3 Milwaukeeans Who Inspire Us to Be More Environmental

These locals show us what it means to live green.

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Portrait of Samantha Kueffler by Sara Sthas

Green Champion: Samantha Kueffler

Nature for the People

Most people who visit Havenwoods State Forest on the Northwest Side find a refuge from city life, a 237-acre green triangle cut through by Lincoln Creek and a chain of small ponds. When Samantha Kueffler took over as superintendent of Havenwoods in late 2019, part of a job that also included overseeing the Hank Aaron State Trail and Lakeshore State Park, she found a work in progress. As someone with a background in habitat restoration, she couldn’t help but see the land as “a highly disturbed property. Every inch had been disturbed or developed at some point.”

Invasive and non-native species besieged certain areas of the forest, especially the northwestern reaches, where the diabolical buckthorn shrub had partially taken over and grown to towering heights. (This is a plant with berries that have evolved to give birds diarrhea, allowing the seeds to spread far and wide.) Kueffler has headed up a project that has cut down and mulched the buckthorns, unwanted box elders and ash trees damaged by the emerald ash borer, to make way for the planting of native hardwoods in 2023. She says it will take decades for the trees to grow up and form a new forest.

Since the pandemic, she thinks the forest has expanded its profile, and visitors have kept coming, even as life has normalized. Wildlife forms a large part of the Havenwoods appeal – there are a couple dozen deer, some easy-to-spot turkeys, a coyote here and there, a Cooper’s hawk, two green herons and many more common Wisconsin animals.

Kueffler likes the balance between humanity and the wild, she says. “My commitment to the resources is much more than just to the resources themselves.”

 

 


Portrait of Richard Diaz by Sara Stathas

Green Champion: Richard Diaz

Leading on Lead

Richard Diaz grew up all over Milwaukee – on the South and Northwest sides, out in the suburbs – and went on to become a community organizer. He also worked on campaigns involving local candidates Khalif Rainey and Mandela Barnes, who is now lieutenant governor, expanding his political acumen. Tying it all together is one issue: childhood lead poisoning. Diaz is founder of the Coalition on Lead Emergency, which has both worked with state and local leaders and criticized their response to the twofold crisis in the city: the ingestion of paint chips and dust in older homes and the drinking of tap water contaminated by legacy lead water laterals.

Over time, awareness of these issues – lead causes lasting developmental problems in children – has grown to the point where it feels like leaders have begun to listen to the community, he says. “There is enough fire on the ground now to make legislators jump.” To capitalize, COLE has asked the city to increase funding to the Milwaukee Health Department by $3.5 million, so far to no avail. That sum would allow the department to provide services to families and homes with children whose blood has tested as low as 5 mcg of lead, the standard recommended by the CDC, instead of the city’s current bar of 20 mcg.

As is often the case with environmental hazards, the issue extends far and wide, despite perception that it’s mainly a Milwaukee problem. COLE surveys of Wisconsin communities have found the same problems of poisoned children and a scarcity of contractors available to do the careful house remediation required, he says. “The same things that are happening in Milwaukee are happening in the rural parts of the state.”


Green Champion: Karen Hagen

‘All of Creation Is One’

Portrait of Karen Hagen by Sara Stathas

Pastor Karen Hagen doesn’t always know all of the environmental and community works that are going on at her spiritual home, Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church, an unassuming sanctuary in Bay View. And it’s for the best, she says. “That’s how we like it at Tippecanoe,” she says of the congregation’s sprawling gardening and food programs. “That everything is done by community.”

The church, driven by an “environmental spirituality,” has just 37 formal members but draws from a network of volunteers to grow produce and provide it to homeless people and others in need. Some 11 years ago, midway through Hagen’s tenure, the church added raised beds and a green roof. Rainwater is collected in a cistern for watering the gardens. Tippecanoe also runs a warming room for homeless folks to use during the colder months, and invites men and women who come to serve as “summer interns” who work in the gardens for a stipend.

“All of creation is interconnected and one,” Hagen says. “We are part of creation and charged with gentle care of it. Our welfare is inextricably linked.”


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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.