Mountain volunteers help restore community treasure

Former picnic area, now Green Lake Park, will reopen in late May
Greg Seubert

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about the reopening of the Green Lake Picnic Area as a park.)

It’s been nine years since budget cuts caused the U.S. Forest Service to close several recreation properties in northern Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Several campgrounds, boat landings and picnic areas were shut down to the public in 2015, including the Green Lake Picnic Area near Mountain in Oconto County. While most of those properties never reopened to the public, the picnic area is scheduled to officially open to the public May 25, as Green Lake Park.

Brenda Carey-Mielke, a Mountain Town Board supervisor and president of the Mountain Historical Society, spearheaded the effort to get the park back open to the public. She attended a volunteer work session April 13 at the park, located adjacent to state Highway 32.

The historical society will operate and maintain the park as part of an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.

“We signed our intergovernmental agreement with the U.S. Forest Service on Nov. 2,” Carey-Mielke said. “They were moving to get it done quickly before there was a potential government shutdown. They didn’t want anything to interfere with the park reopening and our efforts to get it restored.”

The Mountain Historical Society will operate the park, Carey-Mielke said.

“We have a vision, and we shared that with the Forest Service,” she said. “They are on board and very happy. It’s still their land, and it’s not for sale. They rewrote the federal policy to allow for a park in a community with something of historical significance like our pavilion to enter into an agreement.”

The park’s pavilion, built almost 90 years ago as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps program, is the reason the park is opening again, according to Carey-Mielke.

“The only reason this park is opening from thousands of parks that were closed across the country is the pavilion,” she said. “It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. I’ve had lively phone calls from people from around the state. They ask, ‘Well, how come your park is reopening? We can’t get ours open. What did you do?’ I said, ‘We beat the drum that we have something on the National Registry of Historic Places, and we’re charged by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to protect and preserve it.’”

Carey-Mielke and other volunteers have been working to prepare the park for its reopening since the first volunteer clean-up day March 8.

“The first day, March 8, I was just so taken back by all the people,” she said. “We were almost tripping over each other. I said, ‘Be here at 9 o’clock’ and people were here at 8. I got here at 8:30 and they were going around the gate and trying to get in and help.”

Most of the work so far includes cleaning downed trees and branches, and several of the volunteers that showed up to help also cleaned up their personal properties following a windstorm in July 2019 that caused considerable damage throughout Oconto County.

“They brought equipment that the Mountain Historical Society couldn’t afford to rent, really nice equipment and lots of chainsaws to chop up the logs,” Carey-Mielke said. “Right now, we’re trying to move as efficiently as we can and stay organized.”

The windstorm toppled several trees in the park, which at the time had been closed to the public for four years. Many of those trees weren’t removed until recently.

“We’re getting the trees out and off of the forest floor,” Carey-Mielke said. “This is a baptism by fire for everybody. I’m trying to let everybody understand the importance of not leaving an imprint.”

Some of the volunteers do have experience from cleaning up their own properties after the 2019 windstorm.

In addition to the pavilion, the park will include a swimming beach, picnic area, walking trails and a boat landing.

The swimming beach drew people to the park, including campers at Bagley Rapids, a small national forest campground two miles away on the Oconto River that does not have a designated swimming area.

“We’re going to be the only town in our three-town area that has a sandy beach.” Carey-Mielke said. “We have a plan for the park with everything that we plan on doing. We’re putting in yellow stakes to denote a walking path with crushed granite. We’re going to have accessible paths all around the park. Here’s the picnic site, where there’s going to be a picnic table and fire grill. We want it to be all done by opening day.”

The historical society is also raising funds to help maintain the park.

“We started making benches, asked for sponsors and they’re all sold out,” Carey-Mielke said. “We’re going to put benches around the park and we’re going to have the beach restored. It’s totally under the scope of the U.S. Forest Service, and they said we can restore it to the way it was and that’s what we’re doing.”

Renovating the pavilion, which includes wooden benches and a large fireplace, is a project for down the road once more funding is available.

“It’s in our plan, and it’s going to be phased as we raise money,” Carey-Mielke said. “We’re planning a meat raffle for May 18 and a communitywide old-fashioned pig roast on June 22 at the community center. We’re hoping that’s going to be our key fundraiser every year for maintenance. We figure we’re going to need about $20,000 a year for park maintenance. We’re going to have professionals come in and cut the grass and do the plowing. We want to do it right.”

An improved parking lot is also planned, Carey-Mielke said.

“We’re going to have to resurface the parking area, but that’s going to be a lot of money, and we’re really going to have to do some powerhouse fundraising for that,” she said.

The Forest Service will repair the park’s well to make water available, but the park will not have any electricity.

“The cost is astronomical,” Carey-Mielke said. “Just to bring it in from the road would be $20,000.”

Carey-Mielke isn’t surprised how the project came together.

“I think it is a testament to the Mountain spirit and the people of this community,” she said. “They want it open, they want to take care of it. They’re going to protect it and preserve it.”