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riting about the complicated concept of cure, disability studies scholar and poet Eli Clare (2017) describes his walk through a Wisconsin prairie. If we imagine cure as a kind of restoration, he suggests, then it requires locating some damage, believing that what existed before is superior to what exists now, and seeking to return what is damaged to that former state. With this context in mind, he considers the prairie around him, the land “restored” from its previous state as a commercial cornfield. The damage from industrial agriculture was so extensive, he explains, that the Department of Natural Resources spent more than a decade carefully reseeding the land with plants intended to “replicate the tallgrass prairie that was once here.” (p. 16) But he also wonders what that restoration process might further cover: beneath the topsoil, he knows, “the histories of grass, dirt, bison massacre, genocide live here, floating in the air, tunneled into the earth.” (p. 16) In noting that the prairie he walks through “was stolen a century and a half ago from the eastern Dakota people,” yet leaving unstated indigenous people’s present and future relationships to this land, Clare’s queries might also prompt a deeper consideration of the relationship that human absences and presences have to conceptions of ecological restoration and natural environments (p. 16). He asks: “Is an agribusiness cornfield unnatural, a restored prairie natural? How about the abundance of thistle, absence of bison, those old corn furrows? What was once normal here; what can we consider normal now? Or are these the wrong questions? Maybe the earth just holds layer upon layer of history.” (p. 17)
Running approximately 1,200 miles through Wisconsin, from Sturgeon Bay in the east to St. Croix Falls on the state’s western border, and traveling through land belonging to indigenous tribes including Menominee, Potawatomi, Miami, Ojibwe, Oceti Sakowin, Ho-Chunk, Miami, Peoria, Sauk, Meskwaki, and Odawa, the Ice Age Trail roughly follows the landscape formations created by North America’s last glacial recession. Like its more famous kin, the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, the Ice Age Trail’s classification as one of the eleven U.S. National Scenic Trails marks it as a space for both appreciation and protection of the natural environment. According to the non-profit Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA), which maintains the trail, more than one million people hike some portion of it each year.
The 1968 National Trails Systems Act, which formally designated national scenic and historical trails, stipulates that these trails should be established “primarily, near the urban areas of the Nation” to promote public access and use. Accordingly, the Ice Age Trail passes through not only Wisconsin’s forests and parks but also many of its cities and towns. In the southern portion of the state, the trail winds through Sauk County and around the popular Devil’s Lake State Park. Here, to the trail’s north lies the city of Baraboo; two miles to the south, the remnants of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, once the largest munitions factory in the world.
Producing hundreds of millions of pounds of propellants that became ammunition for cannons, grenades, and rockets, and employing upwards of 7,500 people at a time, the Badger plant operated during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Between these periods of formal conflict, the US Army typically placed it in “standby” status, then designated it as inactive and ceased all production in early 1975. An initial decontamination effort was declared complete in 1977, but both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources subsequently permitted the storage of 10,000 gallons of hazardous waste in containers at the facility. Formally decommissioned in 1997, the plant has since been the site of a decades-long negotiation over stewardship of its more than 7,000 acres of land. Since 2014, land rights have been split between the US Dairy Association, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a local sanitation district, and the Ho-Chunk Nation, whose ancestral land encompasses the entirety of this area (Hall, 2014).
The Badger Plant is also the site of a sustained restoration and reuse project developed by multiple stakeholders. Framed in many public documents as an effort to move “from military facility to green space,” the restoration project has focused in part on reconstructing the oak savanna and tallgrass prairies, some of the most endangered plant communities in the Midwest (Luthin, 2019). A visitor’s brochure optimistically looks toward a “green future” in which the Sauk Prairie is fully restored. At the same time, repeated decontamination treatments by the US Army still have not succeeded in their goal of removing toxic waste and chemicals from the land and water in this area (Luedke, 2019). Abandoned concrete buildings, utility and water lines, and other forms of military infrastructure remain on the Ho-Chunk Nation’s parcel. Groundwater contaminants from the munitions plant leak into the Wisconsin River and the residential water supply.
Preservation, protection, and restoration stand as guiding keywords for the organizations charged with managing the Ice Age Trail. The IATA works with the National Park Service and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to monitor landowner easements and supervise hunting activities, and it mobilizes volunteers to remove invasive plant species and “restore the prairie that once existed.” Additionally, the IATA actively promotes Leave No Trace principles, a set of outdoor ethical guidelines intended to minimize human impact on the rest of the natural world. First developed by environmental management agencies in the late 1960s as outdoor recreation and use of public lands began to soar, the principles are now widely publicized in ranger stations, outdoor education programs, and conservation management websites (Marion and Reid, 2001). Hiking trails themselves are featured in the second principle: travel and camp on durable surfaces. By staying on the designated path, hikers concentrate human impact to specific areas and protect—through ensuring human absence—the surrounding vulnerable ecosystems.
For all of their ecological benefits, though, Leave No Trace principles can also participate in the fantasy of an otherwise untouched wilderness: the illusion, created and sustained by settler colonialism, that there ever was a pure natural world free from human impact, or that such a world must entail the absence of humans (Cronon, 2003; Merchant, 2003; Taylor, 2016). Hiking trails occupy a paradoxical role in this fantasy. They invite some humans into wilderness areas while also attempting to erase the daily and historical human presence there. Despite the idealism embedded in the name, Leave No Trace principles seek to minimize, not completely eradicate, human impact; after all, trails themselves create environmental impact. In their role as restoration tools, securing the natural world against human impact, hiking trails can also remind us of the political and historical traces that remain.
Accounts of the Badger munitions plant restoration project (including the historical narratives displayed by the Museum of Badger Army Ammunition on site) typically include some discussion of the plant’s production history; the farm families that the US Army forced to relocate; and the Ho-Chunk people, whose land was ceded in treaties of 1829, 1832, and 1837, and whose forced removal—carried out by the US Army—began in earnest in 1840 (Greendeer, 2002; Lurie, 1978). Environmental restoration of the plant’s former site—an effort to return the landscape to a natural or original state—exists in some tension with this remembering, and with the ever-present traces of environmental contaminants. In fact, the Army chose this site for the Badger plant in part because of its specific geographical features. An Army report from 2006 notes that in addition to a reliable water supply from the Wisconsin River, the plant was “strategically located on fairly flat farmland, that is hilly or rolly enough to provide adequate drainage. The subsoil is gravelly in nature and presented opportunity for excellent load bearing qualities” (US Army, 2006: 4). The same report casually observes that “today the large industrial complex has turned back into the rolling prairie and farmland it once was” (14). But this landscape holds the material residue of toxic waste, of concrete structures, of rail lines, and the ideological residue of white settlement and military exploitation, of violent shifts in stewardship of and access to the land. How does restoration function in such a space?
This question is less about the physical process of ecological restoration and more about the effects of restoration as a guiding concept. Might efforts to restore the land to some natural starting point also encourage us to believe that we could truly remove the legacy of militarization and extractivism from the prairie? How might Leave No Trace principles and militarism—despite their dramatically different orientations to the environment—nonetheless both entail some assumption of human dominance and control over the rest of the natural world? The proximity of the Ice Age Trail to this site, and the centrality of the trail itself to restoration efforts, may be instructive. The IATA’s website contains only a single mention of the Badger plant that it neighbors: an announcement for a 2018 public presentation about the site’s ecological future, a future made possible by environmental restoration projects. Restoration work on the Ice Age Trail—where the trail itself is a crucial tool for such work—helps construct the spatial imaginary of a National Scenic Trail as one far from human traces, as one that is ahistorical and apolitical. This imagined natural space persists even though the very trail evidences human impact. How can hiking trails be positioned responsibly toward the land’s history and the attendant layers of dispossession? As mechanisms for environmental protection and restoration, what can hiking trails help us know and remember? What might they encourage us to forget?
Other essays from this forum include:
Editors' Letter. Everyday Militarisms: Hidden in Plain Sight/Site, Caren Kaplan, Gabi Kirk, and Tess Lea.
The Explosivity of Kelp, Javier Arbona
The Militarized Campus Arboretum, Gabi Kirk and Robert Moeller
Selfies and Submarines: The Social Media of Military Recruitment, Stella Maynard
On Landmines and Suspicion: How (not) to Walk Explosive Fields, Diana Pardo Pedraza
Clare E (2017) Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cronon, W (2003) The trouble with wilderness, or, getting back to the wrong nature. In: Warren LS (ed) American Environmental History. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, pp.213-236.
Greendeer MM (2002) Speech on Wisconsin treaties, Ho-Chunk land losses exclusive to Monroe County, Wisconsin. La Crosse, 1 March. Available at: https://www.nelson.wisc.edu/ltc/docs/mg0203spe.pdf (accessed 6 January 2020).
Hall DJ (2014) Ho-Chunk to finally get 1,500 acres at closed Badger army ammunition plant. Wisconsin State Journal, 6 December.
Luedke A (2019) More chemicals found at Badger ammunition plant site near Merrimac. Sauk Prairie Eagle, 20 March.
Lurie NO (1978) Winnebago. In: Trigger BG (ed) Handbook of North American Indians. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, pp.690-707.
Luthin C (2019) Series on Badger army plant offered. Baraboo News Republic, 31 August.
Marion JL and Reid S (2001) Development of the United States leave no trace program: a historical perspective. In: Usher MB (ed) Enjoyment and Understanding of the Natural Heritage. Edinburgh: The Stationery Office Ltd., pp.81-92.
Merchant, C (2003) Shades of darkness: race and environmental history. Environmental History 8(3): 380-394.
Taylor DE (2016) The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection. Durham: Duke University Press.
US Army Joint Munitions Command (2006) Badger army ammunition plant: historical overview 1941-2006. Available at: https://www.jmc.army.mil/Docs/History/Badger%20Army%20Ammunition%20Plant%20-%20V3%20Internet.pdf (accessed 26 September 2019).
Toby Beauchamp is associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and US Surveillance Practices (Duke University Press, 2019).