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Citizen Voices Matter: Pickett, Wisconsin

Elaine Swanson’s family moved to rural Pickett, Wisconsin over 30 years ago. Creating a wildlife sanctuary on 50 acres was the family’s long-range goal.

“Mice resided in the century-old farmhouse, the grass growing in the dooryard was waist-high, and the floor of the barn had collapsed from the final hay load – but the presence of Sandhill cranes in the distant field said this place was home,” Elaine recalls.

“I believe that creating ties with the natural world holds the greatest promise for learning respect and reverence for the land. At the core of our efforts in restoring woodland, ponds and native grasses lies the belief that our natural resources are finite and vulnerable.”

In 2008, a proposed concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, that would become one of the largest dairies in the state of Wisconsin, began construction before the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had issued final building permits. The CAFO owner claimed he had statutory approval. The industrialized animal operation was located in an area of Karst sinkholes, wetlands and a high water table where groundwater was at great risk for contamination from spreading liquid manure waste.

Elaine was among the local residents who formed People Empowered Protect the Land (PEPL) of Rosendale and responded with citizen action. Neighbors and surrounding towns signed onto a petition to the DNR which successfully resulted in the first Environmental Impact Statement ever prepared for a Wisconsin dairy.

“We were hopeful the scientific data would confirm the predictable dangers inherent in siting an industrial operation of this magnitude in a highly vulnerable location,” said Elaine. “The EIS should have taken months to prepare, but was hastily rushed through in less than seven weeks.”

In preparation for the public hearing, PEPL gathered soils maps, identified drain tiles within spreading fields, hired legal and environmental experts to review the permit. On the day of the hearing, however, the DNR denied the citizens a display table but allowed ample time and space for materials and a video presentation by the CAFO owner.

Despite monitoring well data showing exceedances in nitrates and bacteria in the groundwater at this operation, the CAFO is now permitted to spread over 100 million gallons of waste on land surrounded by wetlands and a high water table – year after year. The permit also allows for unlimited expansion without public notice or DNR approval.

“There is no longer a state agency guarding our natural resources from exploitation and exhaustion,” said Elaine. “I signed onto the Petition for Corrective Action because respect and reverence for the land could use a little help.”


Elaine Swanson is a resident of Picket, Wisconsin where it is her privilege to nurture the creation of a wildlife sanctuary rich in wetlands, her family’s 30-year restoration effort. Elaine is a participant of the Wisconsin Bat Monitoring Program and is a voice for the People Empowered to Protect the Land (PEPL) of Rosendale. She was the recipient of the 2012 Audubon Katherine D. Rill Environmental Award and believes that creating ties with the natural world holds the greatest promise for learning respect and reverence for the land. 

She signed the Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to encourage the State of Wisconsin and its Department of Natural Resources to fully comply with the Clean Water Act.

Photo submitted by Elaine Swanson.