State Recreational Area (SRA) History
Potawatomi, Menomonee and Ojibwa Native Americans hunted on the area now known as Richard Bong State Recreation Area. The habitat is a mix of vast prairies dotted with wetlands and small, scattered oak/hickory woodlots.
Native Americans and prairie begin to give way to European “sodbusters.”
September 22, 1842
A letter from one of the first homesteaders to her parents back in England describes settlement times: “The land is openings and clumps of trees, chiefly oak and hickory. You may put in the plow first thing, and everything seems to grow plentiful…. Game is very plentiful – deer, partridge, prairie hens, and pigeons, in this part.”
Farming is successful. Fathers pass land to sons, who, in turn, pass it to their sons.
To protect the Chicago/Milwaukee area from hostile attack, the United States government decides a jet fighter/interceptor base is needed in northeastern Illinois or southeastern Wisconsin.
The government selects a 5,540-acre tract in Kenosha County’s Town of Brighton and Racine County’s Town of Burlington for the proposed base.
Congress authorizes $16.5 million for the base and the government begins purchasing land from 59 farm families. The base, designed to house 5,000 airmen, will feature a 12,500-foot runway and is named after World War II flying ace Major Richard Bong of Poplar, Wisconsin.
Construction begins in June; by yearend, 500 men work around the clock to beat deadlines and winter weather. Earth moving equipment strips topsoil in preparation for aircraft runways, taxiways and parking areas. A heating plant is built, fuel storage tanks completed and miles of storm sewer are laid.
Defense Department budget problems, criticism of the project as a potentially obsolete base and concerns about air space congestion combine to stop the project three days before planned surfacing of the gravel runway. Returning the land to agricultural use is considered impossible. Topsoil was stripped from 2,000 acres; 400 acres were altered by soil dumps, dredging and filling of wetlands; and 1,600 acres were leveled to accommodate the runway, taxiway and building complexes.
The Wisconsin Federal Surplus Property Development Commission (WFSPDC) is authorized by the Wisconsin Legislature to acquire and guide the disposal of Bong lands now in the hands of the Federal government’s General Services Administration.
The Wisconsin Federal Surplus Property Development Corporation, commonly referred to as the Bong Corporation, is formed to study the potential of the site and to acquire land through bonded debt. A private planning consultant recommends a multi-purpose development combining a residential and industrial complex (shopping, school, and airport facilities) surrounded by county parks and wildlife areas. Based on the plan, WFSPDC sets aside 360 acres of Bong’s 5,540 acres for county park purposes (Brightondale) and four separate parcels totaling 464 acres as school forests.
The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission objects to use of Bong land for industrial and residential development, and argues the greatest single asset of Bong is the large acreage under single public ownership. The Planning Commission says the land should be held in reserve as minimally developed recreational land. At this time less than 1% of the acreage of Racine and Kenosha Counties is devoted to public recreation despite 40% of Wisconsin’s population residing within a 40-mile radius of the property.
The federal government deeds 1,933 acres to the Wisconsin Conservation Department to be managed as a wildlife area.
The Bong Corporation purchases 977 acres of land from the Federal Government for about $95,000. The corporation raises money for the purchase through a private firm, Herro and Associates of Madison, which receives a ten-year lease; an option to buy the acreage at cost after a period of time, and the ability to purchase an additional 1,591 acres when the corporation decides such land is no longer necessary for conservation purposes. The Conservation Commission is scheduled to acquire and manage the 1,591 acres from the Federal government.
Bill 408 is introduced to bring all of Bong under the control of the Conservation Commission and to create a 5,000-acre, complete recreation center used by hunters, anglers, picnickers, nature students, and others. Local sportsmen’s clubs, conservation organizations, and civic clubs mobilize to circulate a petition in support of the bill. Thousands of signatures are gathered.
The bill passes both houses of the State Legislature, transferring all lands acquired by the Bong Corporation to the Conservation Commission and removing Bong from the jurisdiction of the WFSPDC. In later litigation, Wisconsin’s Attorney General declares that while Bong Corporation is private, it is still an instrument of a state agency (the WFSPDC) and subject to legislative mandates. The Conservation Commission is given authority to purchase lands held by Herro and Associates and authorization to condemn the property if necessary.
The Bong Commission and the Bong Corporation are abolished. Title to 977 acres the Bong Corporation owned is transferred to the Conservation Commission. This action is appealed.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court rules the Natural Resources Board (successor to the Conservation Commission) can condemn the 977-acre and the 1,591-acre tracts; just compensation must be paid to Herro and Associates.
The Wisconsin Assembly passes a bill that amends the state statute relating to establishment of Bong Recreational and Wildlife area, grants rulemaking authority to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and provides an initial appropriation of $300,000. The bill stipulates “The Department may establish zones within the boundaries of Bong Air Base which offer a wide range of variable opportunities for active outdoor recreation and may adopt rules to control the activities within the zones.”
A private consulting firm is hired by the DNR to gather planning data, solicit public input and develop a conceptual master plan on how to best use the 4,515 acres. The DNR appoints a master planning task force to create goals and objectives.
Two public planning workshops are held in Kenosha, and input is included in the proposed master plan. The master plan proposal is submitted to the public for further review with the help of a wide variety of southeastern Wisconsin clubs and organizations.
Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board gives preliminary approval to the master plan.
State legislature authorizes $3.9 million for implementation of the master plan. Suggestions for alternative uses continue to surface, and citizens press for uninterrupted completion of the development timetable as adopted by the legislature.
Facility development is complete.
Sunrise Campground campsites number 100-200 built.
Consistent with master plan goals, about 280 (6%) of the park’s 4,515 acres are intensively developed. Most acreage is used for conservation.
The park is designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
Accessible cabin added to the property.