Contact(s): Jared Urban, 608-228-4349, Jared.Urban@wisconsin.gov
MADISON - A dozen years after Ron DeGraff investigated the sound of chainsaws coming from a State Natural Area near his property, the Beloit man has won a volunteer award for spending hundreds of hours behind a chainsaw clearing invasive plants and restoring wildflowers at the site.
DeGraff was recognized as the State Natural Area Volunteer Program's 2018 Steward of the Year during the annual potluck for volunteers in September in Rio.
"Ron is a determined force," said Jared Urban, who coordinates the volunteer program for DNR's Natural Heritage Conservation bureau. "When he has set his mind towards a goal he works at a steady pace until it is thoroughly completed.
"As a result, a LOT of autumn olive, cedar, brush, and weeds have been removed in the last 12 years and the prairie is filling in with great native plants. The prairie would not be the same without him!"
DeGraff has spent 700 hours volunteering at State Natural Areas since 2011 alone, and says he got involved because he was curious. "The prairie is almost adjacent to my property and I was temporarily laid off in 2006 and I heard chaw saws one day over there," he says. "I walked over and they were clearing cedar. I met Matt Zine (now field operations team leader) over there and he got me into this."
Now, most days in the prairie he can be found removing cedar, autumn olive, and brush. He also has helped remove two large trash dumps, offering his tools, equipment, and expertise to help, and has helped coordinate firewood sales by connecting with interested local residents, including providing cedar to the Rock River Thresheree for demonstrations using a steam-powered mill to make cedar shingles.
DeGraff has also conducted rare animal surveys, removed weeds, helped install fire breaks, served as a watchdog, collected and spread seeds, and burned countless numbers of brush piles. He works alongside the Rock County Conservationists to do work on DNR sites.
"What I enjoy is the fact it's close enough I can walk over there whenever," DeGraff says. "It's amazing to me to see the wildflowers that come back after you get rid of the invasive species. Flowers like rough blazing star and wild indigo."
State natural areas protect outstanding examples of Wisconsin's native landscape of natural communities, significant geological formations and archeological sites. They also provide some of the last refuges for rare plants and animals.
Urban started the State Natural Area Volunteer program in 2011, and new groups have been forming to help supplement work done by state SNA work crews. In 2017, 35 groups directly impacted 3,464 acres on 43 sites.