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This spring, the University of Wisconsin-Extension, UW Colleges, and partners sponsored a forum about community sustainability. The forum was the third in a series of statewide public forums initiated by the UW Board of Regents and UW System President Kevin Reilly to connect university research with communities across the state and address some of Wisconsin's most urgent issues. The spring forum brought together the public with sustainability experts from around the state and beyond. Earlier forums addressed alcohol abuse, Wisconsin's largest public health issue, and the challenges of obtaining financial aid for higher education. Another Wisconsin Idea Forum this fall, hosted by UW-Milwaukee, will address such freshwater issues as climate change, ecosystem health, aquatic invasive species, and the overall quality of Wisconsin waters. Wisconsin People & Ideas is pleased to share some of the results of these forums. Further information on the UW System Wisconsin Idea Forums can be found at

The James Clevette family of Ashland celebrates "Power Down Sundays," turning off electric breakers and powering down everything but the fridge. They then flip on breakers one by one as needed, which is sometimes months later. As a result, they've cut their energy use in half. The impact of one family's actions, however, seems like a drop in the rain barrel compared to the sea change possible with a statewide renewable energy use mandate-especially if the energy is produced in Wisconsin.

Patricia Benson, a board member of the nonprofit sustainability organization Transition US, respects individual conservation efforts. And while she hopes for state and federal mandates that will help make resilient, equitable communities, she's not holding her breath. Instead, Benson focuses on community-wide actions to mitigate effects of peak oil demand, climate change, and the economic crisis.

"If we wait for the governments, it'll be too little, too late. If we act as individuals, it'll be too little," says Benson. "But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time."

Like The Natural Step, another nonprofit environmental education organization, Transition US's mission is to create an ecologically and economically sustainable society. Both provide a framework that communities can follow to become sustainable. Sustainability, a concept often associated with environmental protection, also refers to development that can sustain planet, people, and profits. The most widely cited—though somewhat clunky—definition of sustainability comes from the United Nations's 1987 Brundtland Commission report: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Eighteen years after that report was issued, Washburn, Wisconsin, passed the first eco-municipality resolution in the United States. An eco-municipality—a concept born in Sweden in 1983 and since embraced by communities in the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Estonia, Argentina, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Northern Iraq—aspires to develop an ecologically, economically, and socially healthy community for the long term. In 2005, the same year as Washburn, Ashland became the second eco-municipality in the state. Bayfield followed in 2006, and today about thirty Wisconsin communities have made eco-municipality commitments. The groundwork for these commitments was lain in 1994, when Ashland, Bayfield, and six other communities and tribes in Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay formed a regional Alliance for Sustainability, which Bayfield Mayor Larry MacDonald today praises for its lasting impact: "If there is something happening in Chequamegon Bay, it's because of the Alliance for Sustainability."

The Alliance started small with speakers at lunch meetings and worked up to a joint application for an Otto Bremer Foundation grant in 2007. That grant allowed the Alliance to hire a staff member, secure office space, and form a "Green Team" that includes the cities plus the Bad River and Lac Courte Oreilles bands of the Ojibwe tribe, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, local school districts, and local businesses ranging from nonprofit to big box: Chequamegon Food Cooperative, Washburn Iron Works, Deep Water Grille, Memorial Medical Center, Ashland Industries, and Wal-Mart. 

The Green Team analyzed what Chequamegon Bay communities were doing in regard to sustainability and how they could improve, then jointly applied for a $60,000 Energy Independent Communities grant from the State of Wisconsin. Green Team partners were among the first Wisconsin communities awarded grants to further Governor Jim Doyle's "25 x 25" goal to generate 25% of the state's electricity and transportation fuels from renewable resources by the year 2025. The grant allowed the Green Team to measure energy usage for outdoor lighting and water systems—as well as fuel usage in fleet vehicles and equipment—in all partner facilities. The energy audit yielded surprises, such as overcharges for Ashland streetlighting leading to a $23,000 refund that may triple as audits continue.

The Green Team partners' first goal has been to independently reduce their respective energy consumption. Some partners have taken steps to either assess or implement wind, solar, biogas, biomass, or biodiesel energy sources. Businesses and agencies already using renewable energy include the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield County Jail, Midland Energy's Sanborn Station, Memorial Medical Center, Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College-Ashland, Northland College, Xcel Energy, and many more.

Today, in part because of the Green Team's example, almost 140 Wisconsin entities—counties, cities, villages, towns, tribes, and schools—have committed to the "25 x 25" challenge to boost energy efficiency, expand renewable energy use, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Chequamegon Bay's sustainability efforts include small steps such as the Clevettes' Power Down Sundays, and institutional leaps such as the creation of a farmland preservation program and major improvements in waste water treatment, municipal lighting, and heating. Much more has been done or is underway in Chequamegon Bay. What might other Wisconsin communities learn from these and other sustainable communities?

New Rules

"We've built a modern society in which we've separated the worker from the workplace, the power plant from the client, the farmer from the kitchen, the manufacturer from the customer, the banker from the borrower and … the citizen from the government," says David Morris, vice president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

"We've separated authority from responsibility. The result is poor decision-making and sometimes catastrophic decision-making," he continues, offering as evidence the "orgy" of bank mergers that he believes contributed to the financial crisis and the free trade agreements that flood the American market with cheap goods produced outside the country.

Like Bayfield's Mayor MacDonald and Transition US's Patricia Benson, Morris addressed participants in the UW System Wisconsin Idea Sustainable Communities Public Policy Forum, held at UW-Fox Valley in Menasha this spring. Sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Extension, UW Colleges and other partners, this group of about 125 community and business leaders, educators, students, grassroots organization members, and others from across the state gathered on March 25-26, 2010, to share ideas and best practices.

"Sustainable development is critical to the future of communities around the state," says UW-Extension Provost and Vice Chancellor Christine Quinn. "UW-Extension is taking the initiative in this area, extending UW System resources statewide to help support local and regional businesses, reduce carbon footprints, explore renewable energy production, and increase high-speed Internet access. We will continue to focus our sustainability work on policy, educational opportunities, research, and leadership development."

The March forum was the culmination of six regional roundtables involving more than 300 participants from Wisconsin communities. "The purpose of the round tables was to get a clearer and statewide sense of what is helping and what is hindering sustainability efforts at the community level," says forum co-chair Jerry Hembd, a state specialist in community and economic development with UW Extension and an associate professor in the Department of Business and Economics at UW-Superior. "When we shared the collective wisdom from the round tables with the participants at the forum, people were blown away."

Forum participants also heard case studies from Chequamegon Bay, Neenah, and La Crosse, as well as Greensburg, Kansas; and Duluth and Northfield, Minnesota. They learned about the big picture and little steps from Morris and other policy experts, and then worked in small groups to shape policy recommendations. Forum sponsors are sharing the subsequent summation of those ideas with state legislators, county boards and administrators, associations of planners and towns, and other groups interested in community sustainability policy. 

Though part of the sustainability movement focuses on individual behavior—buy local, recycle, ride a bicycle to work—forum speakers stressed the need for collective action. "We need to understand the relationship of our individual behavior to our community behavior, but [also] we need a little help in changing the rules," says the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's David Morris. For example, if tax law changed so that large online companies had to collect state sales taxes, more consumers might support local shops because the price differential would drop. "We'll only have progress if we create the rules that maximize the common good," Morris concludes. 

Answering the but-where-do-we-start question is Satya Rhodes-Conway, a senior associate with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at UW-Madison and a member of the Madison Common Council. Rhodes-Conway urges communities to start with something that is both visible and achievable. "Do something that is right for you and your community," she says, listing possible criteria for first projects such as "something … you can win, that doesn't require permission, that builds community or excites people, that's hands-on, that addresses an immediate or serious problem." 

While Chequamegon Bay started with a lunchtime speaker series, La Crosse County staff began by recycling office paper and cardboard, saving a modest but measurable $300 a month. 

"Don't get stuck in the planning stage," warns Rhodes-Conway. Even before an issue is formally addressed or voted on, you can define the scope, set priorities and get to work. She suggests researching the problem, policy options, cost, and funding possibilities before enlisting help from local government staff. 

"The core group championing sustainability doesn't have to have a lot of members, but it should be deep," says Nick Nichols, La Crosse County sustainability coordinator. Nichols is talking about enlisting people who will work behind-the-scenes, speak up at local government meetings, or interact with other key players. In La Crosse, for example, the city partnered with the county for specific sustainability efforts.

In contrast, Neenah is going it alone. The city adopted an eco-municipality resolution in 2007 and then formed Sustainable Neenah, a committee of business leaders, city employees, council members, and community members who meet monthly. Though the film discussion forums and The Natural Step reading circles bombed in Neenah, the committee still counts many successes, according to April Mielke, deputy director of community development and assessment for the city. Sustainable Neenah re-founded a community garden with support from Kimberly-Clark of Neenah, sponsored the local farmers' market, modified city ordinances to allow for sustainable practices such as solar power in residences, purchased a solar blanket for the city pool, and created an educational space on the city's website. The group also completed a detailed carbon footprint analysis that will be a useful benchmark for developing energy goals and tracking progress. In addition, feasibility studies are underway to determine whether to work on a wind or solar project for 2011.

Building Relationships

The progress in Neenah and elsewhere in Wisconsin requires the trust of key players, and that comes when people connect and work together on common goals. "Relationships are everything," Michael Dombeck says. A professor of global conservation at UW-Stevens Point and Wisconsin Academy Fellow, Dombeck shares lessons learned on Capitol Hill as the former chief of the U.S. Forest Service. "People don't trust government. They don't trust organizations. They trust people. They trust each other."

La Crosse County sustainability coordinator Nick Nichols cultivates trust with fishing, hunting, and bird-watching groups who may not see eye to eye but who all value habitat preservation: "You need these people if you're going to get anything done," says Nichols.

It's about finding a common ground, notes Dombeck. The focus should be on areas of agreement—and also on place. "People care about place," he says. "They care about their families and friends. They don't care about scientific concepts."

After all, people can't really locate an ecosystem on a map, but they can see their regional watershed. 

"When your hard work pays off, celebrate the success but give others credit," Dombeck adds. Until then, be patient.

"It takes time for ideas to take effect," says Bayfield's Mayor MacDonald, who offers assurance: "If your community wants to succeed, it will. It's not as tough as you think."

As Mielke of Sustainable Neenah says, "We know we're not going to be like Chequamegon Bay overnight, so we just start taking small steps."

It's sound advice, if Wisconsin is going to move forward on the path toward sustainability.

University of Wisconsin Sustainability Resources



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