By James Rowen for   Published Oct 12, 2004 at 5:16 AM

{image1}The environmental movement is showing signs of renewed vigor in southeastern Wisconsin. And much of that rising activity is in direct response to political leaders who have not listened to public opinion at hearings where citizens have spoken clearly in favor of transit, Smart Growth or pro-conservation alternatives to business as usual.

It's a classic lesson in the physics of politics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction that leads to a second lesson of politics -- politicians who ignore public opinion should remember that the outcomes are antipathy, then organizing and perhaps ballot opposition.

For example, grass roots groups and candidacies have emerged after politicians and governmental agencies decided to expand road-building in southeastern Wisconsin despite overwhelming testimony to the contrary at public hearings.

The hearings were run by SEWRPC, the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. SEWRPC turned a deaf ear to the testimony, following its road-building biases and a grossly deficient opinion survey to support its expansion intentions. The non-elected SEWRPC commissioners even set aside anti-expansion votes by the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board.

As SEWRPC ignored public opinion, Citizens Allied for Sane Highways was born. The media-savvy group, based in Milwaukee's West Side Story Hill Neighborhood, is now a player. It has produced a sophisticated PowerPoint presentation and added audio and video informational links to an already-meaty newsletter and archive at Using its new technology, the Web site provides audio downloads of testimony at a recent hearing where federal highway officials heard a barrage of anti-SEWRPC testimony.

The hearing was not covered by the mainstream press, but CASH and the Story Hill Web site filled the gap.

It's fair to say that SEWRPC's dismissiveness has led to CASH's credibility and to an activist public relations campaign in favor of comprehensive urbanism, transit expansion and neighborhood preservation -- goals that a real regional planning organization would have as priorities.

Another related development is the opening this summer in Milwaukee of an office of the Madison-based 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a statewide environmental education group first organized by the new Madison mayor, Dave Cieslewicz. 1000 Friends of Wisconsin will use this office to spread news about the restoration of the Menomonee Valley and other innovative examples of comprehensive land-use planning. A runaway freeway expansion plan shoved down the public's throat gives 1000 Friends of Wisconsin a basic organizing tool and foundation for its Smart Growth agenda.

The appeal of these groups in southeastern Wisconsin will gain currency as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation moves forward with freeway expansion without genuine public input or the serious consideration of alternatives. The more that WisDOT and the administration of Gov. Jim Doyle push for freeway expansion that knocks down homes and businesses, particularly in Milwaukee and its suburbs, the more this charged-up environmentalism will spread into the political process.

Consider the defeat in the September primary of incumbent state Rep. Michael Lehman, R-Hartford. Part of Lehman's defeat can be ascribed to his support of a controversial, SEWRPC-recommended, WisDOT-financed expansion of State Highway 164 through his district. Seven thousand people in the highway corridor signed petitions opposing the widening of this two-lane blacktop to a four-land, limited-access highway. The new highway, running north of Interstate-94, will sport a median wide enough to easily accommodate two future lanes.

But SEWRPC ignored the residents and WisDOT began the expansion of the widened highway through Waukesha County and into Washington County's beautiful, rural Kettle Moraine.

Lehman supported the highway expansion. But an activist coalition of farmers, homeowners and conservationists worked tirelessly and successfully to defeat Lehman and elect an anti-expansion candidate, Don Pridemore. Without a Democratic opponent in the November election, Pridemore has effectively replaced an eight-term incumbent.

The same brew of quality-of-life issues, governmental planning, and public comment is beginning to simmer over water issues in southeastern Wisconsin. A 1985 agreement between the United States and Canada is up for its first-ever amendments. At stake are rules governing new large-scale uses of Great Lakes water.

At a southeast regional Department of Natural Resources hearing in West Allis on Sept. 28, nearly all speakers -- outdoors enthusiasts, conservationists, Smart Growth advocates, civil rights groups, traditional environmental organizations and regular folks -- called for making the rules stronger to require more resource conservation and limit new uses or diversions away from the lakes.

Also read at the hearing: a resolution supporting tougher new water-use standards, water conservation and better regional planning signed by all 15 members of the Milwaukee Common Council, and presented also on behalf of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Due to the importance of these proposed new rules and related water quality issues, the Lake Michigan Federation, with offices in Chicago and Grand Haven, Mich., is sending two staffers to start working this month from offices in Milwaukee. Cameron Davis, its executive director, gave widely quoted testimony at the DNR hearing, thereby raising the profile of the federation in Wisconsin.

There it is again, another hot environmental topic, another well-attended hearing, another new southeastern Wisconsin environmental player ready and willing to reach out and make the connections.

Because better planning, water use and transportation are all linked, and are fundamental to the quality of life and work in the region, you can bet that individuals and groups with common interests and goals -- especially people who have felt discounted in the past -- will work more closely and seek fresh allies as the stakes get higher.

They are putting environmentalism back on the political map, and in doing so, have a rich vein of Wisconsin history on their side. This is, after all, the state of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson.

Elected officials, including Democrats, have been ignoring environmentalists for too long, Some of this is the fault of environmentalists, who have gone into hiding under demeaning pressure from the right. In addition, there have been Democratic leaders who have taken environmentalist votes for granted, believing, as some have been heard to say, that that environmentalists have "no place to go."

Where they will "go" now is to traditional and alternative media, including the Internet, to spread a pro-conservation message.

Polls consistently show that environmental protections, especially when tied to public health, are mainstream thinking. And people will "go" confront politicians in both parties and demand they uphold the state's progressive traditions.

These committed voters want leaders to serve as unambiguous stewards of our resources and our legacy. And they want more environmental advocacy and leadership from often-silent Milwaukee Democratic state legislators, who pay only lip service to environmental issues, and from the highway-prone administration of Doyle.

And from Barrett, who has sent confusing signals in his young administration about whether he is rushing to help Waukesha County communities, which have thoughtlessly drawn down their aquifers, to obtain Lake Michigan water. Right now, the U.S.-Canadian agreement bars such diversions. Unless the proposed new rules are weakened, and Waukesha promises to spend millions on water return and other improvements, the diversion it wants is very unlikely to happen.

Incumbents in either party who ignore their stewardship responsibilities will only further energize Wisconsin's conservationists. On the other hand, leaders who join the grassroots push for greater conservation and effective Smart Growth policies will be doing right by the environment, and their careers, too.

James Rowen is a veteran writer and policy consultant who served in the administration of former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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