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The Long View

Over the last few weeks, multiple experiences have pushed me to reflect on the power of understanding our history, learning from it, and having the courage to imagine the future in ways that safeguard generations to come.

In La Crosse, I heard historian and Academy Fellow Kerry Trask talk about the mythic-level stories told about three men who are central to our state’s history and identity: Henry Dodge, Henry Atkinson, and Chief Black Hawk. Kerry’s artful presentation of the facts within the drama of the Black Hawk War told a more complex story than the simplified versions of massacre on the banks of the Mississippi. Trask explained how opportunistic political swagger, fear-based rhetoric in the “media hype” of the times, flawed judgment among leaders on all sides, and an ingrained attitude of entitlement to land and resources led to an avoidable human tragedy.

More than a century later, the actions and attitudes of these three pivotal players still shape our lives, and I’ll never think of Dodgeville, Fort Atkinson, or the many places in Wisconsin named for Chief Black Hawk in quite the same way again. And, it didn’t take much reflection to see that the inclination to purse politically expedient ends through uncivil means is a characteristic as familiar today as it was back then. The way we deliberate choices matters as much as the choices themselves because the actions of any generation ripples into the future.

Later that same week I had the privilege to host a meeting of some of the leaders of the Wisconsin Academy’s Waters of Wisconsin (WOW) project, which concluded almost a decade ago with the publication of a report of the same name. I was humbled to be among some of the wisest leaders for—and ardent defenders of—Wisconsin’s precious water ecosystems. We reflected on the impact of the intensive, multiyear WOW project, but much of our conversation was about the future. We talked about the need to examine what we have (and haven’t) achieved in the last ten years, and to renew with some urgency the conversation about where our state is headed in its water strategies.

One of the wisest statements from that afternoon meeting came from UW–Madison emeritus professor John Magnuson, a zoologist and limnologist whose work is known throughout the world, but whose heart surely holds a special place for Wisconsin’s waters.

“Taking care of the waters of Wisconsin isn’t a five-year project; it’s a fifty-year project,” said Magnuson. “As you get older, one of the things you learn is that solving major [issues] and maintaining water for the state of Wisconsin is sort of like mowing the lawn: The job is never done. You cannot just put it away, and it’s done. You need to pull it back out, open the cupboards in the DNR and the UW [Colleges], in the counties and in the state government, too, to keep on top of water. Water will never become a nonissue without controversy, because it is so important to so many people.”

Everyone at the table that afternoon touched upon the value of ongoing collaboration between scientists and policymakers, business leaders, tribes, and people in communities around the state whose lives and livelihoods depend on healthy and abundant waters. We talked about the need for civil deliberation on challenges and decisions that will affect the people of Wisconsin, now and in the future.

Water doesn’t live on a business cycle, a fiscal year, a legislative session, or even on the scale of one human lifetime. It lives on a geologic time frame. And what we have now is all our lovely little planet is ever going to have. Our human strategies to protect and manage water need to take a very long view, and to do that we need the best tools of democracy, including informed participation and open deliberation.

A week after the WOW meeting I listened to a presentation on re-engineering what was once the natural continental divide separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds. This is a boldly imagined strategy aimed to sever the almost one hundred-year-old connection between the watersheds in an effort to prevent the spread of invasive species, with the Asian carp leading the list of 39 potential invaders that could wreak further havoc on the two already-stressed ecosystems. Separating the watersheds also has potential benefits for improving water quality, flood control, and urban redevelopment along waterways. Big ideas like this reflect multi-generational thinking, and project proponents are reaching out across sectors to discuss feasibility and explore best approaches to protect current values as well as anticipate future needs.

Will it happen? It is too soon to know. But the process to explore the idea has been open, transparent, and, above all, civil. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is—especially these days.

Whether we are dealing with water or other issues that affect our common good and quality of life, we need informed and engaged citizens willing to consider the long view if we are to have a healthy democratic process. At the Wisconsin Academy, we strive to provide the places where civil discourse on ideas and issues that shape our lives can actually happen. In this way we connect people to the leading ideas that can make Wisconsin better, for us now and for generations down the road. We hope you’ll be part of this discussion.

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Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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