|Magazine of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls
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Study circles. Methane-heated commercial greenhouses. Historic districts. National Scenic Riverway stewardship. These are ways that UW-River Falls has responded to an urgency expressed by local governments, non-profit organizations, schools, residents and community leaders in west-central Wisconsin who are concerned with community sustainability. In 2003, as community leaders voiced increasing worries about the impact of growth and change on the values of small-town life from the eastward expansion of the Twin Cities, UWRF acted with its expertise.
Led by the late Chancellor Ann Lydecker, the campus held regional meetings that identified more than 100 common challenges and regional threats. Community leaders were concerned about a range of problems, from a lack of regional communication and a loss of community identity to erosion of community control over development and a desire to capture the talents and commitment of new residents. As those leaders sought help with community capacity-building and sustainability, UWRF faculty, staff and students readily responded. Here are some examples.
Following those regional meetings, some 50 mayors, county board chairs, town chairs and village presidents gathered at UWRF to ask the university for help in forming a intergovernmental collaborative.
Facilitated by UWRF faculty and staff, WWIC formed as a nonprofit organization open to all 99 government jurisdictions in Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties. Serving as president is Theresa Johnson, a UWRF alumna, who is chair of both the Troy Town Board and the Stillwater Bridge Mitigation Committee for Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Johnson shared the organization's mission with the UW System Board of Regents last fall. “We live in one of the fastest growing areas of Wisconsin,” she said. “We are being impacted by the growth of the Twin Cities metro area throughout the St. Croix River Valley. The WWIC fills a need in this area to allow the exchange of information among these 99 public entities in a manner that benefits many.
“The WWIC and I are excited about the future of our organization with the support and partnership of UW-River Falls. Change is upon us, and the Western Wisconsin Intergovernmental Collaborative in partnership with UW-River Falls is prepared to meet that challenge.”
Meeting quarterly, WWIC has relied on campus experts and others to explore such topics as methamphetamines trafficking, Smart Growth, economic impact of tourism, transportation corridors, and wastewater treatment. Moreover, it has held public policy forums with local legislators. SUSTAINABILITY. Growth and change in the St. Croix Valley has led to a maturing of UWRF's mechanisms to respond to requests for assistance. One outcome last year was the creation of the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, led by environmental science and management Professor Kelly Cain.
The institute's mission is thought to be more expansive than any other university center addressing sustainability in North America as it seeks to address a trio of economic, environmental and social sustainability.
In its launch, Chancellor Don Betz proposed that the institute be “not only a think tank, but a do tank.” He describes it as a highly visible entity to quickly connect the university with local government, education and nonprofit leaders. Betz said he envisions the institute as a conduit for assistance requests that can efficiently capitalize on UWRF's extensive service-learning tradition in which students respond to regional requests for help through faculty-guided class projects. Betz predicts that it will one day be viewed as a milestone in the university's history. With more than 70 distinct definitions to describe sustainability, Cain, a co-coordinator of the sustainable community development master's degree program, has settled on a simple description: “Sustainability is the attempt to avoid un-sustainability.” “Communities are sustainable to the degree that they are self-sufficient,” Cain explains.
So far, the institute has responded to requests for community assistance from River Falls, Hudson, Osceola, St. Croix Falls, Amery and others as well as elected and appointed officials, schools, hospitals, farmers and residents. Requests are varied— from downtown revitalization, alternative energy sources, localized food production/supplies and potable water conservation to creating historic districts and exploring the establishment of a technology charter school.
According to Cain, communities are re-localizing their thinking in how to be sustainable while reducing their carbon footprint. “In the long-term this suggests that a sustainable community development model is the most likely model to meet our goals in terms of community and regional perspectives and to produce products for export if there is a surplus.” Cain has introduced regional leaders to “The Natural Step,” a community decision-making tool. Developed in Sweden, it involves discussion, consensus-building and systems-thinking to preserve communities for future generations. At its core, “The Natural Step” assumes the depletion of minerals and metals; that society must reduce its dependence on products that degrade the environment; that individuals should not destroy ecosystems through overuse; and that all decisions should consider how those actions might harm people and the environment.
This philosophy has been embraced by discussion groups engaging hundreds of residents throughout the valley. Through Cain's outreach, sustainability has been adopted as a public issue by the regional Rotary organization in the east metro and western Wiscosnin.
In 2002, the Phipps Center for the Arts held an exhibit portraying the beauty of the St. Croix Valley. The purpose was to inspire renewed river stewardship, and the event was a product of numerous bi-state organizations that met to discuss ways to preserve the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway before it was harmed irreparably by growth.
When Terry Brown, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, learned of the exhibit, she approached the Phipps to propose incorporating faculty expertise that could lead to a deeper discussion of physical and cultural preservation strategies. Anastasia Shartin, the artistic director for the Phipps, welcomed the collaboration. The partnership evolved into fouryears of exhibits, lectures, discussions and study groups with readings on other communities' strategies to contend with change. Faculty, staff and administrators exhibited artwork, coordinated community art projects, offered suggestions for speakers, and led and participated in discussion groups.
With an increasing national consciousness on sustainability, the series morphed into an expansive debate on the qualities that comprise a sustainable community. What followed was a series of lectures and discussions under the banner of “What We Need is Here” led by Cain; “Sustainability 301,” marking the fourth year, was held this spring.
Another outcome was the creation of “The Natural Step” study circles at the Phipps. “We were blown away by the numbers who attended,” Shartin recalls. An estimated 150 persons are now active in the group, “St. Croix Citizens for Sustainability,” mapping out how valley communities can respond to economic, environmental and social challenges.
These activities over the past seven years have brought together regional arts groups, community leaders, and key partners including the St. Croix Valley Community Foundation, the National Park Service, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters to collaborate closely on the Valley's future. The evolving discussion has created a clear sense of belonging to this place. “There has been a real articulation and a strong sense that this is a region of itself,” says Shartin. “UWRF has been key to this partnership. The Phipps did not have the expertise to do this on its own. The university's resources and talents have been very important to this. Now these conversations have really lit a fire that has brought people together.”
Leveling the social playing field is a critical objective of the West Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency Inc. (West CAP), a citizens action program serving an estimated 4,000 low-income or impoverished families in 10 counties of west-central Wisconsin.
Sustainable communities are at the heart of social justice for all residents, according to Peter Kilde, executive director of the agency based in Glenwood City.
“We are concerned that as the challenges of peak oil and climate change continue to increase that low-income families' interests are met,” says Kilde. “Limited income and low-income families are hit hard by stresses on the system. If the economy is hit, they will feel it first. Their purchases are not discretionary: they must spend on food, energy and transportation.” Moreover, consequences of an economic downturn “are unprecedented and devasting” to low-income families, says Kilde. West CAP sought UWRF's expertise to help it and the region's leaders view the issue in perspective. Already having a national model in home-weatherization, home-ownership and transportation assistance programs, West CAP sought the university's expertise to sort through micro-solutions such as practical home heating alternatives as well as macro-solutions such as exploring the economic development of the biomass industry to capitalize on the region's wealth—from gasification, ethanol production and construction materials to alternative home-heating fuels.
Kilde welcomes new thinking and collaboration with UWRF in exploring specific projects: capturing excess heat from a methane plant to be used to power a commercial greenhouse where Hmong gardeners can learn a trade as well as a waste-heat incinerator that can power a community electric-generating facility.
“West CAP has a lot of ideas, but not a lot of capital,” says Kilde. “But we are good at grant writing, and we know how to tell a good story. A lot of people in private enterprise and government get it, and there is an interest in this.” The social justice value is clear, Kilde says. “West CAP wants to ensure that our wealth stays in our communities and that it benefits the low-income, too. This shouldn't be an extraction where it benefits someone in Hong Kong.
“It's an urgent and serious matter. But I'm encouraged by the demonstrations that things can be done in a positive way,” he adds, “We're very excited about the things that UW-River Falls is doing. They are the kinds of things that the university should be doing.”
Call it “Walking the Talk”
As UW-River Falls assists and advises business, industry, local governments, nonprofit organizations and communities to pursue their objectives in sustainable community development, the campus must lead by example in its own sustainability efforts. Indeed, the university is making progress on multiple fronts to achieve energy sustainability, says Mike Stifter, campus facilities director. In 2006 Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle designated UWRF as one of four UW System campuses to go “off the grid.” By 2012, the campus is expected to achieve balance in its energy consumption between traditional sources and alternative, “green” blocks either purchased or produced on campus. The lessons learned and new insights gained by the university are then to be shared across the state. For UWRF, it means exploring such alternatives as wind, solar and biomass, wedded to comprehensive energy efficiency reviews and conservation tactics. The deadline is going to be tough to reach, Stifter said. “We may not make it by 2012,” he says. But Stifter has an ambitious goal of exceeding the Governor's directive and becoming a national energy efficiency model. A Sustainability Task Force of faculty, staff, students and administrators is identifying possible solutions. The campus also is collaborating with energy partners River Falls Municipal Utilities (RFMU), Wisconsin Public Power, Inc. (WPPI), and Xcel Energy, on implementing alternative energy. “We are very committed to do this,” Stifter says. He points to progress already made since the Governor's announcement. “Out of a five-state region there are only two or three campuses that are more efficient than we are.”
While several thousand people dine at the contract and retail food services in the University Center each day, the idea of pursuing sustainability in food supplies and waste management on campus might seem like a supersized initiative.
But what seems like an impossible task has captured the interest of students like Justin Townsend, a junior from River Falls majoring in conservation, and Eric Wickstrom, a graduate student working toward an M.S.E. in biology who also is pursuing a certificate in sustainable community development.
When UWRF began negotiating a new dining services contract, Townsend, through a sustainability class assignment for Professor Kelly Cain, began researching sustainable food practices that would enhance current systems on campus. He discovered other campuses across the country that had adopted similar practices.
“They were setting guidelines of purchasing food that was not only organic, but could be purchased locally through sustainable agriculture that avoided erosion of the soil, and that also treated animals in a humane manner,” Townsend said.
The guidelines, he found, are expansive—such as requiring a percentage of produce, dairy products, or meat to be purchased locally. “Organic” food must meet the criteria of the USDA Organic Certification program or locally grown food as a preferred product to purchase. For example, Townsend said, food purchasing would start within 100 miles of River Falls, then extend into the St. Croix Valley, and reach into Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“The break-even point is still being researched,” Townsend says. “At the moment it's slightly more expensive for sustainable agriculture. But with rising gas and food prices, the break-even point is quickly approaching.”
Armed with his research and a growing list of St. Croix Valley food producers, Townsend approached Tom Weiss, UWRF's purchasing director, who was coordinating the Request For Proposal for campus dining services. Weiss said he was impressed with Townsend's efforts. “We incorporated many of his ideas into the RFP,” Weiss said. Where food comes from is a big concern in sustainable food practices, but an equal concern is what happens to food waste. Through a UW System grant that Wickstrom pursued through Cain's graduate program, UWRF is now a pilot project for the UW System for composting food waste.
Composting at UWRF dates back to the 1990s, including food waste from a grocery stores study, funded through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. One outcome was a manual for farmers and grocery stores that describes the most effective processes, according to Professor Bob Butler, project coordinator. Farm Manager Bill Connolly says despite the irritant of still plowing up plastic bags disposed improperly into the scraps provided to the farm, the project proved food composting can work well.
Other laboratory farms composting studies have ranged from recycling pizza boxes from the residence halls to processing city leaves to treating animal waste. The latter project is attuned to demonstrating that farms and urban neighborhoods can co-exist, and the new Dairy Learning Center has been key to that research with a compost pad and treatment pond to reduce odors. Connolly reports lab farms are producing about 400,000 pounds of compost annually for use on the farms or for sale to residents and businesses. Food composting from the dining services will begin as soon as a suitable location is found on Farm No. 1, according to Connolly.
According to Wickstrom, a slurry system separates food waste from other trash at the University Center, and the scraps are then pulverized and dried in a centrifuge, producing up to 400 pounds of material that could be composted per day. “Our grant is to see if our program is replicable across the UW campuses,” says Wickstrom, who will complete his analysis during spring semester.
Wickstrom is devoting substantial attention to interpreting laws on how food scraps, manure and other compost must be handled. The project also examines the food compost's nutrient content, which can be balanced through the introduction of carbon, phosphorous or nitrogen at the lab farm. Wickstrom said his long-term vision is to explore implementing a similar composting program with food waste from River Falls public schools.
The Hudson native brings a personal passion to the composting program and his other professional interests. “The ability to put your degree to work on campus is wonderful,” he says. Townsend also supervises a youth job corps program for the Community Design Center of St. Paul. His group is reclaiming a Mississippi River brownfield called the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, named for a distinguished UWRF alumnus who was a Minnesota congressman.
Wickstrom says his projects and the UWRF experience are a great mix of personal and professional passions in achieving a sustainable community. “We have a lot of good things going on here,” he says. “I could spend hours talking about them.”
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