There is joy in Sheboygan County this week. Yesterday, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals announced its decision to uphold a 2019 ruling by an administrative law judge that revoked Kohler Company’s permit to dredge and fill 3.69 acres of wetlands on its land north of Kohler-Andrae State Park (KASP).
Friends of the Black River Forest, a Sheboygan-based grassroots group, filed a petition for administrative review of the permit issued by the DNR in 2018. The group continues to fund legal challenges to Kohler’s efforts to build an 18-hole championship golf course at Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore, a fragile ecosystem that includes both the Kohler land and KASP.
Sierra Club-Wisconsin Chapter has partnered with FBRF in its effort to stop the golf course, a project that could have devastating environmental impacts. Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore is the home of hundreds of species of plants and animals, some of them rare and endangered, and an annual stopover site for 10,000 migratory birds.
The disputed area on the Kohler land consists of floodplain forest wetlands, interdunal, and ridge and swale wetlands that are “considered high to exceptional quality and globally rare,” as stated in the ruling.
The ruling referred to the DNR’s assessment that the floodplain forest wetlands on the property are of “high quality and rare in the region because of the loss of ash trees and increase of invasive species.” In addition to the wetlands, the DNR reported that the property “is almost entirely forested with mature trees and has not been logged in over 150 years . . . As part of the project, Kohler would clear approximately 100 to 120 acres of forested land cover in order to build, among other things, fairways, greens, and tees.”
Kohler had argued that impacts of the “entire proposed project” should not be a consideration in issuing the wetland fill permit. However, the appeals court disagreed, saying that potential negative impacts of the loss of wetlands were lawful considerations. It affirmed that dredging and filling of the wetlands would cause “increased runoff of nutrients, herbicides, and pesticides, and foot and cart traffic in the remaining wetland complex”; “[p]ermanent alteration to wetland hydrology . . . ; decrease in habitat [and] potential disruption of wildlife.” It also found that “foot and cart traffic, as well as runoff,” could likely “provide a conduit for invasive species establishment.”
The Kohler land contains three separate aquifers, according to the ruling. The aquifers are another site of potential negative impacts from “nutrients, herbicides, and pesticides.” The appeals court ruling quotes the project’s final EIS in finding that the wetlands “are hydrologically connected to Lake Michigan” and “dependent on both groundwater and surface water runoff to maintain water levels and determine water quality.”
In reacting to the appeals court decision, Mary Faydash, president of FBRF, said, “There is no wetland fill permit. The [golf] course cannot be built without one. What happens next should be asked of Kohler. We won.”
Kohler Company prides itself on its reputation as an “environmentally friendly” company, a reputation attained in part by publishing on its website a page titled “Sustainability for a Better Planet” which says, “We believe we can leave the word a better place for future generations and are committed to doing the best we can to reduce our environmental impacts.”
Another aspect of the company’s energetic greenwashing campaign is the substantial sums it has donated to the Nature Conservancy. Laura Kohler, the company’s Chief Sustainability Officer, was once the honorary chair of a Nature Conservancy initiative in Wisconsin.
The company recently announced plans to sell its energy division to Platinum Equity, a California-based private equity firm. Kohler Company will retain a stake in Kohler Energy, which manufactures generators and transfer switches, among other things. Kohler’s primary business is the manufacture of plumbing products. However, its hospitality business has been increasingly a focus of the company’s expansion efforts. Kohler already maintains four 36-hole championship golf courses in Sheboygan County, a couple of them accompanied by luxury hotels, the American Club and the Inn on Woodlake. The 2021 Ryder Cup was held at the Kohler course at Whistling Straits.
Will Kohler ever match its actions to its rhetoric and conserve its land at Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore, land that it once promised never to develop, and in the process preserve the acres inside KASP the company wants to use as a conduit to its proposed golf course? If the past is prologue, the battle to preserve Kohler-Andrae Lakeshore is likely not over.
By RT Both, Sierra Club - Wisconsin Chapter Lands Team Member
This blog was originally published on https://wiscoland.wordpress.com/2023/12/06/we-won-court-of-appeals-upholds-kohler-permit-revocation/
Send a message to the Kohler Company asking them to drop its plans for the golf course: https://addup.sierraclub.org/campaigns/act-for-public-lands-and-forests/petition