Kettle Moraine Oak Opening State Natural Area, one of the areas that DNR crews and volunteers have worked on to restore oak savanna.
Showing a passion for Wisconsin's wild places
There's a growing partnership to tackle the task of caring for state natural areas.
There's little to love about Valentine's Day 2015: 9 degrees outside with a minus 15–degree wind chill, gusts up to 40 miles an hour, and near white–out conditions on the highway.
But down a country road near here, volunteers with a passion for Wisconsin's wild places gather to battle invasive buckthorn at Bluff Creek State Natural Area in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest.
"Hello, you picked another good day, Scott Farrell teases Jared Urban, the DNR's State Natural Areas Program volunteer coordinator. "I went through two snowstorms on the way here."
Urban laughs and leads volunteers in hard hats and eye protection up a hill through deep snow. Besides Farrell, who drove over from northern Illinois, outdoor lovers ranging from university students to a retired Lutheran minister have signed on for a morning of cutting, piling and burning the invasive tree to create openings between the oaks so native wildflowers can get the sun they need to grow.
Such volunteer efforts are among the most inspiring developments taking root and collectively increasing Wisconsin's ability to tackle the task of caring for our state natural areas. The changes are putting more boots on the ground, filling gaps in knowledge about Wisconsin's rare plants and animals and building a sustainable system to manage these safe havens now and for future generations.
Safe havens in need of a helping hand
Conservationists including Aldo Leopold and plant ecologist John Curtis established the state natural areas system 60–some years ago, concerned that Wisconsin's distinct "natural communities"— discrete groupings defined by the soils, geology, plants and animals that evolved together to form different types of prairies, wetlands and forests — were fast disappearing.
The system was to "as nearly as possible represent the wealth and variety of Wisconsin's native landscape for education, scientific research and for the long–term protection of Wisconsin's biological diversity for future generations."
SNAs protect the very best remnants of both the familiar, like northern hardwood forests and open bogs, to the unusual, like bedrock glades and Great Lakes dunes. Parfrey's Glen was designated the first state natural area in 1952 and the system has since grown to 673 sites, two–thirds owned by the state and the rest by more than 50 partners ranging from the U.S. Forest Service to The Nature Conservancy and other land trusts. As often as not, they are part of larger properties such as state wildlife areas, state parks and national forests. Nearly all state natural areas are open to the public for hiking, hunting, bird–watching, nature study and photography, but most of them are largely undeveloped.
Undeveloped doesn't mean unmanaged, however. Increasingly, the Department of Natural Resources must take a hands–on approach to these native habitats, particularly in southern and western Wisconsin, says Matt Zine, the field biologist who led management of state natural areas in southern Wisconsin for most of the past 15 years and now coordinates such work statewide.
Less than 1 percent of the prairies, oak savannas and barrens present in the 1800s survive and state natural areas protect a big chunk of what remains. Because these natural communities evolved with fire, they need frequent fire to survive and they need help controlling invasive species.
"We're trying to reintroduce fire to sustain these natural communities by keeping cedar and other woody species in check," Zine says. "That prevents them from shading out wildflowers."
He adds that in the southern part of the state, "in the absence of natural areas and the management that goes with them, we will surely continue to lose rare plants and animal species."
Northern Wisconsin's natural communities — forests of hemlock, maple and white pine — generally need less help; they don't depend on fire and invasive species are less of a problem so far, Zine says.
But they too require a watchful eye, particularly for invasive species.
"State natural areas are hotbeds of diversity and provide a reference point going forward," Zine says.
"They are the last strongholds. They are 1 percent of the total Wisconsin landscape, but on that small proportion you can find examples of 75 percent of the listed animals and 90 percent of the listed plants. It's that whole group together — from rocks to soil microbes to plants and animals. If you don't have lupine, you don't have Karner blue butterflies," he says. Lupine is the only plant the Karner blue caterpillars eat.
Professional experience fuels a professional zeal
Until recently, funding for management of state natural areas has come largely from grants SNA staff received from federal agencies and from nonprofit organizations such as the Kettle Moraine Natural History Association.
Erin Crain has worked with staff and partners to boost funding and management of state natural areas, fueled by her personal experience restoring her 20–acre property in Columbia County.
"Our SNA crews do really hard work. It is so physical and really demanding," says Crain, DNR's deputy lands administrator. "And it is so necessary. If you have healthy state natural areas, they help preserve rare species."
Crain, who has a master's degree in restoration ecology, realigned the workforce to put more ecologists in the field to oversee state natural areas, and renewed focus on filling in information gaps about species in each state natural area to help the department judge how well it's doing.
The program's 5–year goal is to have stable funding for the management efforts, a field crew in every region and, with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin's help, a trailer stocked with tools that volunteers can move around and use for work like sawing or girdling trees, spraying invasive plants like garlic mustard, setting prescribed fires and collecting and sowing wildflower seeds.
Crain is particularly excited about growing volunteer involvement statewide from the handful of groups now operating in southern Wisconsin. Urban is developing a manual to help property managers nurture volunteer groups, communicating regularly with a list of 1,000 potential volunteers and organizing workdays and training.
"Working with and around volunteers is inspiring," says Urban, who volunteered at Illinois' state natural areas as a child. "I would love to see the program give people a transformative experience in nature."
"It's the right thing to do"
Valentine's Day starts looking rosier as the volunteers crest the ridge. The sun peeks out, the wind has died down and Bluff Creek sparkles like a diamond set against the brilliant white snow. The volunteers are greeted by Zach Kastern, a seasoned local volunteer who along with Ginny Coburn, leads a monthly workday at one of the six state natural areas in the Southern Kettle Moraine Forest.
"All along the ridge there are springs feeding out into this creek. This is the source for the lakes in town. You can now say you've been to the headwaters. Our goal today is to work safely, have fun, learn some stuff," says Kastern. "I want you to work at a comfortable pace. The fact you're even out here today is pretty awesome. It's pretty gnarly out here."
After some safety warnings about working around fire and chain saws, Kastern tells the group they will reconvene at 11:45 a.m., and the volunteers scatter. A few who have been certified in chain saw safety cut down buckthorn while others drag branches onto the piles that Coburn and Kastern created earlier and that Kastern lit that morning.
Kastern, who works at the Madison Gas and Electric Cogeneration plant on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, grew up in East Troy and was in the Mecan River Youth Conservation Camp. But it wasn't until he started turning his own land back into prairie that SNA stewardship became a hobby and a way to learn techniques to use on his own property.
"It's the right thing to do — take care of the land," he says. "I wouldn't skip this — I love this."
Nearby, Hillary Best and friends Hannah Inderieden, Jessica Rzewnicki and Jared Bland work steadily. All are University of Wisconsin–Whitewater students and members of the Ecology Club.
Best grew up an "outdoorsy kid" in Albany, Wis.
"Both of my parents were environmentally conscious so I learned about it all of the time," she says.
Her long–term goal is to pursue a career aimed at reducing global pollution emissions. Now, as club president, she says her group tries to come "as much as we can to help the Department of Natural Resources. It's good experience doing the work."
Gerry Petersen, retired after 40 years as a Lutheran minister, got involved in volunteer workdays a year ago as an offshoot of his serving on the board of the Kettle Moraine Land Trust. That group holds easements in the area, owns land that the department manages and helps care for Beulah Bog State Natural Area in Walworth County.
Today, he uses a chain saw to cut down buckthorn and trim the branches. He takes a break and flips the shield up on his protective helmet. It's his first time back after a leg injury last fall. He's not 100 percent, but he's glad to be back.
"I find it exhilarating to get out in the woods, fire up a chain saw and take out my frustrations," he says with a smile.
Exhausting but exhilarating
By 11 a.m., the snow feels like quicksand. Many volunteers have peeled off layers and hung them on trees.
Paul Mozina, a longtime volunteer wielding a chain saw, keeps the buckthorn branches coming.
"Visit an SNA near you and become intimately familiar with it; let the rarity of these beautiful places win your admiration (and active involvement!)," Mozina writes on his blog.
Forty–five minutes later, Kastern calls the volunteers together. He sets two donut boxes on a log and says: "Dive in and sugar up! "
Kastern tells the group, "We like to bring everybody together and say, thank you! You've done a lot of work in a little bit of time." He later shares with the group that the 17 volunteers contributed 74 hours of labor.
He and Mozina will stay to do a little more work today. Anyone can stay if they want, Kastern says.
The group poses for a picture. There is no need to say "cheese." Everyone is smiling.
Learn more about SNAs and volunteer by going to dnr.wi.gov and searching "SNA."
Emulating Mother Nature to ensure a healthy ecosystem is no small task. It requires developing sometimes creative measures to control invasive plants, carefully prescribing burns for habitats that would historically have relied on fire, managing neighbor relations and periodically making difficult decisions about the competing needs of rare and endangered species.
The Department of Natural Resources masterfully takes on these challenges of varying degrees on Wisconsin’s beautiful state natural areas, and is doing so with a little extra help from the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.
“Anyone who has set foot into one of our state’s 673 state natural areas knows how lucky we are to live in a state that understands their value, not just to wildlife, but to the human spirit,” says Ruth Oppedahl, executive director of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. “An investment in these ecological gems is an investment in a truly wonderful future for Wisconsin.”
The foundation’s new 2–year SNA fundraising strategy targets 54 state natural areas — encompassing 13,400 acres — that have the greatest and most immediate management needs. This includes prescribed burns, invasive species control, plantings and other management activities to restore and maintain the integrity of these lands. With help from members and grantors, the foundation is committed to providing $400,000 over the next two years to do this work. Matt Zine, the state conservation biologist who coordinates the SNA management, is excited about the new foundation strategy. “This effort will really help us address some critical issues on some of our highest–quality sites,” he says. “It will give us the biggest biological bang for the buck.”
The 54 priority state natural areas span the state, from Squirrel River Pines in the Northwoods to Kettle Moraine Oak Opening in the southeast; from Baileys Harbor Boreal Forest and Wetlands in Door County to Cassville Bluffs in Grant County. The list also includes Parfrey’s Glen, Wisconsin’s first state natural area. Each state natural area on the priority list offers visitors unique experiences, while also requiring unique management.
In addition, the foundation holds nine endowment funds that raise money for specific state natural areas or for SNAs in general. For example, the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy created a designated fund for Quincy Bluff and Wetlands State Natural Area in support of the Department of Natural Resources. The Cherish Wisconsin Outdoors Fund, a public–private initiative, is a fund designed to support habitat improvement on state–owned lands, including state natural areas.
As part of its outreach strategy, the foundation aims to bring these places to life through its blog (wisConservation.org/wisConservation–blog/), inspiring everyone who cherishes Wisconsin to enjoy and support state natural areas.
Lisa Gaumnitz is a writer for the DNR’s Natural Heritage Conservation Program.