by Sarah Squires, editor-in-chief, Winona Post
Life is full of coincidences.
More than a decade ago, when I was preparing to interview for the reporter job at the Post, I realized I had more than one connection to River City. I had some friends from college who grew up here, but I also had another window into town with an exacting view. My friend and colleague at the Pope County Tribune had not only gone to college in Winona, but she’d worked at the Winona Post for a short time after school. “What’s it like?” I asked her, curious about what made Winona special, and what set the Post apart.
Shannon told me a few things, but what I remember most — her real selling point to me — was the way she gushed about how the city was both bustling and beautiful, and nestled into nature in a way that is so different from other places. “You can be downtown in the middle of the city, and just walk or ride your bike across the bridge and — boom,” she said. “You’re in the woods, on the river, on an island.”
Shannon was telling me about Latsch Island, and the first time I set foot in Winona was the beginning of a bit of a love story with it.
Latsch Island has many faces. She has a public beach pointed toward downtown’s riverfront, where scores of people flock for picnics and to cool off in the summer months. People bring their dogs there to frolic and play catch; a lazy tree swing dangles from a towering cottonwood. She’s forested on the edges, with boathouses dotting the edges where people still live the true river life. You can wander the paths along the connected Wolf Spider Island to enjoy a more rustic, wooded area. Or, there’s the entire southwest half, on the other side of the interstate bridge, full of wooded wetlands and beauty, secret beaches, and pristine wildlife.
Latsch Island is unique, and most of it was gifted to the city by famed conservationist hero and former Winona Mayor John Latsch. Part of falling in love with Latsch Island, for me, was discovering John Latsch and his vision and legacy. He purchased thousands of acres of river land for the public’s use, understanding that without efforts toward conservation, there may one day not be many places along the river where boys could play, where wildlife could remain and thrive unmolested. He wanted all of us to experience the wonder and the beauty of life along the river. Among the many gifts of John Latsch, the island that is accessible by vehicle, just minutes or a stunning hike over the bridge, is perhaps Winona’s jewel.
Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed using the southwest half of the island as a dump for dredged river sand. It would fill wetlands and ruin habitat for migrating birds and other species that call the island home. It would mar, as one speaker at a recent hearing on the matter, Winona’s “front yard.”
Some city leaders have said they don’t know enough about the plan to say whether they’ll support it. I can’t imagine any new detail that would change my mind: A sand dump does not belong on Latsch Island.
Right now, the city is poised to spend millions on trail investments that would connect existing trails to Winona’s riverfront and eventually to hundreds of miles of trails in Wisconsin — recognizing the value of outdoor recreation along the river. Indeed, outdoor recreation and investments in it have already brought Winona notoriety and economic impact — helping to attract people to what for decades has been somewhat a secret we’ve kept to ourselves. The city is also ushering in a wave of new development, including high-end apartments and Fastenal’s new riverside office building, along with eying more improvements to Levee Park to draw more folks to Winona’s downtown river expanse. Winona is on the verge of an incredible boom of development, tourism, and truly embracing its identity as a river oasis and arts and cultural mecca. The idea of adding a sand dump, that would be visible to nearly all these important developments and plopped in the city’s jewel of a front yard, is unbelievable.
Having watched the corps’ attempts to take a Kellogg farm for a similar plan to house sand in 2017, I know that simply writing an editorial or speaking out at a public hearing will not be enough to stop this. Diverting the corps from putting that family farm out of business took years of resistance and organizing. That’s why it’s important that we all pay attention now and work to stop Latsch Island from being used by the corps as a graveyard for tons and tons of sand. We need to ask our city leaders to stand up and object to a plan that would scar our most precious stretch of riverfront, and do it loudly, and now. The rest of us must do our part to tell the corps Latsch Island is off limits.
Though some dredged sand has in the past been recycled for use as fill in development, the amount of sand planned for Latsch Island appears to be much more than would be used by any calculation in the coming years. What we’re talking about is a sand mountain, visible to us in some of our most important cityscapes, that would likely remain in perpetuity. Just as Latsch meant his land gifts to the public to last forever, this decision will last longer than us. This is the stuff of legacy, which is why it’s so important that our city leaders decide now how they’d like the history books of River City to read.
As for the rest of us, our voices matter, too. You can comment on the dredge plan by mailing St. Paul District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ATTN: Regional Planning and Environment Division North, 180 Fifth Street East, suite 700, St. Paul, Minn., 55101; or email Pool6DMMP@usace.army.mil.
Join me in opposing the corps’ plan to gauge our front yard.