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Wisconsin

Charting Healthier Future For Green Bay

Nicole Van Helden is the director of The Nature Conservancy’s Green Bay Watershed project. Prior to moving to Green Bay in 2011, Nicole spent 12 years in the Conservancy’s Madison office working in land protection and conservation grants management. Nature.org caught up with Nicole recently to learn more about the Conservancy’s work in the Green Bay watershed.

“We are really doing some innovative conservation in the Green Bay area that could have broad applicability across other watersheds.”

Nicole Van Helden, Director of Conservation-Green Bay Watershed

Nature.org:

Why is Green Bay one of The Nature Conservancy's highest priorities for conservation in Wisconsin?

Nicole Van Helden:

Green Bay is one of the largest freshwater estuaries in the world and one of the most productive places in Lake Michigan for fish and other aquatic plants and animals. It’s also important to sport and commercial fishermen, boaters and others living and working in the Green Bay area.

Nature.org:

How is the Conservancy working with partners in the Green Bay watershed?

Nicole Van Helden:

In the upper watershed, we are protecting intact forests, which are critical to ensure that clean water flows from tributary streams into the bay. In the lower watershed, we and our partners are testing a number of conservation strategies in the Duck-Pensaukee (a subwatershed of Green Bay) before expanding them to the larger Green Bay watershed. For example, we are working in coordination with the Oneida Tribe, Brown County, Ducks Unlimited and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to restore degraded coastal wetlands on the west shore of Green Bay.

Nature.org:

Why is protecting coastal wetlands so important, and how are the Conservancy and its partners approaching this ambitious effort?

Nicole Van Helden:

Coastal wetlands provide so many services including cleaning polluted water, intercepting waste, protecting shorelines from erosion, providing critical food and shelter for migratory birds and serving as nurseries for fish, frogs and other aquatic life. But many of the coastal wetlands in the Green Bay area have been destroyed or severely degraded.

We’ve recently developed a map-based computer tool that identifies the most important wetlands to protect and restore based on how many services they still provide so we can target our resources where they will have the most impact. We’ve been sharing this tool with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust and other partners so they can focus their conservation and restoration efforts as well.

Nature.org:

Why are barriers to migration for northern pike and other fish such a problem, and what are we trying to do about it?

Nicole Van Helden:

Fish like northern pike, a top predator in the bay and good barometer of its overall health, need to travel from the bay’s open waters upstream to spawn and lay their eggs in suitable habitat. But to do that these species must make their way through culverts that have been constructed everywhere a road crosses a stream. Many times these culverts are poorly constructed, so fish get trapped at the entrance and cannot swim farther upstream to reach good spawning habitat.

We just completed a map of all of these road-stream crossings in the Duck-Pensaukee watershed and identified which are the most problematic for fish passage. The problematic barriers are also prioritized based on which ones would be the least expensive to repair while opening up the most habitat for fish spawning. Those are the ones we will target for removal or repair. We are now expanding this strategy to the entire coastal zone around the bay of Green Bay.

Nature.org:

The Conservancy is involved in a national research project related to wetland mitigation in the area. Can you tell me more about it?

Nicole Van Helden:

Each year in the U.S., we spend about $2.9 billion to mitigate the loss of wetlands to development, oftentimes without much real success. The Conservancy and state and federal partners launched a pilot project in the Duck-Pensaukee watershed to develop a science-based approach to wetland mitigation under the Clean Water Act.

The Wisconsin pilot is part of a national effort led by the Conservancy and Environmental Law Institute. If successful, the approach could be used to direct billions of mitigation dollars toward sites that better align mitigation and conservation efforts and that have the greatest potential for success. Joy Zedler, a Wisconsin Nature Conservancy trustee and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, helped lay the foundation for this watershed approach to mitigation.

Nature.org:

What do you enjoy most about your job and living in Green Bay?

Nicole Van Helden:

We are really doing some innovative conservation in the Green Bay watershed that could have broad applicability across other watersheds, and I love working with the many talented Nature Conservancy staff and partners who are dedicated to this work. My family and I are all big Packers fans, so living close to Lambeau Field is pretty exciting. But perhaps most of all, people in Green Bay really connect with water, which is all around us, and it certainly has made living in this city very special for me as well.

Nature.org:

How will this project benefit people living, working and visiting the Green Bay area?

Nicole Van Helden:

It will improve the health of the forests, rivers and wetlands that make up this ecosystem and help ensure a clean, safe water supply, all of which is critical to the well-being of people, wildlife and local economies.


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