Onalaska Community Life (West Salem, WI)
Posted on December 16, 2005
By Tony Nelson
Onalaska Mayor Jim Bialecki and Jason Gilman, the city's land use and development director, sat facing the half circle desk in the council chambers at City Hall. Foreign faces in the chamber seats looked out at the two and grilled them with questions about how the city works and how environmental problems are handled by the city.
The questions didn't come hard and fast, but broken into short phrases passed through an interpreter.
Visitors from several Russian cities were looking for answers to some of their tough questions on how to make their cities better places to live. They spent more than two hours Dec. 8 with Bialecki and Gilman.
The visitors were part of a delegation consisting of leaders of government, education and environmental bodies. Their goal was to learn new ways to deal with their problems back home in Russia.
The delegation was sponsored by the La Crosse Dubna Friendship Association and was here through World Services of La Crosse, in conjunction with the Open World Program - a congressional initiative to build mutual understanding between the United States and Russia.
During their stay, the leaders also visited with UW-La Crosse environmental students and professionals as well as representatives from La Crosse, Onalaska and La Crosse County government, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Davy Engineering and Xcel Energy for demonstrations on methods for management of water, solid waste, household hazardous materials, recycling, water quality and the county's unique waste-to-energy system.
The leaders stayed with host families throughout the county and leaders had a chance to get a taste of the area's culture, taking in concerts and the Rotary Lights.
The questions the delegates asked the Onalaska officials ranged from dealing with the streets, homes, yards and other concerns of any growing city to questions Americans might take for granted.
Aleksandr Kukhlevskly, Department of Natural Resources acting head from Izhevsk, Udmurtia, asked; “Do you have to have an American flag flying in your yard?”
“No,” Bialecki said. “That is optional.”
Vitaliy Danilov, director for the nonprofit organization in Kambarka, Udmurtia, said many of the things being discussed are of great importance to the delegates back in their home cities.
“In my city, they are building a plant for the treatment of poisonous chemicals,” Danilov said. “From preservation of nature, birds and animals, this (discussion) is very acute to my city.”
Kambarka, an industrial city, is struggling with environmental issues. The area has a river port and is mostly covered with forest. The city is also a storage site for the Russian Federation's unused chemical weapons.
Danilov said they have something similar to the Brice Prairie Conservation Association in his city. They have a nature reserve that has special pine trees and clear water springs, so the information he has learned is very important, he said.
“I would like to use these ideas in my city,” said Danilov.
The delegation visited Brice Prairie on Saturday, Dec. 3, where the leaders got a chance to take a walk on the prairie and see the work the BCPA had done.
The BPCA also presented the delegation with more information they could take home with them.
“What we talked to them about was grassroots conservation and how it is done in the states and right here in Wisconsin,” said Marc Schultz, former BPCA president.
Leif Tolokken, the current BPCA president, said the presentation went great. The delegates asked great questions and the presentation went on for an hour or more.
Tolokken said the delegate's environmental concerns and problems mirror those that have been seen in the United States.
“They have concerns about invasive species that are crowding out native plants just like the purple loosestrife here,” Tolokken said.
Schultz and Tolokken both said the biggest surprise to both the delegation and to them was the difference in volunteers.
The delegates were surprised at the amount of people who volunteer for projects like this one, the Russian delegates told Tolokken. “The volunteer groups are looked upon skeptically by the government because they think the volunteers are trying to get something out of it for themselves, like a tax break,” Tolokken said.
“We told them if you want to exist in a market-driven world, the marketplace and government doesn't provide for these things,” Schultz said. “The people do.”
[Reprinted with Permission]