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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 39.0° F  Fair
The Paper
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Tower project scars the Arboretum
Staffers say WHA caused serious, perhaps permanent damage
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Steve Glass by the radio towers last week: 'This is not the way a marsh should look.'
Credit:Bill Lueders

As snow falls steadily, Steve Glass leads a visitor across rutted marshland to two 250-foot radio transmission towers - one built in 1973, and its newly installed replacement.

"This is not the way a marsh should look," says Glass, the Arboretum's land-care manager. "This looks like a plowed cornfield."

What will it take, he's asked, for this section of marsh, in the UW Arboretum's southeast corner just off Martin Street, to recover? "A long, long time," he answers.

Glass, who has worked at the Arboretum since 1989, says the restoration challenge from the damage done here, as WHA erected a new tower, is "equivalent to taking a mound of hamburger and trying to turn it back into a cow."

Of special concern is soil compaction caused by heavy equipment. Even if the clods and ruts smooth out over time, the soil will stay compacted, just as a packed snowball will never again be fluffy snow. Glass later points out a spot near the Visitor Center that has foot-deep wheel gashes in parallel tracks, from where a heavy vehicle drove through prairie more than a quarter-century ago.

Dr. Cynthia Stiles, a former UW-Madison soil scientist now with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Nebraska, stated in a recent critique of the tower project, "The effects of compaction can be slow death to a functional wetland." She also warned that disturbing the soil could promote oxidation of heavy metals. Each radio tower has an underground antenna consisting of six miles of copper wire.

This, says Glass, could leach contamination into the groundwater and watershed, which drains into Wingra Creek and eventually Lake Monona. "That's a real possibility."

Steve Johnston, director of engineering and operations at Wisconsin Public Radio, which runs WHA, scoffs at this, saying the old copper wire he observed from the 1973 tower "looked almost brand new."

In other respects, Johnston feels the blowback from Arboretum staff is undeserved. "It's just somebody making trouble," he says, adding that the Arboretum and WHA are both part of UW System. "I've very disappointed, frankly, in my colleagues."

If so, there's a lot of folks to be disappointed with.

"I would call it reprehensible," says Joy Zedler, the Arboretum's Aldo Leopold professor of restoration ecology, of the damage done. She notes that WHA received "plenty of input" about the Arboretum's concerns at hearings in April 2007, and made specific promises to take steps to mitigate the impact, then didn't. "The damage I saw could have easily been avoided."

The Arboretum's director, Dr. Kevin McSweeney, a soil scientist by training, says the harm he's seen "is going to be extremely difficult to rectify." He notes that WHA still must bring in equipment to remove the older tower.

"They haven't finished yet, so we don't know the extent of what the damage will be," says McSweeney, "But certainly, at this point, I have cause for concern."

Johnston, who hopes the old tower will come down late this week, says WHA grasped all along the importance of minimizing the impact and worked cooperatively with the Arboretum to this end. "We have done our best to follow the plan that we developed together."

Glass and Zedler disagree. They say WHA promised to use swamp mats - essentially a row of logs - to keep heavy machinery from digging in, but then did so for only one of three project phases. Johnston says the plan all along was to use mats for just the second phase, which was done.

In a Sept. 17 email, Johnston reacted angrily to complaints about damage during phase one. "There are tracks at the site, not ruts," he wrote. "Good grief - a mouse walking across the ground leaves tracks!" (For a gallery of photos taken just after this phase, see above.)

Johnston concedes that during the project's third phase, in late November, a Bobcat got stuck and began making ruts. "The minute I saw it I said, 'Stop, stop, stop, we can't do it that way.'" He says the damage will be repaired.

But what about claims that soil compaction and other impacts are not reparable? "I don't perhaps have the expertise to judge that part," says Johnston. But, he argues, "That site was far more disturbed years ago when it was a farmer's field than by anything we've done."

Johnston says the area in question was acquired specifically as a tower site and as a "buffer" for the rest of the marsh. He's baffled that the Arboretum regards it as being "as important to be protected" as other parts, given that "it was supposed to be the sacrificial one."

Whether or not that was the plan, it may be now.

Living off the grid

Bill Lesch would like to know how many people in the Madison area are living without electricity and heat. He wonders because he's been there himself.

"I paid MGE for 33 years, and all of a sudden I run into a little bit of trouble, and I'm persona non grata," says Lesch, a former truck driver who lives in an apartment in Monona.

The little bit of trouble, he says, was getting seriously ill and then losing his job. His utility bills piled up to where they topped $1,500; his service, he says, was disconnected last May. He got a new job for several months and was able to pay down what he owed, but not completely. Last week he got an eviction notice, after being warned by his landlord that he could not continue to live in an apartment that was off the grid.

Steve Kraus, MGE spokesman, notes that state law prohibits utilities from cutting off power between Nov. 1 and April 15. But it is under no obligation to resume service to customers disconnected before then who don't settle up.

This year, MGE disconnected about 5,200 customers, up from 4,400 in 2007. "We have about 140,000 electric customers," says Kraus, putting these numbers in perspective.

For customers who are disconnected, Kraus says MGE follows a series of steps as the moratorium period approaches. First, it attempts to make phone contact; then it sends letters to customers and, for rental properties, landlords; finally, it sends employees to individual residences, attempting to make contact.

As of last week, about a month into the moratorium, Kraus says about 200 area residences remained disconnected. Some are presumably unoccupied, and MGE gives state regulators and human service agencies a list of people it believes may be still disconnected.

Lesch says he's been in regular contact with MGE about his bills, and was visited at home by one of its employees. Last Friday, thanks to Energy Services Inc. and a family member, he was able to pay down his bill enough to get MGE to restore service. "I did have to promise my income tax return and all that," he says.

But he still owes MGE a little more than $500 - which, if not taken care of by April 15, could mean lights out again. Also, his landlord is still trying to evict him.

State Journal lucks out

A common complaint among Wisconsin State Journal employees is that their parent company's joint ownership of The Capital Times works to their disadvantage. But for once its corporate ties to the smaller, now mostly digital Cap Times has had benefits - literally - for the State Journal.

In late October, the Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, half-owner of Capital Newspapers, announced it was suspending payments to its workers' 401(k) plans and halving its matches of employees' contributions. It was feared these cuts would be made company-wide, also affecting employees of the Cap Times and Capital Newspapers ("Will Lee's Lead Be Followed?" 11/14/08).

In fact, employees of all three entities will share a common fate, but one less severe than at other Lee papers. Workers of all three entities were recently told that their 401(k) contributions would drop from 6.2% to 3.1%, but not be suspended. (The match of worker contributions would be cut in half, as elsewhere within Lee.)

"Despite these decreases," State Journal publisher Bill Johnston wrote his staff, "we are still offering a competitive benefit plan in Madison." For that, they may have another Bill to thank - one with the last name of Evjue.

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