Scott Walker has been interested in the fate of the former Rainbow Springs Resort in Waukesha and Walworth counties for a long time. In 2008, as Milwaukee County Executive, he was “outraged” (and said so on talk radio) when the Doyle administration approved using stewardship funds to purchase the 970 acre property, including two golf courses comprising 240 acres.
The failed resort borders the most pristine and intact river system in Southeastern Wisconsin. It is home to 55 species of fish and 15 kinds of mussels. In 2008 the land was purchased by the state with money from the Stewardship Fund. Public hearings were held and a restoration plan was approved. $3 million in federal money was secured to fund the project. By the time Walker became Governor in 2011, work already was underway to allow public hunting, fishing and hiking on the newly acquired land, and to restore its two dilapidated golf courses to wetland and prairie.
While the towns of East Troy and Mukwonago were happy to see the property turned into public land, Walker had his own plans.
As soon as he was elected Governor, Walker moved to rescue the golf courses from the public, and to ensure that golfers would not suffer should the 34 other golf courses in the area be all booked up. A February 22, 2011 email, uncovered through a freedom of Information Act request, revealed that Matt Moroney, newly appointed Deputy Secretary of the DNR, met with Nick Kitzman, a legislative assistant to Scott Walker, to discuss the future Rainbow Springs, including the possibility of selling the land:
Two days later, on February 24, it was announced that a new public hearing would be held March 10 on the fate of the property. DNR Executive Assistant and champion of trout stream privatization Scott Gunderson presided at the hearing, but was unable to generate enough enthusiasm for Walker’s scheme to challenge the previously approved plan.
Part of the problem with what Walker wanted to do was that using money from the Stewardship Fund to maintain a golf course probably would have been illegal. Thus it was not surprising that golf enthusiast and Scott Walker lackey Senator Mary Lazich (R, New Berlin) announced in April of 2011 that she was drafting legislation that would allow for preservation of the two golf courses.
In the end, Walker lost. Declaring that he “would not have voted to spend one penny of stewardship money on a golf course” Board Chairman Jonathan Ela, drafted a lengthy resolution to oppose Lazich’s bill. The Natural Resources Board, various environmental groups, the surrounding communities, and even the Golf Course Owners of Wisconsin, campaigned to close the rundown golf courses and restore the Mukwonago River. They won, even in the face of Scott Walker’s long-simmering outrage.
In short, Walker risked millions of dollars in federal money in order to force a community to keep two golf courses that it didn’t want. The Rainbow Springs story is a vignette of Walker’s attitude toward public lands and wilderness, and of his pettiness.