Local advocates say Friday’s announcement that the Ho-Chunk Nation will finally acquire 1,553 acres at the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant represents a major step forward.
“This is history being made,” said Bill Wenzel of Prairie du Sac, former longtime chair of the Badger Oversight Management Commission. “I think this ushers in an opportunity for Sauk County, the Ho-Chunk Nation, the (Department of Natural Resources), and the (U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center) to work together.”
Sixteen years after it was first proposed, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin announced Friday the transfer of land from the U.S. Army to the Indian tribe will finally move forward due to its inclusion in the National Defense Authorization Act. The transfer has been delayed for years following disagreements between federal agencies.
In 2011, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced it would not take ownership of the 1,553-acre parcel on behalf of the tribe because it was still contaminated, and the cost of further environmental assessment and cleanup was estimated to be between $800,000 and $1.5 million.
The press release from Baldwin’s office makes no mention of BIA’s prior cleanup concerns, or whether they have been addressed. Representatives from the BIA and Baldwin’s officer were not available for comment Sunday.
The head of a local environmental group that pushes for rigorous cleanup at the former Badger plant says the transfer is good news.
“From the beginning, the Ho-Chunk Nation has been a steadfast partner in protecting the environmental and ecological resources at Badger,” said Laura Olah, Executive Director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger. “The Nation has testified at public hearings, rejected contrary land use proposals, and passed resolutions supporting the highest degree of cleanup. Together we built a community when others tried to push us apart.”
Olah said although tests by Army contractors have found that contamination levels at the 1,553-acre Ho-Chunk parcel meet established cleanup goals, further independent testing would be prudent. She said CSWAB makes that same recommendation for all Badger parcels.
“We’ve made this recommendation across the board to anybody that’s getting property out there,” Olah said.
She cited testing several years ago by an Army contractor that found dredging in a Lake Wisconsin bay near the former ammunition plant had reduced mercury contamination to below target levels. However, subsequent independent testing by the DNR found that mercury levels remained above standards. An auditor who investigated the matter was not able to explain discrepancies between the two findings.
In her release, Baldwin said she prevented the presidential nomination of Michael Connor for Deputy Secretary of the Interior from moving forward in the Senate until he agreed to work with the Department of Defense to seek agreement on a transfer.
The departments of Defense and Interior resolved their differences this summer, and Baldwin said she then convinced Senate leaders to include the transfer in the defense bill.
“I have been working on this since I first entered Congress, so I take great pride in bringing people together, giving the community a voice, and getting the job done,” Baldwin said in the release. “I am pleased that hard work and persistence has paid off with this agreement. This helps solve a long standing problem and is a big win for the community.”
The transfer will allow the Ho-Chunk to put its reuse plan into effect. That includes restoring prairie and grazing buffalo. Ho-Chunk Nation President Jon Greendeer and Susan Waukon, the tribe’s District 1 representative, praised Baldwin for her efforts.
“It is not often that Native nations have their ancestral lands returned,” Waukon said. “This land transfer demonstrates the power of collaboration between tribal nations and the federal government.”
The 7,354-acre Badger plant was active in manufacturing ammunition during conflicts from World War II through the Vietnam War. The plan for the decommissioned plant was finalized in 2001.
The state Department of Natural Resources is continuing to work on a master plan for its portion of the site, known as the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. John Pohlman, the DNR planner leading the effort, said the agency likely will release its proposal this spring.
Baldwin urged the DNR to follow plans adopted by the Badger Reuse Committee that call for the recreation area to consist of habitat restoration and light recreation.
Pohlman said proposed uses include hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.
More contentious proposals include allowing motorized recreation vehicles and installing a shooting range. He said the goal is to provide a “high-quality experience for the visitors.”
“The question is: ‘How do these (various uses) fit together, where and when?’ ” Pohlman said.