We All Have Mentors
By Scott Weber
November 13, 2023
I was introduced to the prairie project in the spring of 1979 by volunteering for a burn. Back then, we had no burn permit, no official burn plan, and no equipment other than matches, rakes, water jugs, and wet burlap to use as fire swatters, but we did have a general notion of backfires and head-fires and which one to light first. By summer of 1979, the project consisted of two seed plots, 1978 and 1979 spring plantings about an acre a piece, plus the sod transplant area of much smaller size. Konrad graduated in spring of 1978, as did many of the student volunteers, so we were very dependent on the help of Dr. Jensen and Konrad’s thesis. I also checked out The North American Prairie, by Dr. John Weaver, and tried to use that to identify the grasses in the new prairie, not realizing that most of it was still brome grass. That is a revelation that most of us have had at some point: virtually all of the vegetation on our roadsides and farmland is not native to North America. Suddenly every prairie remnant, from McKnight to the big bluestem along the railroad right of way, was precious.
A geology professor, Dr. Ed Buchwald, became the first Arboretum Director and began hiring two to three students in the summer as Arboretum assistants in 1978, and I jumped at the opportunity to work in the Arboretum with my coworker, Dick Mertens, for the summer of 1979. We repaired the trail network from the erosion caused by runoff from the fields the college rented out but also pulled parsnip in the postage stamp prairie remnants, collected seeds for future plantings, watered transplants, and did other maintenance. As far as prairie restoration went, we were greenhorns. By spring of 1980, I was the “burn boss,” having completed only one other burn in my life, and no one else was primed to take over the project, so I needed some guidance. Dr. Jensen helped us identify plants and locate seed sources, but none of us had much experience starting a prairie from scratch, so I went in search of Konrad. I needed some education from the guy who wrote the book.
Konrad returned to Wisconsin after graduation to work for the Aldo Leopold Reserve (now Aldo Leopold Foundation) to construct a pre-European settlement vegetation map of the reserve. He also worked at the nearby International Crane Foundation (ICF) planting the first seed plots on ICF’s newly purchased farm. Konrad’s friend, Charlie Luthin, convinced ICF to include habitat restoration as part of their conservation message, and Charlie planted ICF’s first prairie at their old site closer to Baraboo. A crane disease outbreak at their first site accelerated ICF’s need for a new home, and the new site was a great opportunity to do some major restoration of prairie, oak savanna, and wetlands. Our Carleton Natural History Club visited ICF in March 1980, and I asked Konrad if I could be his intern for fall of 1980.
I took the summer of 1980 off from the Arboretum job at Carleton, backpacking with my roommate in the Grand Tetons and North Cascades, and arrived at ICF in mid- August. Konrad assigned me the task of completing the herbarium collection for the site, helping his summer intern, Shelly, finish mapping the oak woodland, writing a guide to prairie seed germination and storage, and, most importantly, collecting and cleaning seed for both a fall 1980 and spring 1981 planting. Konrad kept me very busy!
Back then fall plantings were very experimental and rarely done, so Konrad was taking a big chance, especially since future funding and dedication was never guaranteed. Then, as now, speed matters, and warm season grasses and black-eyed Susans come fast in a spring planting. Fall of 1980 was a wet season, and we harvested a bumper crop of prairie dropseed and many other species from Avoca Prairie, Muralt Bluff, Spring Green and Lone Rock remnants, the UW Arboretum, and wherever else we could find seed. Fortunately, being a non-profit, we had access to seed sources normally off limits to private individuals. If we had known then what we know now, the entire five acres should have been planted in the fall, not just the one-acre plot. The dropseed and most forbs, including the gentian seed collected at Avoca, have done very well there, whereas the spring planting became dominated by tall grass. In retrospect, we wasted a lot of good dropseed and forb seed by planting most of it in the spring.
I returned to Carleton and worked in the Arboretum again in the summer of 1981 with my coworker, Sue Peterson. Armed with all the knowledge that Konrad bestowed upon us, we not only did trail repair but also sampled the 1978 and 1979 seed plots, learning that brome grass percentage will decrease with fire and competition. We collected seed for another hillside planting, and, based on Konrad’s example at ICF, turned our attention to oak savanna. Saving all the savanna oaks suddenly became a top priority. Converting crop land to prairie before government programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and government cost-sharing was difficult since the college needed the rental income, so Sue and I were free to hack away at the buckthorn and non-oak species in an opening Dr. Jensen’s students had studied and managed. That oak opening was the epicenter of the savanna project. Many thanks to Ed for letting us do that at the expense of some trail work.
We completed another seeding, about 1.5 acres, on Hillside Prairie and tilled up another acre or so to prepare for another. We contracted all the tillage work to local farmer, Palmer Fossum. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the results from the ICF fall planting, so we planted in spring. There are leadplants and other nice forbs still present after 40 years, but few, if any, dropseed or gentians in those plantings. Eventually the Arboretum Director became a full- time position with several students hired each year, but I’m not sure if Carleton would have as extensive a project as it has now without the vision and commitment of students like Konrad and professors like Paul and Ed. They deserve credit for getting the project going before the college could make a major financial investment.
Konrad also worked on other projects in Sauk County, especially the prairie along Highway 12 in front of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant as a member of the Sauk County Natural Beauty Council (SCNBC), part of a nationwide highway beautification program started by Lady Bird Johnson. After I graduated from Carleton, I worked for the Aldo Leopold Reserve, ICF, the Wisconsin Conservation Corp, and volunteered for the SCNBC board. I was either working for Konrad or following his footsteps. I learned almost every important lesson in prairie reconstruction then: the importance of good seed sources, the diversity of fall plantings, how quickly prairie species establish in nutrient poor soil, and the importance of record keeping. Konrad was also very humble; he knew that each of us is just a temporary link in a long chain of human interactions with our environment. We all have to pass the torch and move on at some point.
Unfortunately for prairies and ecological restoration, Konrad left his job with ICF to go to law school at Cornell and, soon after, moved to Seattle with his sweetheart, Karen, to gain experience in environmental law, and our paths diverged. Conservation has one of the highest education- to- pay ratios of any occupation, so law was probably the best career choice for Konrad, but not a field that I was suited for. I wanted to spend my time out on the prairie collecting seeds forever!