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Monday, 11 September 2017 08:46

Mr. Conservation

Written by  Dennis Hines
Richard Newsome strolls through Big Hill Park near the Welty Environmental Center, where the Rock County Conservationists recently named a prairie garden in his name for his decades of service. Richard Newsome strolls through Big Hill Park near the Welty Environmental Center, where the Rock County Conservationists recently named a prairie garden in his name for his decades of service. Terry Mayer/staff

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- “Gratifying” and “thankful” are the words Richard Newsome uses to describe being recognized for his conservation efforts during the past 40-plus years.

The Rock County Conservationists recently dedicated the Richard Newsome Education Garden at the Welty Environmental Center, located in Big Hill Park in the town of Beloit.

“If there was going to be something that had my name on it, I can’t think of anything I appreciate more than this prairie garden,” Newsome said.

The garden features a variety of prairie plants, including black-eyed Susans, frost asters, common violets, shooting stars, spiderwort, purple coneflowers, common milkweed and meadow blazing stars.

“There are all kinds of prairie (plants),” Newsome said. “There are still some purple coneflowers. They’ve been blossoming for a couple of months. We’re getting to the typical fall conditions, so a lot of the yellows are starting to show up. There’s an evening primrose. There’s black-eyed Susans. There’s a prairie aster. There’s golden rods in tiny yellow clusters, which is typical this time of year.”

The Rock County Conservationists began planting the prairie garden in 2016. Chairman John Meland said the organization wanted to establish the garden to recognize Newsome for his involvement with the group and the Welty Environmental Center.

“We held off the dedication to allow the garden to grow and become more robust,” Meland said. “This year, it’s looking really nice.”

Newsome founded the Rock County Conservationists in 1987 and served on its board until 2015. Newsome also co-founded the Friends of the Welty Environmental Center in 1998.

“He was instrumental in advancing our programming,” Meland said. “He was involved with directing our educational programs. We felt the reason why (the Rock County Conservationists) exist is because of him. He co-founded the Welty Environmental Center. Because he was involved with both organizations, we felt it only made sense to have the garden at the center’s headquarters.”

Meland said plans are to expand the garden.

“We started on the right side of the entrance (of the Welty Environmental Center) to establish the garden,” Meland said. “We plan to expand to the other side and possibly down the hill to the parking lot.”

Center development director Brenda Plakans said many patrons have enjoyed viewing the prairie garden.

“We have a lot of visitors this time of year,” Plakans said. “A lot of people come and walk on the trails. A lot of people attend our camps. (The garden) is a great, welcoming addition.”

Newsome’s local conservation efforts began in the early 1970s when he became involved with the Newark Road prairie project, which Newsome said eventually led to the formation of the Rock County Conservationists.

“We visited other prairie areas to get a perspective of how to develop (the Newark Road Prairie),” Newsome said. “Then we thought, why just open (the project) up to volunteers? Let’s open it up to the public, so we started scheduling meetings on a more regular basis. Then in 1986, we started talking about forming a group to make it more organized, and that was the beginning of the Rock County Conservationists.”

Newsome taught botany and ecology at Beloit College for several years, retiring in 1989.

Newsome said working at the college gave him the opportunity to educate students about the importance of land conservation.

“I taught high school for three years, but I felt more comfortable teaching at the college level because I felt I could do more,” Newsome said. “I really wanted to take kids into the fields or forests, but there were no provisions at all for field trips in the high schools. After getting into graduate school, I was thinking about teaching at the college level. I wanted to do research and I wanted a place and a situation where I would be rewarded for teaching, carrying on my research and doing other professional activities, and Beloit College suited the combination of those things nicely.

“From the start, we had the obligation to teach something out of our major area and to do something outside of the classroom, and they really wanted us to involve our students in activities. I could teach the way I wanted to and teach the things that I thought were important.”

Newsome said he mostly is involved with consulting and advising other conservation groups these days.

“My legs are bad enough (that) I really can’t be out (in the prairie),” Newsome said. “I still enjoy walking out there, but the amount of time I can spend out there is much shorter.”

Newsome became interested in land conservation while working on his graduate degree at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I was aware there was a need for it as part of my graduate education,” he said. “When I did my undergraduate studies back in the 1950s, there were only a handful of universities in North America that offered anything in ecology. In the courses that I had in ecology and geology, it was just sort of right in my face. ... Locally, it took teaching a couple of years at the college to get acquainted to what wasn’t happening in Rock County, and there virtually was no environmental organization.

“There was no local Audubon group. There were no land trusts. There was nothing in the elementary or high schools for ecology or nature. There was little interest in activity and managing it. It became evident that something was needed here.”

Newsome said it is important to educate people about the importance of conserving prairie areas and how they can help with future development.

“Prairie soils are really what has created a surge in the agricultural production that has been coming in,” Newsome said. “It’s the prairie soils that have been rich enough and durable enough to do that. Soils that are primed for any type of development are from prairie acres.”





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