The Plant's closure transformed the land and its human community, as we created a new vision for a place that holds so much of our history and our future.
Late in 1997, the US Army’s announcement of BAAP’s imminent closure ignited an explosion of concern and discussion about the future of the 7400-acre industrial site. Clearly, a lot was at stake in decisions about who would come to own the land and for what purposes. The public made various requests, statements and arguments about a wide variety of potential uses, ranging from returning the land to the farm families who had lost it in 1942, or to the Ho-Chunk Nation, or turning it into an industrial park, a racetrack, correctional facility, a memorial to munitions workers, or a nature preserve. The discussion became rancorous, exposing deep and conflicting feelings about the meaning and value of the site, and about who had the right to direct its future.
In 2000, US Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin helped Sauk County establish a Badger Reuse Committee of 21 representatives from the local community and state and federal agencies. For a year they listened, debated, and reconsidered their stances. This transformed the discussion, resulting in a set of shared values that should guide future uses of the former Indigenous prairie ecosystem, farm community and ammunition plant. The 2020 Badger Reuse Plan was widely accepted as guidance for future land use decisions. BHG played a critical role in this process, showing the critical and natural role of history and storytelling in guiding a community’s self-image and its vision of the future.
The Reuse Plan set a course for future land use that has more recently been described as biocultural restoration, what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls “the study and practice of restoring not only ecosystems, but human and cultural relationships to place, so that cultures are strengthened and revitalized along with the lands to which they are inextricably linked”. It is a movement “that unites rather than divides, that sews together frayed fragments and brings forward the best of what it means to be human” (Gary Nabhan).
Since the plan was published, the BAAP has been divided among 4 landowners: the Ho-Chunk Nation’s 1553-acre Sacred Earth Reservation or Maa Wákącąk; the WDNR’s 3385-acre Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area ; the 2105-acre Dairy Forage Research Center field station; 163 acres for the Bluffview Sanitary District to treat effluent from Bluffview Village, which evolved from the Army’s former Bluffview Village; and a few acres owned by the WI Department of Transportation including the Great Sauk State Trail and new highway realignments.
The Army oversaw the site’s deconstruction—not a simple matter, considering the prevalence of asbestos and the long accumulation of dust from explosive materials. Structures and equipment were scrapped, reused, or buried in the appropriately designed and monitored on-site landfill. The contaminated soils of ditches, settling ponds and disposal sites were removed and placed in the Badger landfill. Mitigation measures met with varied success, to clean the groundwater aquifer that had been contaminated from decades of dumping and burning. At Gruber’s Grove Bay on Lake Wisconsin, sediments contaminated with heavy metals from the outflow of Badger effluents were dredged and landfilled, but with little improvement in the contaminant load. In 2020, a prescribed burn by WDNR in the plant’s former, main settling ponds ignited propellent residue in the soil, which halted that agency’s use of fire on the SPSRA for years thereafter.
Yet, the vast majority of Badger is now suitable for agriculture, wildlife and human recreational uses. The Ho-Chunk Nation is actively restoring ecological processes and cultural connections on the Maa Wákącąk land. The WDNR developed a master plan for the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area, which accommodates cultural and recreational uses while providing for protecting the site’s critical grassland wildlife—although some aspects remain controversial, and limited funding has strained management and access development. BHG leases its museum building from WDNR. The Dairy Forage Research Center continues its research to support dairy operations, and is expanding into the broader issues of sustainability, carbon sequestration, ecosystem services and cultural benefits from a whole-farm perspective. It also provides protected space for the Badger Apple Corps nursery, where seedlings grafted from old Badger farmstead trees are grown and transplanted out as living memorials to the displaced farm community.
Three citizen non-profit groups begun in the 1990s continue to partner with landowners and advocate for wise public use and land management: Citizens for Save Water around Badger (CSWAB) regarding groundwater, air and soil contamination; Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance (SPCA) on conservation, low-impact recreation and other aspects of the Badger Reuse Plan; and Badger History Group (BHG) on historic resources and interpretation. In 2017, the SPCA sued WDNR for not adhering to the Reuse Plan, and that remains in litigation as of 2023.
WDNR, Sauk County, Ho-Chunk Nation and Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance collaborated to transform part of the former Badger railway into part of the Great Sauk State Trail (GSST), with help from local groups like BHG to provide interpretive signage. The GSST is part of a broader nationwide Rails-to-Trails initiative, and has been very popular for local residents to experience the land at Badger with healthy outdoor exercise.
Badger is an ongoing experiment in collaborative, cross-cultural and community-based conservation. It represents just the latest chapter in a long and fascinating history full of lessons about who we are, and our relationship with each other, the land, and the world. BHG continues to play an important role in this endeavor by preserving and interpreting the site’s varied histories, and engaging the public with them.