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Friday, 07 April 2017 12:41

In a low-profile rescue mission, landowners nurture oak savannas back to life

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Restoration efforts involve removing invasive species and re-introducing burning to allow native growth to re-emerge. Restoration efforts involve removing invasive species and re-introducing burning to allow native growth to re-emerge. Terry Mayer/staff

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- Oak savannas are so rare in Wisconsin that less than 500 acres remain of the 5.5 million acres that covered Wisconsin before clearing, overgrazing and invasive species took over since the mid-19th century.

"The Midwestern oak savanna is one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet, which is one reason there is so much emphasis on restoring it," said Carl Korfmacher, owner of Midwest Prairies LLC near Edgerton. "The other reason is that they are incredibly beautiful and productive landscapes."

And that's why concerned individuals, conservation groups and businesses across the Stateline are doing their best to revitalize and save such important pieces to nature's puzzle.

"People are recognizing that the oak woods and savannas of southern Wisconsin are in grave danger," said Korfmacher, a North Dakota native who worked summers on his uncle's farm outside of Cottage Grove as a teenager. "Private landowners who have held the land for many years have seen the onslaught of invasive species and every year see that a few more of the ancient grandmother oaks die with few if any grandchildren to replace them. The benefits of restoring oak savannas are huge."

That goes for south of the border, where Mike Groves is the natural resources manager for the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, which features 42 areas totaling more than 10,300 acres, including Macktown, J. Norman Jensen and Stone Bridge preserves in the Rockton and Roscoe areas.

"These are one of our rarest habitats, so we've always got a lot of burning and brush removal efforts going on to open up these areas and re-establish oak savannas," Groves said. "We want to restore these places to their original state. And the Natural Land Institute has helped create conservation easements for landowners. Private landowners may not have the knowledge or experience when it comes to using fire, so we try to educate people about proper management techniques involving these prairies and woodlands."

Jerry Ziegler has worked for Wisconsin's chapter of The Nature Conservancy for nine years, concentrating his efforts at the Meyer Preserve that straddles the Walworth-Waukesha county line. The conservancy acquired the first 274 acres of the preserve in 2006. It has grown to more than 650 acres, about 125 located in the town of Troy in Walworth County and the remainder in the town of Eagle in Waukesha County.

"This preserve is important because the headwaters of the Mukwonago River are in the center," Ziegler said. "And the Mukwonago River has the most diverse fish population in the entire state. But in order to protect these headwaters, we must protect and restore the grasslands and woodlands in order to slow runoff and prevent sediment from entering the river."

Thus, oak savanna restoration projects are vital in and of themselves, but also because of the animals and other plant species that are mutually beneficial in such an ecosystem.

About 25 of the 250 acres of wooded land at Meyer Preserve currently is savanna, although another 50 acres or more potentially can be restored.

"What is important about the 25 acres of savanna at the Meyer Preserve is that there are young oaks," Ziegler said. "These are crucial because they are the replacement for the large oaks that someday will die. In many areas, there is no reproduction of young oaks for a variety of reasons, mostly associated with the incursion of invasive plant species."

Restoration efforts

And the latter is the crux of the problem. So, while professionals such as Ziegler and Korfmacher continue their work, several individuals in Walworth County are picking up the torch and doing their part.

Jim Marrari and Barb Carstens are among them. They own five acres just inside Walworth County in the town of Troy. They built a home and replanted native vegetation on about an acre, leaving the remaining four acres to restoring the oak savanna.

Their efforts overall have yielded the return of bountiful birds and animals, including owls, foxes, coyotes and too many deer.

"But in order to attract the birds, you have to have the right plants and insects," Carstens said. "At first you couldn't walk through most of this property, so the biggest thing was getting rid of the invasive plants such as garlic mustard, hedge parsley and oriental bittersweet.

"But everything continually comes back, so in addition to treating, we keep cutting it up, putting it into brush piles and burning it," she said. "So we get rewarded when you see shooting stars or native plants that have been dormant. It's a lot of work, but it's a labor of love for us."

Her husband agreed, but the job also has required some help.

"We hired some people who used chain saws for some of the heavy-duty stuff," Marrari said. "Back in the 1940s, they did a lot of fires to keep areas open, and in the last 10 years that has returned. There are still a lot of oak forests in southern and western Wisconsin, but if we don't keep doing something, they'll be gone. These non-native plants grow so fast, so there's always an urgent need for restoration."

Jackie Lewis' property also sits in Troy Township, where she has targeted a large percentage of her 35 acres for restorative tasks.

"I've been doing this to some extent for about 30 years as an amateur," Lewis said.

"We have a couple of acres in open prairie and another chunk that's almost wetland, but predominately we have oak savanna. We have a lot of original oaks, trees that are 200 to 300 years old. We have not planted any ourselves, but we also have younger oaks and seedlings ... anything from 30 to 50 to 70 years old.

"We've made huge progress in the last five to 10 years," added Lewis, who said friends and neighbors help each other with clearing and burning chores. "I'm excited because so many more people are doing this."

Return of native species

Gail Hibbard is one such person. She is a longtime Fontana resident and member of the village's parks commission. She has spearheaded a group that has been responsible for prairie restoration efforts of about two acres in The Triangle -- at the intersection of Wisconsin Highway 67 and Wild Duck Road -- not to mention the adjacent 11-acre oak savanna.

"We started with the prairie project around 2000 and the savanna work started shortly after that," Hibbard said. "The fire department helps with the burns, which get rid of the garlic mustard and other invasives. The whole idea was to get this established because we don't want to go back to where we were. And this in turn re-establishes the native animals and birds."

While there was opposition to cutting some trees, the deep-rooted native plants are much heartier and have slowed the intense erosion from the hill toward the lake. Local efforts have included work at Hildebrand Conservancy and Headwaters Park, while Hibbard and other residents of Buena Vista are caring for an oak savanna on club property.

Karen Yancey is executive director of the Geneva Lake Conservancy, another stakeholder in these efforts, and she said progress definitely is being made.

"Walworth County has beautiful oak trees, and savannas dot the landscape," she said. "But many have invasive plants that rob the soil of nutrients and need to be removed. Still, we have many efforts going on to protect these resources."

Small victories

All of these small victories add significantly to the overall strategy, Korfmacher and Ziegler said.

It's also important to understand and learn from history in order to continue down the correct restorative path.

"Historically, southern Wisconsin was made up of a mosaic of prairies, wetlands, woodlands and savannas, with savannas making up a very large share," Korfmacher said. "The oak savanna was maintained by fire and to some extent grazing. But the grazing in many cases was too intensive and many of the native grasses, sedges and wildflowers were destroyed, leaving only the trees behind.

"More recently, cattle have been removed from pastures and woods and many other trees and shrubs have replaced them, much to the detriment of the oak trees," Korfmacher added. "In many cases these old savanna trees are dying or have died because the younger trees have grown up through their canopies and shaded them out. Without fire, oaks will often fail to regenerate. The result is, or will be, a much less productive and healthy landscape as the oaks die and are replaced with cherry, elm, ash and box elder, or worse, exotic invasive species."

He said most woodlands in southern Wisconsin today are being invaded by European buckthorn and Asian honeysuckle, species that leaf out early and over time shade out all other plants, often leaving bare soil.

"We believe that the only way to restore a savanna or woodland is to bring back the native grasses, sedges and wildflowers," Korfmacher said. "These plants, along with oak leaf litter, provide the fuel for low-intensity fires that will keep invasives at bay. Once these plants are established, the savanna can be burned and other plants can be introduced.

"A healthy woodland or savanna in southern Wisconsin is capable of withstanding many disturbances, such as windstorms, disease, invasive plants and human use, but only when it is healthy," Korfmacher added. "With these pieces in place, wildlife will return and the incredible diversity and variety of life that exists in a Midwest oak savanna can be enjoyed for generations to come."

The battle against, and for, nature marches on at places such as Meyer Preserve, where Ziegler supervised the restoration of native prairie from 2010 to 2012.

A restoration contractor currently is working in the scattered savanna remnants, carefully removing invasives while leaving desirable native species.

"I'm pleased with our progress," Ziegler said, "but it's a never-ending job."

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