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Citizen Voices Matter: In Blue Mounds, Wisconsin

Ken Wade is not one to give up easily. He wouldn’t even let a broken neck stop him from doing the things he loved.

An avid outdoorsman, Ken loves mountaineering, kayaking, biking and skiing. On a bike ride with his wife several years ago, Ken hit a dip in the road, flipped off his bike and landed in a ditch. He knew not to move and wondered if he would miss a 20-year long skiing trip tradition with his brothers that winter. But he didn’t.

In fact, he not only recovered from having a broken neck, he was back to enjoy the trails that are practically in his backyard – Blue Mound State Park and the associated Pleasure Valley environmental corridor. Ken’s determination to heal was as strong has his life-long commitment to restore and preserve the threatened lands he loves.

Ken’s commitment to science and conservation was a the heart of his work for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and he remembers being a part of projects that let DNR staff combine sound science with environmentally protective laws. He remembers what it felt like to enjoy the support of administrative leadership and the close cooperation of fellow experts across scientific disciplines. 

Ken worked as a hydrogeologist for one of Wisconsin’s most controversial mining proposals in the early 1980s: the Exxon Crandon mine. 

“What most people don’t know – or remember – is that we were ready to permit that mine,” said Wade. “DNR staff worked to put together a conditional permit approval that followed a strong mining law. We felt that the plan would have protected area water resources. But we also didn’t have administrators telling us to put the needs of the mining company first. We were putting science and the law first. It was ultimately the drop in the price of metals that killed the project at that time.”

Working on the Crandon mine permit wasn’t always easy. Political pressure, public scrutiny and Native American Tribal treaty rights weighed heavily on the DNR and staff felt the pressure in negotiations with mining corporation representatives. Ken – never one to back down from authority – even threatened to walk away from the permit process if the DNR’s scientists’ work was compromised. But in the end, he knew that sound science and strong laws would prevail.

“It was because we had a good environmental law, a good mining law. And as scientists, we had complete confidence from the administration that we would be able to implement that law and not be pressured to short circuit it.”

Having the support of the DNR administration also helped Ken negotiate with a landfill company to make an unpopular project a win-win for Waste Management, the environment and the community where The Mallard Ridge landfill would be sited. 

“I learned that the company’s representative was into conservation and prairie restoration,” said Wade. “The landfill would have filled in some wetlands and destroyed the habitat of the Blanding’s turtle. But I worked with endangered resources staff and came up with a plan that would require land restoration and protection that accommodated both the turtles and the landfill.”

While wetlands and natural habitat is difficult to replace once destroyed, Ken knew the final permit plan would be supported. 

“I never had a boss telling me I couldn’t require protections or conservation efforts in the landfill permit because it would cost the landfill company money,” said Wade. “Protecting the water, the land – we could make that a priority.”

Ken had seen firsthand how strong environmental laws gave DNR staff the ability to put science first – and also how support from the administration was fundamental to supporting scientific autonomy. Ken signed onto a letter of support for MEA’s Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because he has seen how our DNR is drifting away from giving staff the support and autonomy to do their jobs, especially in following the Clean Water Act.

Since retiring, Ken has neither slowed down nor stopped being a scientist. He continues to serve as a groundwater expert, helping people with the technical analysis of WPDES and high capacity well permits.

From his home in Blue Mounds, Ken’s instinct to question authority continues. He’s a part of legal challenges against the DNR in order to pursue complaints about open meetings law violations and the associated DNR decision to permit a snowmobile trail in Blue Mound State Park. Installing the trail would destroy trees, habitat and the silence enjoyed by skiers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts like Ken. 

Looking down from the highest vantage point in Blue Mound State Park, Ken is encouraged by the view of the hundreds of acres of land he’s worked hard to restore and protect.