It’s bad enough that Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area is seeing so much damage from high use and no quality management or interventions, but what happens when we introduce high volumes of highway runoff and the associated salt, oil and other pollutants into the deep pools and falls of the glen? It can’t be good. But hey, somebody tell me I’m wrong!
Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area has, in recent years, become an amazingly popular attraction here in the Baraboo Hills. Of course it has. High cliffs, waterfalls and cool pools in a jungle-like atmosphere is akin to heaven on earth. The fact that this little “heaven” is located just a few miles from Wisconsin’s most popular state park and minutes from Wisconsin Dells only increases attendance. In recent years attendance has been so high that the damage to the area itself has become wildly out-of-hand.
Today’s Pewit’s Nest is still beautiful, but it’s tired. Once you hike in on the now wide dirt path from the parking lot (If you are lucky enough to find a place to park), all signs of an official “trail” are gone. The land is now a maze of foot trails up to the cliff edges. Native plants are being crushed and killed to be replaced with hard ground and invasive plants brought in on tennis shoes. People are climbing the cliffs, diving and swimming in the water in volumes never once imagined. With practically no foot patrols by rangers or wardens, it’s the wild west.
Pewit’s Nest is now part natural area, part water park and dotted in peak season with both trash and fire pits. And the sad fact that this is old, very old news. While I know there are those rank and file in the DNR who do care, it seems the people who can do something can’t be bothered. The time to make changes to restore and protect Pewit’s Nest while allowing the public safe, respectable access is long overdue. Anyone who loves Pewit’s Nest SNA needs to speak up.
But that’s only half the story.
Pewit’s Nest now has to cope with a new enemy. The highway 12 bypass. What some of you may not know is that the stream that feeds the pools and falls of Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area, known as Skillet Creek incidentally, flows from near Devil’s Lake Park and runs north-west to Pewit’s Nest SNA. The new high-volume, 4 lane bypass will use 2 big bridges to cross Skillet Creek at its new location, west of the old highway.
I saw this one coming, but I held my breath. Things started feeling a bit more ominous last year when visitors to Pewit’s Nest started to mention how muddy and brown the water was looking. I imagined this had to do with the construction. Still, I’d never actually looked at the new bridge and landscaping which wasn’t easily accessible, nor did I ask. I mean, the DOT knows what they are doing, right?
Well, sadly after visiting the area I don’t think they do. I went out to look the new bridge over Skillet Creek on Saturday, March 12th. I didn’t much like what I saw. It’s not the bridge itself. Construction brings changes and some change is ok. It’s pretty impressive actually. It’s a huge bridge for such a small stream. You can see how they avoided damaging the scenic sandstone to the west and remained out of eyesight of Skillet Falls to the east. You can also see how they attempted to mitigate higher flows by creating a long meander under the bridge. Knowing how high and hard Skillet Creek ran in past floods, I don’t think their mitigation will work, but let’s put that aside. Let’s talk about the runoff.
Here’s my concern. There is now a huge area of pavement and grass. A square mile or more. Trees have been cleared and slopes graded over a large area. When the snow melts or when we have high volumes of rain, there is going to be a lot of water to move. The solution was to pipe all the water into a large stone filled gully which will carry all that water down into Skillet Creek. (Keep in mind that the stream is shallow and normally only 4 feet or so wide at this point.) The water coming down that gully during heavy rains, regardless of the stone, is going to enter the creek hard and fast. The stream will see vastly increased volumes of water and increased force. All that water and energy is going straight into Pewit’s Nest sandstone gorge less than 1/2 mile downstream. When it pours, it’s going to get rough in there. Increased erosion? Increased sediment? Probably, but that’s not all. What about the pollution?
Imagine a 4 lane highways worth of gas, oil, salt and other chemicals all being channeled directly into Skillet Creek then into Pewit’s Nest. I can’t help but wonder what the various chemicals and road salt will do to the enclosed glen. Not to mention the birds, plants and other animals including river otters that call it home. How long before we see oily rainbows on the water below the falls or clinging to the mossy stone on the water’s edge? I know, we’re draining these pollutants into our rivers and waterways every day. So what right? Well, whatever your feelings on that, Pewit’s Nest (Which IS a protected(?) State Natural Area btw!) is going to get more than its fair share. Much of it may get trapped in the gorge. My bet is that pollutants will slowly collect in the sediment at the bottom of the deep pools risking long-term health of life in the water as well.
On the upside, maybe the volume of visitors will go down. I mean, who will want to swim in a toxic, glorified drainage ditch?
UPDATE: Download Stormwater Management Plan – Read the stormwater management plan for this section of Hwy 12. While I’m not an engineer, I do find it interesting that while the Baraboo river & Green Valley Campground’s pond are given significant attention, Pewit’s Nest SNA isn’t mentioned in the plan.
UPDATE 2: THIS POST IS NOW 1 YEAR OLD. – Currently the DNR is looking for comments on their proposed plan for Pewit’s Nest which you can read here. (It does not address possible damage from the Hwy bypass however.)
PS: I believe that if you are going to complain, you should have the glimmer of an answer prepared. When it comes to protecting Pewit’s Nest from highway runoff, it seems to me that the solution would be a retention area or pond in place of the current gully. Let the water flow off of the highway into an artificial wetland area, then seep into to stream. This idea may not solve everything, but it’s my opener to the conversation.
PPS: Want to Contact the DOT? Here are the Hwy 12 Bypass Project Contacts.
PPPS: Want to Contact the DNR?
Regarding The Natural Area in general try Thomas Meyer at Thomas.Meyer@wisconsin.gov
Regarding the Hwy Runoff Try DNR EA Transportation Liaison, Andy Barta at firstname.lastname@example.org
***Obligatory Disclaimer: This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Which is sometimes too bad if you ask me!).