When a federal employee from the United States Department of Agriculture showed up at the Door County Soil Conservation office to fill a vacancy, he found a wily young man poring over the office manuals. It was 1979 and Bill Schuster decided he was in charge.
Schuster has been in charge for the past 37 years, serving as the first and only department head for the county’s Soil and Water Conservation Department (SWCD). His retirement on Thursday, July 28, marked a change within the department, but not in the conservation ethic and reputation of Door County’s conservationists.
“I’ve worked in a county that has a deeper environmental conservation ethic than most counties in the state of Wisconsin. That has the political support to run a program that could not have been run in other counties. In many of the counties in the state I would have been fired many times over,” said Schuster.
The support Schuster and his office received gave him the authority to rewrite the rulebook on water quality and that rulebook has become the standard the rest of the state strives to achieve.
“This department is, and has been for quite some time, the county conservation department in the state of Wisconsin,” said Schuster. “We are used as an example of how it should be done.”
Although today’s conversation centers around terms like karst, CAFO and escarpment, it was Schuster’s studies in the 1970s that laid the groundwork for groundwater conversation.
Growing up on Cherry Road in Sevastopol with a family line dating to some of the earliest orchards on the peninsula, Schuster was firmly planted in the bedrock of the county before he got his degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Just as he was heading off to Ohio to begin master’s work on hydrogeology, he opened the newspaper and saw a job listing for a county conservationist back home in Door County.
“I thought, ‘Hell, you count birds and walk in the woods, that’s got to be a good job’,” said Schuster. Buying his own office supplies out of his $10,500 salary, he was the first county conservationist in Door County, a job that previously fell under the jurisdiction of a federal USDA soil science employee.
“I was in this office for five days and had no idea about anything,” said Schuster. “So what I did was all day long I read manuals. I was staying in my parents’ house and I’d bring manuals home and I’d read them at night because I had to figure out what the hell this [job] was.”
Schuster was also on his way to a master’s degree in hydrogeology from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, working under Ron Stieglitz, another Door County native. Knocking on Stieglitz’s office door, Schuster said he wanted to demonstrate the close relationship between groundwater and surface water in Door County. His ultimate goal was to convince the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to include groundwater when it talked about priority watersheds.
“It’s hard, you have to be careful looking at things in the past through today’s eyes,” said Schuster, explaining how the DNR didn’t link ground and surface water back then even though the two are inseparable now. “It isn’t like we were running into people of science who didn’t agree. It was just how it came out politically in the first step of a program.”
Before Schuster could finish his thesis and get his master’s degree, the DNR recognized his work and gave the first groundwater priority watershed in the state of Wisconsin to Door County. As soon as that happened, he closed his textbooks and went back to work.
“I never finished and got my degree,” said Schuster. “The point of the education was to change the program. We accomplished it. We got the priority watershed.”
Schuster’s work on ensuring water quality hasn’t changed much since then, but the perspective of county residents and local government has.
He came into the county conservation job after the Milwaukee Journal’s April 18, 1971, issue printed “Poison in Paradise,” an exposé on water contamination in Door County. Don Olesen, a seasonal resident in Door County, secretly collected water samples from bars, restaurants, parks and hotels around the county, finding nearly half of them to be contaminated with bacteria.
“It dropped like a bomb in Door County,” said Schuster. “The first thing that happened after that article came out was there were meetings about how do we contain this story.”
Fast forwarding to the early 2000s, when 68 swimmers got sick in Peninsula State Park and the Natural Resources Defense Council gave the county the Beach Bum label for beach contamination and closures, the tone of the county’s response changed.
“The first thing that happened was that the SWCD was supposed to figure out what was happening, what was causing it and what can we do about it,” said Schuster. “The health department was to start working with the communities to protect people’s health. Think of how different that is.”
The county shifted from containment to solutions and Schuster’s office has been at the helm of solving these water quality problems.
Now, water quality conversation is about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and karst topography. While solutions are still years in the future, Schuster is happy the conversation is even taking place, but warns things will only get more challenging as the dialogue continues.
“I’m concerned about a couple of different things,” said Schuster. “I find it distracting to the effort that the social topic of CAFOs versus non-CAFOs gets mixed into the environmental part. I think the distraction of some people who are against the CAFOs because of the social impact, and thus they are active in the water quality, hurts the validity of the effort. Your well doesn’t care how big of a farm the cow came from.”
Schuster believes the rules for CAFOs and non-CAFOs should be the same. He thinks the state needs to clarify that county conservation departments have enforcement authority, the authority that Schuster’s office has used to become a conservation leader. He wants to develop geo-regions so areas of the state with vastly different topography have different rules, because the earth is not a level playing field. He still has big opinions on where things should go from here.
In the last few weeks of his career, he can see those opinions beginning to play out.
In July, the DNR released a plan for rule revisions, “in areas of the state with shallow soils overlaying fractured bedrock,” recognizing the geo-region concept. The same week, Dane County Judge John Markson ruled that the DNR overstepped its authority on ignoring a cap on the numbers of cows at Kinnard Farms in Kewaunee, giving weight to Schuster’s argument of county-level enforcement wherever the state falls short.
But what happens when the man who started these conversations, who brought groundwater into the minds of the DNR leaves his desk after 37 years? Is there sadness in leaving the dialogue he started?
“People tell me I should have that feeling,” said Schuster, smiling. He dunks his teabag into a ceramic mug. “I don’t think my voice is going to disappear. I don’t know how it’s going to emerge, but my voice is going to continue.”
Schuster is confident his office is set up to continue just as it always has while the county decides how to reorganize the department. The county has authorization to search for a new department head, but Schuster suggested consideration of a management team consisting of the remaining department employees, who have more than 20 years of experience between them, instead of a department head. He also suggested using his salary to hire another conservationist in the field.
“It doesn’t fit well with existing policies and people have a hard time wrapping their heads around how that would possibly work,” said Schuster. “Even if they make the decision to hire, that will take a few months anyhow so the office is positioned to go on. There shouldn’t be a missed step.”
As the county wades through these changes, Schuster will make his way to the airport with tickets to Spain, Norway, Nepal and China.
When setting up a time to meet on the day of his retirement, Schuster made clear that he would much rather slip quietly into his new nonpublic life. He bristled at the idea of recognition for his life’s work, content to know from afar that every time a Door County resident takes a clean drink of water, it was thanks to him.
“You think you know when the big decisions are being made that shape your life, but as you look back in life, you realize that the thing you didn’t think was a really big deal was the one. I think that’s what’s interesting about life. You think you have control about making decisions, but no, that’s not how it goes.
“I’m a pretty healthy 62. Unless I get some bad luck, I can lug a backpack through international airports for another 15 years pretty easy,” said Schuster. “I can’t be sitting here thinking of the unfinished tasks because they never will all be done.”
For 37 years, that list of tasks has been about the protection of Door County’s water. Schuster has crossed off almost all of them and has written himself a new list.