Small seeds planted lead to bigger things. At the end of June, Ian Michel, an employee from Diederich Tree Care LLC participated in a tour of Moely Prairie led by the stewardship team of Amy & Rick Chamberlin, Paul Anderson, and Brandon Mann. Apparently, Ian was impressed enough to report back to the owner of the company, Slater Diederich, that there were exciting things happening out on the prairie. Soon afterwards we were approached by Slater with an offer of a days’ worth of work pro bono to assist our efforts. After some internal discussion and meeting with Slater in person, we decided that removal of a large, declining cottonwood tree at Schluckebier Sand Prairie and a few smaller trees leaning heavily across the south boundary at Moely Prairie would fit the bill for a days’ worth of work.
Fast forward to October 27 when the crew arrived to accomplish the first phase, taking down the large Cottonwood tree at Schluckebier. Diederich Tree Care arrived with a crew of four, trucks, trailers, a brush chipper, and a skid steer for the task at hand and within a few, efficient hours had felled, limbed, and cut the tree. Not only that, they agreed to haul the trunk to two different offsite locations for use as firewood. The prairie was left in excellent shape. Phase 2 is planned for a later date at Moely. A big thank you to Diederich Tree Care LLC for their community involvement and work to improve our two precious Sauk Prairie remnants!
See the video of the Cottonwood coming down on our Facebook page.
Photos by Diederich Tree Care LLC
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently published A State Natural Area [SNA] Strategy(. Here I discuss one aspect of the Strategy that I applaud—the development of a formal procedure for SNA withdrawal. This is something that the conservation community needs to be talking about more. Challenges facing natural areas are increasing and changing, and some have already lost the characteristics that first merited their designation. Climate change is exerting pressure on natural communities, but passive neglect is a clear, if not dominant problem for natural communities that are fire-dependent. Frequently burned and otherwise well-stewarded sites are holding up quite well despite our present climate already departing significantly from what it was 200 years ago. Ignoring degradation of sites suffering from fire exclusion and general lack of stewardship only misleads the public and misrepresents what natural areas are. Our SNAs should be the places where we take ourselves and others on pilgrimage to receive inspiration that our best prairies, savannas, woodlands, forests, and wetlands freely give. This is fundamental to why many of us who work and/or volunteer in conservation do what we do. That inspiration has the power to compel others to join us in having a more reciprocal relationship to the land.
Franklin Savanna SNA in Milwaukee County is a good example of a site that could be considered for withdrawal. It was designated based on a regionally unique opportunity to restore mesic oak savanna that still had some persistent prairie- and savanna-associated species. However, little has been done to restore the savanna, and it continues to deteriorate. Most of its acreage presently consists of dense buckthorn under declining bur oaks with sparse ground layer vegetation dominated by weedy species. There is no fire. Franklin Savanna is certainly not a place I would take someone to show them mesic savanna. Tragically, there is not such a place in southern Wisconsin.
Franklin Savanna SNA (left) in Milwaukee County is a good example of a site that could be considered for withdrawal. Pleasant Valley Conservancy (center) and Black Earth Rettenmund (right) are examples of well-stewarded sites whose condition is being maintained – Photos by Dan Carter
There are other SNAs that might one day soon be considered for withdrawal, though their cases are generally less extreme. I am most familiar with SNAs near where I live southeastern Wisconsin. Karcher Springs and New Munster Bog Island SNAs (2) still retain a lot of their native biodiversity but they will continue to deteriorate without increased sustained stewardship. Cudahy Woods remains diverse for its urban location, but emerald ash borer has cut a swath right through the heart of it, and invasive species are proliferating at the expense of a rich spring flora. These places could lose much of what made them exceptional, at least regionally, within a decade or two.
None of this is to say that sites should be abandoned, even if some ultimately have SNA designations withdrawn. This is especially true where resources could be put into action. Franklin Savanna could be a very fine mesic savanna in thirty years’ time. If it were, mesic savanna inspiration would no longer require a road trip down to the Chicago suburbs. Bringing that inspiration closer to more people in the Milwaukee area would be a worthy effort that would extend beyond the site itself.
It hurts to recognize that we are still losing even legally protected natural areas when we’ve already lost so much. Acknowledging this can be downright politically fraught, so I’ll reiterate my applause of the Strategy for putting words on paper.
One group that gives us hope is the newly-formed Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves – read all about them here, and on Stephen Packard’s blog, Strategies for Stewards: from woods to prairies.
Dan Carter, Landowner Services Coordinator
 The island is noted for its yellow birch in a southerly location, but arguably what is more notable about it is that it also supports a unique example southern-dry mesic forest, which unlike most southern dry-mesic forests in its region doesn’t appear to simply be the result of hickory and black cherry colonizing oak savanna or oak woodland, and which unlike most upland sites in its region is minimally impacted by a history of continuous cattle grazing.
Lonetree Farm, in rural Stockton, Illinois, gets busy this time of year with NIPE’s prairie seed mixes. Staff and volunteers spend hours picking native plant seeds from area prairies and savannas, separating seeds from the rest of the plant, drying seeds, and then sorting into their proper mixes for seeding and overseeding elsewhere.
Earlier this fall, NIPE received two and a half large lawn bags of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) to help with these efforts. This is the milkweed that is so important to the Monarch butterfly life cycle. To use the seed in NIPE’s prairie seed mixes, it must be removed from the pods and de-fluffed. Paid staff and volunteers spent a total of 55 hours at Lonetree cleaning three wheelbarrows full of pods. The result was a little over eight pounds of clean seed.
(Photos of the Asclepias de-fluffing project: from wheelbarrows full of seed pods to de-fluffing to clean seed. Photos by Rickie Rachuy.)
In late September, NIPE’s Jim and Rickie Rachuy gave members of the Lake Carroll (Illinois) Prairie Club a tour of the rare plant gardens at Lonetree Farm. The tour also included time spent in the seed shed and greenhouse (currently housing more prairie plant seeds awaiting milling and bagging). Club members were allowed to process a few of their own collected seeds on the hammer mill in the seed shed.
In the Rare Plant Gardens at Lonetree Farm (photo by Pam Richards)
Working the Hammer Mill (photo by Pam Richards)
Moely Prairie has had a presence on Instagram (@moelyprairie) and Facebook (For the Love of Moely Prairie) for the last several years, and during that time, my fellow volunteers and I have connected with many nature lovers around the world. One follower who I have come to know quite well is Stefan van Norden, the producer of a podcast called Nature Revisited. Earlier this spring, he asked if I would be open to doing a podcast about Moely Prairie. At first, I was a bit hesitant; my family and I have only been doing prairie restoration for about 5 years, and although we have certainly learned a lot about prairies in that time, we still don’t feel like we qualify as “experts” to speak with authority about prairie restoration.
Stefan explained that he was delighted by the photos on our Instagram page depicting our daily discoveries and was intrigued by our restoration efforts on this true remnant prairie. Sensing my hesitancy, he suggested that we forego the traditional podcast interview and instead create an episode that highlights the voices of the land owners, educators, students, conservation experts, and volunteers who appreciate, study, and work to restore Moely Prairie. Stefan’s excitement and vision made it an easy challenge to accept.
Over the summer, I conducted several on-site interviews. Barbara Moely, who owns the land with her sons and who donated the conservation easement that protects Moely Prairie in perpetuity, recorded her testimony from her home in California. My husband, Rick, went to work crafting a poetic narrative to highlight some of the natural and cultural history of the land, including the “where” and the “what” that make remnant prairies like Moely Prairie so special.
Week by week, I would send our audio files to Stefan, who wove parts of them into Rick’s narrative, and music created by Ben Cosgrove. We were given permission to use the song, “Cairn” from Ben’s most recent album, The Trouble with Wilderness. When I first heard the song, it immediately conjured pictures in my mind of Moely Prairie in its many seasons. We all agreed it would be the perfect accompaniment to the voices of Moely Prairie.
We are delighted with the final results and hope you, too, have a chance to listen. Find the podcast by subscribing to Nature Revisited on your favorite podcast streaming platform, on the Nature Revisited YouTube page, or at their website. As of this writing, the Moely Prairie episode has reached more listeners in the first 24 hours than any other podcast Stefan has produced. It’s a wonderful testament to the love people have for Moely Prairie and for all prairies in general.
The baffling goldenrods swim in that giant taxonomic pool of asters, sunflowers, and thistles (Asteraceae). Their tiny, sun-emitting yellow-orange flowers are aggregated into marvelous “inflorescences” that appear to the uninitiated as single large blooms, whose growth forms are variously described as feather dusters, candles, or flattops. They are beloved by late summer insects, especially bees, and people with bee binoculars. Identification practice makes perfect.
There are too many for one article; I present a few that I have photos for.
(Photos and article by Rob Baller)
Early goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
Mid-August. Knee high on a tall person. Forming colonies whose flowering stalks are spaced closely enough to touch each other. Inflorescence a wide-open feather duster, spreading all directions, often slightly leaning and asymmetric. Stems and leaves totally smooth. Leaves tending to be similar size on the stem, but in fact reducing upwards. Mesic to dry prairie.
(Photo: Early goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis)
Late August. Knee high. Forming colonies, whose blooming stalks are scattered too widely to touch each other, with many non-flowering stalks in between, giving the impression it’s just not a good year for blooming. Inflorescence a feather duster, typically but not guaranteed narrower than S. juncea. Stems and leaves totally smooth. Leaves largest at the base, clearly reducing upwards. Dry prairie, often sand.
(Photo: Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis))
Elm-leaved goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia)
Late August. Waist-high. Inflorescence like a fireworks display, shooting slender wands of gold in several directions, often from upper leaf axils, the flowers born on the upper rim of the curve. Lower leaves broad and toothed like elm leaves. Mesic to dry, prefers light shade, oak savanna.
(Photo: Elm-leaved goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia))
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Late August. Waist high or more. Forming colonies, sometimes covering fields. Inflorescence a flower duster whose overall outline is an asymmetric pyramid, leaning or arching to one side. Stems and leaves finely hairy, mostly toward the top of the plant. Mesic open sunny fields, prairie. Widespread volunteer; never planted on purpose.
(Photo: Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis))
Zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)
Late August. Waist high. Inflorescence presented in elegant marble-sized globs emerging from the upper-stem leaf axils, giving the stem and blooms a subtle zigzag appearance, which I find difficult to perceive. Lower leaves oval, toothed, with petioles tapering or ‘winged’ to the stalk. Mesic to dry, shady places, oak savanna.
(Photo: Zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis))
We are excited to share this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article and the mention of The Prairie Enthusiasts below:
Wisconsin’s prairies shine in late summer, from Lapham Peak to the UW Arboretum
by Chelsey Lewis
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
August 19, 2021
As August winds down, the flowers in my home garden are nearing the end of their seasonal lifespan.
But here at Lapham Peak, yellow prairie dock and compass plant shoot into the sky, leaning toward the bright late-summer sun like miniature sunflowers. The goldenrod has just begun to bloom, its feathery yellow stalks peppering the hillsides. The wispy purple spikes of blazing stars are beginning to open, bees buzzing around them in search of pollen. A patch of black-eyed Susans are in full bloom, while a few yellow coneflowers hold on to their delicate yellow petals. Even the big bluestem grasses are getting in on the action, small buds emerging from the tips of their 6-foot-tall stalks.
I’ve missed the peak of wildflower season here, which usually comes in July, but late summer and fall are almost like a second spring for Wisconsin prairies, with a variety of colorful flowers blooming in August and head-high grasses reaching their apex before turning golden colors to complement the changing leaves.
This savanna might not have the flashy rock formations of Devil’s Lake, or the stunning sand dunes of Kohler-Andrae, but it’s one of my favorite places to hike in southern Wisconsin — not only because it’s not as popular as those places, but also because this landscape is so rare, and carries its own subtle beauty. I love that I can see the contours of the land, the big bluestem
grasses waving from the rolling hillsides in the late summer breeze. I love the little oak tree enclaves, like woodland oases in the middle of that sea of grasses. I love the almost comically tall prairie dock, its skinny stems trying to outreach those grasses in a quest for sunlight. The scattering of oaks here make this part of the park an oak savanna, a subset of prairies, which are landscapes populated by grasses, sedges (grass-like plants) and forbs (flowering plants). Prairies aren’t just pretty to look it and nice to walk through. They’re vital to species like American kestrels, bobolinks, sandhill cranes, eastern meadowlark, federally endangered Karner blue butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
They’re also vital to us. Prairie plants like big bluestem have deep root systems that filter groundwater and store carbon — the root systems are so extensive that they’ve been likened to underground forests. Prairies also create fertile soil for farming and grazing.
Prairies used to cover 2 million acres of Wisconsin, mostly in the southern part of the state. But as more settlers cleared the fertile land for farming, Wisconsin’s grasslands became a much rarer landscape. Today there are only about 12,000 acres left — less than .1% of the original landscape, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Conservationists are working to reverse that trend and restore prairies, but as with most things when it comes to the environment, it’s not easy. Land where prairies flourished, especially in the southeastern part of the state, is heavily populated, fragmented and farmed today.
Plus, prairies need something dangerous to thrive that other landscapes — including human populated ones — don’t like: fire.
Fire reduces the leaf litter that accumulates in grasslands, allowing sunlight to penetrate and warm the soil, which increases microbial activity that releases nutrients to feed new plants as they grow. Fire also helps eliminate non-native and faster-growing species like maple trees, which overshadow prairie plants and slow-growing oaks.
Before Europeans arrived, American Indian tribes actively burned prairies to improve grazing for game species, for safety (in order to see enemies as they approached), and to make travel easier.
In the Curtis Prairie at the UW Arboretum in Madison, it’s easy to see why they burned prairies to make travel easier.
Eight-foot-tall big bluestem tickled my arms and legs as I walked along a narrow path cut through the prairie. Without the trail, walking and navigating would have been a challenge.
I emerged from the tall grasses and walked into another segment of the prairie that had been burned more recently, as evidenced by the barely knee-high grasses. At least a portion of the prairie has been burned nearly every year since 1950, making it the
oldest ecologically restored prairie in the world. That restoration work began even earlier than 1950. When the Arboretum was dedicated in 1934, work was already going on to establish representations of all of Wisconsin’s plant communities, from the
northern forests to the southern plains. A portion of the land that used to be a farm was set aside to become prairie, and the first plants were planted in 1935.
“That had never been done before. Nobody really knew how to do it,” said Michael Hansen, land care manager for the Arboretum.
Since nobody had attempted that kind of land restoration before, nobody knew how to manage things like invasive grasses, left over from the fallow farm field that was there before. University of Wisconsin-Madison botany professor John Curtis came up with the idea
of intentionally burning the prairie to kill the invasive plants. Other universities out west were doing fire research at the time, but theirs was mainly geared toward increasing forage for livestock grazing, Hansen said. The idea of using fire to restore a landscape to prairie was new. In 1940, the first experimental burn was held at the Arboretum.
“They were assuming those native prairie plants were adaptive to fire and would respond really well, and that was what happened,” Hansen said.
The success of the first fire led to more experiments, and in 1950, the Arboretum began landscape-wide burns — establishing prescribed fire as an effective method to restore and maintain prairies.
Today, prescribed burns are used to manage grasslands throughout the Midwest. Trained professionals intentionally set the fires in defined areas under specific conditions to meet certain land management objectives. They’re typically set in the early spring or late summer or fall. communities. … I think that’s good just from a resilience standpoint and living on. The results are the big bluestem grasses and federally endangered rusty patch bumblebee that are found in the Arboretum and the soaring prairie dock and honking sandhill cranes in Lapham Peak. A snapshot of what Wisconsin was before Europeans moved in. A snapshot worth preserving.
“(Prairies) are part of our natural heritage, especially in this part of the country. They help make all that good soil that was farmed. It’s the foundation of that whole industry,” Hansen said. “It played an important part in the history of our state, and the Great Plains in general. … I think that’s important to try and preserve like you would an old historic building or some other artifacts.
“We often refer to different parts of the Arboretum as a living museum. It’s a collection of what our state used to look like in terms of the plant healthy land. But also for a healthy mind, I think diversity is important, too. Having that accessible to people is important.”
Prairies in southern Wisconsin
Here is a sampling of prairie sites you can visit in southern Wisconsin. Many prairies are protected as part of state natural areas. To find more, visit dnr.wi.gov/topic/Lands/naturalareas.
Havenwoods State Forest, Milwaukee: Don’t let the forest in this site’s name throw you — much of the interior of this urban forest is prairie and wetlands. Six miles of trails wind through those landscapes; the main loop is open to pets.
Lapham Peak, Delafield: More than 5 miles of trails wind through prairie and oak savanna on the west side of Highway C. Access the
trails from the Evergreen Parking lot (carefully cross Highway C) or a small Ice Age Trail parking lot on South Cushing Park Road. Leashed pets are permitted.
Ice Age Trail Stony Ridge Segment, Eagle: This 3-mile segment of the Ice Age Trail passes through a patch of prairie just west of the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s southern unit headquarters on Highway 59. Look for goldenrod and prairie dock in late August. Find parking and access at the Emma Carlin trailhead on County Highway Z or the forest headquarters.
Bald Bluff, Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit, Palmyra: American Indians
used this open prairie site on a bluff for signal fires and ceremonial dances, according to the DNR. U.S. troops also camped at the site during the Blackhawk War — future presidents Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor among them. Today a half-mile nature trail climbs the bluff then connects with the Ice Age Trail and travels through a prairie that the DNR is working to restore. Find a parking lot on County Highway H south of Palmyra. Because this is a nature trail, pets are not permitted. Pets are permitted on the Ice Age Trail.
Riveredge Nature Center, Saukville: Ten miles of trails wind through a variety of landscapes, including a 28-acre prairie named for Lorrie Otto, who founded the natural landscaping movement and helped lead the push to ban DDT in Wisconsin and the rest of the
country. The nature center also has an all-terrain wheelchair that’s available to borrow for free through Access Ability Wisconsin. Trail fees are $5 for adults and $2 for kids ages 3-12 (free for kids 2 and under).
Pope Farm Conservancy, Verona: This former farm features a handful of restored prairies, including tall grass, short grass and oak savanna. The conservancy has a pamphlet on its website that outlines a one-hour self-guided walking tour of the prairies. The conservancy is open from sunrise to sunset daily and is free to visit. Dogs are not permitted.
UW Arboretum, Madison: More than 300 native grasses, sedges and wildflowers grow in the 73-acre Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest ecologically restored prairie. The prairie’s 8-foot-tall big bluestem and Indian grasses are especially beautiful in the fall. A handful of trails wind through the prairie, which is accessible via a parking lot on McCaffrey Drive south of the visitor center. The Arboretum is home to a few other grasslands, including the 47-acre restored Greene Prairie, the 14-acre Wingra Oak Savanna, and the 53-acre Southwest Grady Oak Savanna.
Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area, Dane and Iowa counties: About 30 miles west of the Arboretum are the Thomson Memorial Prairie and the Barneveld Prairie, part of the 95,000-acre Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area. The area contains 60 prairie remnants in Dane and Iowa counties — one of the highest concentrations of native grasslands in the Midwest. The DNR has recognized the area as being a high priority for protection and management, and together with the Nature Conservancy — which manages the Thomson and Barneveld prairies — and other nonprofits and government agencies, is working to do that. The 706-acre Thomson Memorial Prairie does not have any official trails (and poison ivy is abundant, according to the Nature Conservancy), but the 1,193-acre Barneveld Prairie does have a rough, unmarked trail. The prairie is home to rare grassland bird species including bobolinks, meadowlarks, dickcissels and vesper sparrows — all species of special concern in Wisconsin; and upland sandpipers, a state threatened species. Dogs are permitted but must be on a leash from April 1 through July 31.
Pleasant Valley Conservancy, Black Earth: Nearly every landscape native to southern Wisconsin, including oak savanna and dry and wet prairie, is present at this 143-acre state natural area. Tom and Kathie Brock began restoration work on the property in 1995, and it continues today with the support of The Prairie Enthusiasts, a Viroqua-based nonprofit. More than 300 flowering species have been documented at the site, including rare ones like purple milkweed. Trails that wind through the property are open to hiking; bicycles and dogs are not permitted.
Contact Chelsey Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter
at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.