature preserve — a process identical to one used to acquire the nearby Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve.

While the Land Trust and Ozaukee County have been successful in raising much of the $5 million needed for the purchase, they still need roughly $1 million to make the nature preserve a reality.

That’s because a Knowles-Nelson stewardship grant offered to the Land Trust by the state Department of Natural Resources has not been approved by the Joint Finance Committee.

The DNR recommended a $2.3 million grant that the committee failed to approve after an anonymous legislator objected to it, and a compromise $1.3 million grant has been similarly delayed now that an anonymous developer indicated he wants to buy the land.

In response, the Land Trust committed an extra $500,000 to the project and sought $1 million from the Ozaukee County Board, but that measure fell short of board approval last week.

Since then, Stolp said, the Land Trust has been reaching out to businesses, individuals, foundations and other entities to try and raise another $1 million by the end of June, when one of the federal grants will expire.

It’s a daunting task, Stolp said.

“We’re giving it the full-court press,” he said. “We’ll just have to go out and do more fundraising. There’s been a wonderful outpouring of concern from people who want to make this project a reality. Rather than talking about it, people are stepping up to make very generous donations.”

Since the County Board meeting, he said, more than 40 new donors have stepped forward to contribute funds.

“We’ve had some very generous folks step up,” Stolp said. “We hope to have big news in the coming weeks.

“We’re just focusing on the fact we control the right to purchase this property, and that’s what we intend to do, create this wonderful nature preserve for the community and for generations to come. All this other stuff can be a distraction.”

Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve would complement Lion’s Den, the Land Trust’s most popular preserve.

Lion’s Den, which has been a popular destination throughout its history, set a record for visits during the pandemic when 269,000 people stopped by.

“This (Cedar Gorge) is only going to make Lion’s Den better,” Stolp said. “It will take a little bit of the pressure off the resource. It will also create more of a draw for people, allowing us to expand the trails and give people a little more room to experience nature.”

Both Cedar Gorge and Lion’s Den are valuable attractions not only for people but nature as well. Both properties are atop the Lake Michigan bluff and extend to the shore, and each is considered an important part of the migratory bird flyway. They also boast unique habitat, plant and animal species.

Just as Cedar Gorge is proposed to be, Lion’s Den was acquired by the Land Trust and then turned over to Ozaukee County.

For many people, Lion’s Den defines the Land Trust, Stolp said.

“When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘Have you ever been to Lion’s Den?’” Stolp said.

“That’s what I do.”

The Land Trust is responsible for preserving more than 7,000 acres of natural areas in Ozaukee and Washington counties.

They include the Sauk Creek Nature Preserve in Port Washington, Mequon Nature Preserve and Donges Bay Gorge in the City of Mequon and Forest Beach Migratory Preserve in the Town of Belgium.

“The enduring quality of the Land Trust is our commitment to making the outdoors free and open to all,” Stolp said.

“It’s a great accomplishment. That’s really how people know us.”

The Land Trust has it roots in an effort by a group of Mequon residents who wanted to preserve the Highland Woods. They were approached by a group of Port Washington residents who wanted to save the Sauk Creek Nature Preserve, and the two merged.

“Sauk Creek quickly became the first preserve, followed by Highland Woods,” Stolp said.

In 1998, the group expanded to include Washington County, and it hasn’t stopped working to protect natural areas in the two counties since.

Stolp said the key to the Land Trust’s success is its balanced approach to preservation and development.

“We’ve never been an organization that railed against development,” he said. “A lot of people want to live here.”

One reason for that is the natural areas that have been preserved, creating not only habitat for wildlife but also retaining the counties’ rural character.

The Land Trust preserves land not just by purchasing it but also through conservation easements, which allow property owners to retain ownership of land but keep it in its natural state.

“Not everyone knows about them, but they play a very important role,” Stolp said, noting about 5,000 acres are covered by these easements.

He estimated that about one-third of the property protected by the Land Trust are preserves open to the public while two-thirds are privately held and managed and on the tax rolls through conservation easements.

The Land Trust uses partnerships with government and private organizations, as well as residents of the two counties, to support its goals.

For example, the Land Trust worked with Ozaukee County and the Town of Grafton, as well as other agencies, to acquire the 72 acres that became Lion’s Den.

One other unique aspect to the Land Trust is how much it devotes to managing its properties, Stolp said.

“That’s a very unique aspect to our work, how much we spend stewarding the land,” he said.

He cited Forest Beach Preserve, the former Squire’s Country Club.

“It’s not just a matter of letting Mother Nature take over,” he said of the transformation of the golf course to a nature preserve. “It had to be managed, planted to create the preserve.”

As the Land Trust celebrates 30 years, it is looking for ways to increase its work with area farmers, Stolp said.

“The rural character of our county is part of its attraction,” he said.

The Land Trust is working with farmers who want to donate conservation easements, who want to keep land in production while preserving habitat on their property as well.

“We’re not prescribing how to farm,” he noted.

The Land Trust has acquired a farm in the City of Mequon and will be leasing some of the land to the Fondy Farm in Milwaukee, which provides access to farmland to farmers, many of them immigrants, Stolp said.

While the Land Trust’s role in preservation is obvious, Stolp said it also plays an important role in economic development and tourism as well.

Those 269,000 visitors to Lion’s Den last year are people who likely stopped in neighboring communities to shop and dine — people who might not otherwise come to the area at all, he said.

“Those people come to the Town of Grafton, City of Port Washington. They’re going to stop for a cup of coffee. They’re going to shop,” Stolp said. “They’re going to think, this is a nice community, a place I might want to live. I might want to work here.”

And in the meantime, he said, they can take in the best of what nature has to offer — nature itself.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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