Oakological Succession

What does the future hold for the Oak Savannas and Woodlands of Wisconsin?  I left the 2015 Oak Savanna Alliance workshop last Saturday at Camp Timber-Lee with a decidedly unsettled feeling aka, cognitive dissonance.  Am I fighting for another seemingly hopeless cause i.e., stopping the War On Drugs, or trying to get a real investigation into what happened on 9/11, when I volunteer my time and attention, my spiritual currency, to restore and preserve the oakosystems in the Kettle Moraine?  Can, or rather, should, anything be done to prevent the oakological succession of the oak forests below the “tension zone” to mixed central and northern hardwood forests?


“Oak forests on medium- and high-productivity sites throughout the Midwest have been decreasing in extent for several decades. Historically, regeneration in these forests was facilitated by a periodic fire regime. Today, it is difficult to regenerate oaks on these nutrient-rich sites due to competition from native and nonnative plants that outcompete oak seedlings. Browsing by white-tailed deer also limits the survival and growth of oak seedlings. The lack of successful regeneration along with selective harvesting of mature oaks contribute to the gradual succession of oak forests to mixed central hardwoods, which includes species such as red and sugar maple, basswood, elms, green and white ash, and ironwood.Wisconsin’s Forests 2004 United States Department of Agriculture


(see also: Shifts in Southern Wisconsin Forest Canopy and Understory Richness, Composition, and Heterogeneity)

DNR Natural Area Conservation Biologist Matt Zine made an excellent presentation about the progress of the oak succession and the master planning process currently happening at the Lulu Lake SNA.  But it appears, given the meager crumbs of financial support they get, that the Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation should be renamed to the Museum of Natural Heritage Conservation.  With an annual budget of around $5 million, supporting 33.5 full time employees (of which only a handful are working in southeastern Wisconsin), to manage the endangered resources on 673 State Natural Areas comprising 373,000 acres, they are hard-pressed to do more than save a few choice relics.  Matt explained that they are 10 years behind when it comes to creating master plans for all of the SNAs, and that’s excluding the SNAs above the tension zone, which presumably do not contain any endangered resources, or stand to benefit from any formal management planning.   We don’t know how many, or what percentage, of the SNAs below the tension zone have master plans. This limited perspective on our endangered resources ignores the other 5 million acres of publicly owned lands in the state as well as the privately held lands (approximately 29 million acres.)

Wetlands near Lulu Lake


Matt is the messenger and I’m having trouble with the message.  Am I fighting Mother Nature when I cling to the ideal of the pre-settlement oak savannas and woodlands and work to restore something that can never be again?  It’s not just the trees, it’s the oakosystems and the mystique of the Native Americans who nurtured and mastered a life sustaining and harmonious balance of flora and fauna.  I fear that, if we don’t preserve the oak savannas and woodlands, we will loose forever the native wisdom accumulated over centuries, that they intrinsically and beautifully embody.

Thank goodness there are people like Eric Tarman-Ramcheck, Emily Stahl and Amanda Kutka, who organized the Oak Savanna Alliance Workshop, and Zach Kastern and Ginny Coburn, who share my passion for the oak savannas and woodlands of the Kettle Moraine!  Zach and Ginny have been organizing volunteer workdays in the Southern Kettle Moraine in partnership with the DNR for three years now.  Zach was awarded the Land Steward of the Year award by the Oak Savanna Alliance.  Way to go Zach!

Zach receiving the award from Matt Zine.

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The Buckthorn Man made a decent presentation baring his heart and soul while sharing his experiences volunteering for 20 years in the Kettle Moraine.

I’m plagued with doubts as I continue my efforts at The Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail: am I doing “The Right Thing” or am I fighting the natural succession?  Is it wise to abandon the management practices of the people who lived here for thousands of years, which kept the natural succession in check?

On Tuesday May 12, I spent most of the day cutting garlic mustard with my brush cutter.  I am observing that in the areas where I concentrated on cutting garlic mustard last year, there is significantly less this year and the plants that are present are typically 6-8″ tall, spindly, and with relatively few seeds.  I am gaining confidence that the strategy of mowing garlic mustard can succeed by focusing on keeping it out of the “best” areas and then gradually expanding the no-GM zone.

The river is starting to make a head cut at the Hotel Spring bridge location where the DNR recently excavated (scroll down to the leprechaun image in this post for more details.)


The sun made a dramatic appearance late in the afternoon.


On Wednesday, May 13, I was back at it whacking garlic mustard and pulling water cress.  I also spent some time weeding the spotted knapweed from the patches of lupine that are proliferating on the west slope of the sand prairie.

Sunset at Ottawa Lake.

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On Saturday, May 16, Pati and I stopped at The Springs on the way home from the Oak Savanna Alliance Workshop to check out the lupine.


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And finally, on Monday, May 18, I spent an absolutely beautiful spring day cutting garlic mustard, pulling water cress and digging out spotted knapweed.


I weeded quack grass and water cress from the Indian Springs.

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In the late afternoon I joined Pat Witkowski and the Ice Age Trail Alliance “Monday Mudders” to do a little trail maintenance near the tower at Lapham Peak State Park.

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Views from the tower.

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See you at The Springs!

Happy Ice Age Trails

Life is a journey!

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.                                                         Pink Floyd — Time

I know the feeling well.  At first I didn’t think it was a race, then, for many years I acted like it was.  The thing is, I didn’t know where I was racing to.  I didn’t have directions or principles; I didn’t know right from wrong!

It’s been four years since my rite of passage i.e., my bout with cancer, and over three years since I retired — more like quit — my job with Mother Mutual.  Now I’m on a long hike, searching for truth amongst the oaks, and seeking a balance between carrying a light pack and being prepared for trouble ahead.

I’m really glad I decided to camp and hike in the Allegheny National Forest on my way to and from Philadelphia for the Free Your Mind III conference.  The Minister Creek Campground was a perfect mid-point for the journey and a great base camp to explore the Allegheny Plateau.


Most of the campsites were still covered with ice and snow, but I found one that would work and soon had a nice wood pile thanks to my chainsaw.  I had two full days of hiking to collect my thoughts and the obvious first choice was the Minister Creek Trail.

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The view from the Minister Valley Overlook (note the sunny version below.)


The North Country Trail, like the Ice Age Trail, is a National Scenic Trail and I hiked a section near Tracy Ridge that took me to the shores of the Allegheny Reservoir.


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The conference in Philadelphia was great.  I met a righteous dude named Pete to share my hotel room with, and continued in “camping mode” by cooking my fresh vegetables, rice and curry lentil staple beneath a beautiful white pine in the back corner of the hotel parking lot.  The highlight of the conference for me was the presentation by Jeanice Barcelo.  She contrasted giving birth in a hospital setting to home birthing and helped me understand how traumatic the hospital birthing process can be for both mother and child.  Some of us carry undiagnosed birth trauma with us our whole lives not realizing the impact it is having.

Below, Mark Passio‘s presentation and the “Meeting of the Minds” conference wrap up.

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I stopped at Minister Creek on the way home and had a couple of sunny days to continue exploring.


The Hickory Creek Wilderness in the Hearts Content Recreation Area is just north of Minister Creek.  I wish I’d had this map when I took the hike; the trail was very difficult to locate and I literally spent 5-10 minutes on multiple occasions looking for the next marker.


It’s good to be home and I can barely imagine how my African Queen, Pati, feels today as she makes the return trip from her 6 week adventure in South Africa and Uganda, where she has been working with special needs children.  Welcome home Pati!

Ever since I rediscovered the sections of the Ice Age Trail that are just east of the Scuppernong Springs last winter,


and learned of all the trail building projects that Pat Witkowski has been leading there, I’ve been looking forward to joining the effort.  This past Saturday, April 18, Pat and her team from the IATA partnered with REI to pull off a very successful trail reroute workday.  Here is a flashback to my visit with Pat where she described the 280 yard reroute that we executed on Saturday.

Tina Pickruhn organized things from the REI perspective and she had to turn down dozens and dozens of volunteers, a testament to the reputation of the Waukesha/Milwaukee chapter of the IATA and the desire for people to get involved.  Pat enlisted the help of a fourteen highly trained Mobile Skills Crew team leaders to teach and guide the volunteers.

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Below, Pat introduces the project and fires up the volunteers.



I joined the “Esker” team, led by Rita and Jo.  Below they explain how to use and handle the tools.

We stopped often along the 20 minute hike to the job site to note the spectacular Kettle Moraine features and the work already accomplished by the IATA volunteers.  The work crews spread out over the 280 yard reroute and we got after it!  Carl, Jo and Rita sharing a laugh.


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Pat shows us how to use a cool tool for ripping out buckthorn.

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Check out the buzz…

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The results are fabulous!

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Pat and Tina celebrating.


After lunch I headed over to The Springs to replace signpost #4, near the marl pit bridge, which Anne Korman speculates was stolen by a Brett Farve fan.


It won’t be so easy to rip off this time.  Then I continued rehabilitating brush pile burn rings near the marl factory by disbursing the ash and covering the rings with organic material.  And finally, I took a relaxing stroll around the trails and noted that Andy Buchta had finished piling ALL of the buckthorn I cut in the waning weeks of Winter.  Thanks Bro!

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Here is what the north end of the trail looks and sounds like now!

Happy Ice Age Trails to you until we meet again at The Springs!

Pat Witkowski Walks The Wauk

When I was in high school, you issued a challenge with: “if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk!”  I don’t know if Pat Witkowski ever threw down a challenge like that to anyone but, I strongly suspect it was a conversation she had with herself that lead her to hike the 1,000 mile, Ice Age National Scenic Trail back in 2004-2005.

Pat told me that after she became a Thousand Miler she just “fell into” the role of trail coordinator for the Waukesha/Milwaukee Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance.  But, you don’t get the kind of results Pat has achieved by just talking the talk.  Pat became a Mobile Skills Crew leader, and with that foundation, she has lead dozens and dozens of chapter workdays in addition to coordinating the trail mowing.  She is an innovator as well: raising the standard for trail signage across the whole state with her Blazing Babes program.


To see Pat’s Ice Age Trail work first hand you are simply going to have to Walk The Wauk. It was Nancy Frank who came up with the idea for each chapter to design a program to encourage people to walk their sections of the IAT.  Kris Jensen, the current Waukesha/Milwaukee IAT Chapter Coordinator, came up with Walk The Wauk, and it has been a tremendous success, with over 550 people registering and around 175 completing the entire 44.7 miles of IAT in Waukesha County.  Parents, challenge your children to Walk The Wauk with you!


In addition to her work on the trail, Pat is an excellent spokesperson for the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the Waukesha/Milwaukee chapter in particular.  Discover Wisconsin featured Pat in the conclusion to their four-year journey on the Ice Age Trail.  Once people find out that you have a skill, you get called on for all sorts of projects and Pat, and her husband Gary, generously helped complete a boardwalk on Mud Lake.

Last month, while hiking at The Springs on a Saturday night, I realized that the traffic on Hwy 67 was killing my buzz.  “I’ve got to get away!”  After my next workday, I decided to hike the IAT from Hwy ZZ south to Piper Road for a change.  I knew Pat and the chapter trail crew had been working on this stretch for 3 years and I was eager to see it.  It was a cold, full moon, November night when I walked a bit of the wauk.


The white pine canopy towered overhead as I began the climb up into the moraine.  This old pine plantation just keeps getting better looking with age: taking on a much more natural look after a succession of skillful harvests.  The transition to Oak and Hickory occurs as you get up into the gracefully undulating kettles and ridges.  “Where am I?”  The last time I walked this trail was behind a Billy Goat mower and I couldn’t believe how different, beautiful and quiet it was.  At the halfway point, I had to call Pat.  This was amazing!

We setup a date to walk the segment together and met at the IAT parking area on Hwy ZZ, a ¼ mile east of Hwy 67.

We hopped in Pat’s car and drove down to the IAT crossing at Piper Rd and began walking north on the 1.5 mile segment (see map above) until we arrived at the trail reroute project shown below.  We are looking at the old trail’s path; right down a “fall line”.


Pat talks the talk.

Pat taught elementary school for 34 years, most recently at Summit Elementary, and she insisted that I give a quiz after each trail reroute video.  So please, sharpen your pencils and get rid of your gum — somewhere.

In what order is the 4-step bench building technique executed?

  • measure, dig, push, cuss
  • dig, measure, cuss, push
  • backline, bench, back slope, critical edge
  • cuss, measure, cuss, dig

We soon arrived at the next rerouted section: a 280 yard doozy.

The section above ties right into the last, and prettiest, reroutes planned for this segment.  The new, 250 yard trail, is flagged, raked, easily followed and scheduled to be opened next spring.

Here is a testimonial to Pat from my spiritual father, Mike Fort:

In my Ice Age Trail experiences with Pat, she is always well-organized and clearly communicates what the goals of the various projects happen to be. In addition to all her responsibilities with the Ice Age Trail she has also really helped with our restoration efforts at Lapham Peak. She works and leads with an upbeat cheerful attitude that is infectious no matter what the challenge. I’ve really enjoyed working with her.

Amen Mike.

Much of the Southern Kettle Moraine forest is thick with buckthorn, and one of the most exciting things about the IAT trail work that Pat is leading is the creation of view sheds, or stewardship zones, where the brush is cleared away so you can see the lay of the land.


This stewardship zone is just north of the third rerouted stretch shown above.


I think The Buckthorn Man should join the Monday Mudders!  This next view shed is just a bit north up the trail.


The last stewardship zone is at the junction with the spur trail that leads to the parking lot on Hwy ZZ where we met.


Pat, I know I speak for The Buckthorn Man, and everyone who enjoys the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Waukesha County, when I say emphatically: THANK YOU! 

See you at The Springs!