CHIPPEWA FALLS — Leland Christenson of Eleva is proud of the work he has done in restoring wetlands, and a measure is now moving through the state Legislature to allow him to preserve what he has created.
Christenson bought property 10 years ago in the town of Birch Creek in Chippewa County, west of Holcombe, where he dammed a shallow stream, creating a 90-acre pond. Christenson participates in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program, which assists landowners in restoring habitat for wildlife.
He began working on the project in 2008. Christenson said the lake is now a licensed fish hatchery and is being used to grow wild rice. On that property, Christenson has opened up a getaway for veterans, scouts, terminally ill children and people with disabilities to fish. The fishing site opened last year for these groups.
“It’s a really good project for people who’ve had hard times in their life,” Christenson said.
Some of the nonprofits that have used the pond include Field of Dreams, Helping Hands, Every Third Sunday and Special Friends, said Nicholas Haus, manager of Wisconsin Environmental Restorations, an agency that works with Christenson.
Dean Gullickson, a retired state Department of Natural Resources warden and now a member of the Chippewa County Board, lauded Christenson for his work in restoring the wetland, which was a eutrophic waterway, meaning it had excessive nutrients and is often overrun with algae so suffocating that fish couldn’t survive winters in it. Christenson mechanically dug into the glacial soil and was able to improve the oxygen levels in the water, which in turn is diminishing the high level of algae-causing nutrients, he explained.
“It’s spectacular,” Gullickson said. “What it was, to what it is now, is nothing short of spectacular. I don’t think people understand how special this is. What a way to give back. He’s won almost every state award, and some national awards, for wetland restoration.”
Gullickson said that Christenson has “compassion for kids that are disadvantaged” and it shows in his willingness to share the private property with these nonprofit groups.
A bill is moving through the state Legislature to help Christenson, allowing him to keep the waterway he has created as private property and prohibiting the public from accessing the water.
The Assembly Committee on Environment and Forestry approved a measure Tuesday that would prohibit the state from opening up public access to a waterway that had been created by a dam as part of a wildlife/wetland restoration project.
“It’s a non-navigable, man-made pond that was licensed in 1967,” Christenson explained of his site. “After this substantial improvement, we want to make sure it remains private. It is an unnamed tributary. It is not public water.”
Christenson stressed that he’s not a developer and has no plans to build on the site.
“We made a fish farm out of it,” he said. “We made it so we can raise fish there. The fish are my property — I hatched them, and I raised them.”
Not everyone is happy with the proposed legislation. State Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, voted against the measure at the committee hearing, saying the bill could have unintended consequences.
“My biggest issue with the bill is we are creating legislation for one person,” Anderson said of Christenson. “It feels under-handed and uncouth. There are a lot of different circumstances that could come up from this.”
Conservationists expressed concern the bill would alter the state constitution that declares all “navigable waters to be common highways and forever free.” If a lake, stream or pond is deep enough to float a boat, it is considered public space, even if it is entirely surrounded by privately owned property. Anderson said he is concerned what future impact the proposed legislation would have on this doctrine.
However, Christenson said his pond has never been classified as navigable water — the DNR declared it non-navigable water in 2008 — and he wants to keep it that way.
“It’s never been public; it never will be public,” he said.
If the bill becomes law, it would take away the DNR’s authority to re-designate any waters deepened by dams as “navigable” if the owner is enrolled in the federal restoration program like the one offered to Christenson by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Christenson told the Chippewa County Board in February 2016 about his plans to open up the man-made lake for disabled people and other nonprofits when he approached the municipality about a land swap. Christenson said he had to wait a year to open the site, allowing the fish to grow in size.
As part of that land swap agreement, Christenson gave Chippewa County 180 acres in the town of Sampson — valued at $337,500 — in exchange for the 150 acres of wetland in the town of Birch Creek — valued at $285,000 — which provided him access from Highway M to his 400-acre parcel he already owned.
Christenson said he is frustrated that people have objected to his goal of keeping the waterway private.
“I don’t understand how people can oppose something that brings people so much joy,” Christenson said.
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