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About stewardship at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve
Stewardship is the result of a caring attitude toward the Preserve—toward all its landscapes, creatures, and human visitors—that finds its way into many kinds of action.
The energies and skills of the Preserve's stewards transform abused and eroded spaces into floral quilts visited by butterflies. Where volunteers collect litter washed up or shed on the land, where they kneel year after year pulling garlic mustard, where they transform buckthorn thickets into ephemeral spring flowers and hazel bushes harboring birds…in such places you sense the meaning of stewardship all around you.
We recognize its consequences when we share a feeling of common humanity with strangers we meet on the paths and gathering spaces of a beautiful natural area. Stewardship flows from our collective pleasure to be in a place where we see all around us animals and plants going about their activities more or less indifferent to our presence on a shimmering day by a hazy lake.
Stewardship is the responsibility we take by committing ourselves to caring for all these things and making sure that we pass them on to our children and grandchildren in at least as healthy a condition as we ourselves found them.
Donor stewardship profiles
To learn how past gifts have benefited stewardship in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, read their stories at the following links:
Stewardship challenges of the Preserve
Some challenges are system-wide and require coordinated action beyond the boundaries of the Preserve. Others must be addressed by spending tedious hours amid mosquitoes and thorns. Stewards of all ages and backgrounds bend themselves to these tasks, working together every day in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.
Among the most important systemic challenges we face in the Preserve are:
Stewardship of runoff
From a birds-eye view, the geography of the Preserve is perched on fragile slopes between the shoreline of the Lake and the surrounding pavement and buildings of the campus--to say nothing of the watershed that receives storm water from much of the west side of Madison. This precarious position makes the land and the shoreline especially vulnerable to the deterioration of soils and biological communities because of the physical force and flow of heavy storms.
On a regional scale, Willow Creek presents a complex management problem for the City of Madison, the university, and Dane County, demonstrating that no upland yard, parking lot, or roof stands apart from the watershed we all share. All have a stake in the water quality of the Yahara Lakes .
Willow Creek is the outlet that empties surges of storm water from much of the west side of Madison into University Bay . During heavy storms that deliver huge quantities of rain through the storm sewers to Willow Creek, this usually placid stream suddenly becomes much more formidable. It overtops its banks, strips the soil, washes out the root zones of trees and causes them to fall into the creek, and carries a muddy slurry out into University Bay.
Taking Responsibility for Runoff
Although the university cannot control the flow of Willow Creek by itself, it can work with its neighbors and with the city to try to diminish the volume of storm surges by slowing the rate at which water flows off the land. UW-Madison has committed land on the west side of campus to filter storm water through constructed wetland plant communities as the Class of 1918 Marsh has been doing for more than thirty years. For instance, a new prairie wetland captures water from the paved and roof areas of the new co-generation power plant on the west end of campus adjacent to Willow Creek.
UW-Madison controls most of the land that sheds water through the Preserve. Water running off the lawns, streets, roofs, walks, and parking lots of Observatory Hill flows through Muir Woods and across the Lakeshore Path to Lake Mendota. It flows from Eagle Heights Apartments through Tent Colony Woods, Big Woods, Bill's Woods, Raymer's Cove, and Picnic Point. Managing this runoff is among the greatest challenges we face in the Preseve.
Stewardship on bike and pedestrian trails
Reducing erosion in these woodlands and providing safe passage for visitors on major trails in the Preserve are priority management tasks. Timely attention to maintaining pedestrian and bicycle trails after they suffer damage during storms protects trails, soils, and people alike. After rainstorms, the UW Grounds Department grades the Lakeshore Path to reduce ruts and limit the flow of fine sediments over the banks.
Attending to fallen trees is a perennial challenge. During the summer of 2006, for instance, Grounds staff cleared over 30 storm-thrown trees and branches from trails in the Preserve, along with more than 10 trees threatening to drop branches on pedestrian routes. Trees decline when their root systems are washed out by water from developed areas of campus. The more we can infiltrate water before it erodes soils and damages trees, the more we can maintain the health and beauty of the Preserve and of the campus as a whole.
Some areas of the Preserve must be “hardened” to stop erosion and support human use. The tip of Picnic Point and the steep path down from Muir Knoll will benefit, if only we can find the funding, from the construction of stone steps to protect the soil beneath our feet and conserve fragile slopes even as we enhance the experience of visitors with graceful naturalistic design. At Raymer's Cove, removing asphalt, rerouting water, selecting new cross-slope trail routes, and planting prairie to absorb water will all protect the cliffs and sandy shoreline below this popular destination.
Stewardship through ecological restoration
Ecological restoration of woodlands threatened by gully erosion involves several steps. By encouraging infiltration of water into the soil as high in the watershed as possible, we can reduce its volume, speed, and destructiveness as it moves downstream. Farther down the storm water drainage, we can add coarse woody structure to the drainage and encourage diverse plantings to hold the soil and take up moisture.
The Frautschi Point Woods gully restoration project is a good example of these techniques. Branches have been woven into the gully banks and herbaceous plants added. The gully washed out around the plants soon after they were planted, but the plants subsequently took hold. Prairie wetland species help soak up the water and attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Throughout the area leading down to the gully, Volunteer Steward Glenda Denniston has been working with other volunteers to remove invasive plants, plant oak trees, and restore savanna habitat around heritage oaks.
Stewardship as adaptive management
All of these water challenges are improved by adaptive management strategies that seek to understand the underlying processes—human and natural—that threaten the overall health of the Preserve. By experimenting with different restoration techniques and closely observing their effects, Preserve stewards learn, recalibrate, act again, and learn how to become more effective as they practice their craft. Members of the Grounds Department observe erosion patterns in the aftermath of major rain storms, and then change drainage routes to prevent storm water from transporting silt into the Lake Mendota from the Lakeshore Path. Volunteers establish plant communities by removing invasive plants that block light. In the process, all of these stewards encourage richer biological habitats.
Stewardship in boundary areas
Excavated areas, utility constructions, former agricultural lands, and boundaries between different kinds of land use are always dynamic places of ecological instability. They require special attention and care to help maintain natural habitats in the places where we wish to see them thrive.
This is true, for instance, in new prairie restorations, where imported soils have sometimes included sweet clover that compete with our prairie seedings; in the old alfalfa field that has been colonized by leafy spurge and crown vetch; and in abandoned garden edges where trees and weeds have sprouted in former compost. In the Preserve, we know that even a seemingly vacant place never remains so for long. Some organism will always show up and grow there.
Stewardship to control invasive plants
All Preserve stewards, whether gardening vegetables in plots or native species in the prairies and woods, are united in the fight against invasive pest plants that wreak havoc on native ecosystems and damage wildlife. Burdock, for instance, frequently appears in disturbed areas of heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and then spreads perniciously. The seed “bur” is not only a nuisance to humans but fatally traps small birds and bats. Eliminating pest plant seeds, and planting disturbed areas that harbor pest plants, is a stewardship objective in all actively managed areas of the Preserve. Nature knows no boundaries in areas that may to human eyes appear neatly separated on maps, which means that all stewards and users must reach beyond their special interests to join in an ever-vigilant shared effort to fight such invaders.
Garlic mustard control is a kind of ecological restoration that must be conducted everywhere in the Preserve, even before other restoration plans have been completed. The fight to prevent this invasive species from overtaking native vegetation has been the most intense and expensive we have ever undertaken. Heroic volunteer efforts have kept this catastrophically invasive plant from taking over the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.
Volunteers are developing recordkeeping methods that track the results of garlic mustard control activities. Stewards who have been doing control year after year in the same areas have made observations that have changed the way we do this work. For example, they have drawn attention to the fact that our early assaults only on the large visible plants may actually have encouraged small seeding plants that are just as pernicious in the long run. The tedious removal of tiny plants and seedlings is a significant achievement that is moving us in the direction of genuine control. The fact that it now takes more hours of volunteer labor to fill a bag of weeded garlic mustard might initially feel discouraging until one realizes that it means we have actually become more effective and are making greater progress in controlling this noxious weed.
Stewardship for visitors
Trails help everyone to enjoy and contribute to the stewardship of the Preserve. Design of routes so that the trails do not further fragment the Preserve is essential. Signs at gateways welcome and orient visitors, helping them see what is happening on the land, hear about changes, and watch the work of stewardship in action. The “What is Going on Here?” sign (photo at right) has become a standard outreach vehicle for the Preserve.
Frequent visitors become accustomed to looking for brief notices of the latest stewardship activities. As we begin opening up views of University Bay by removing colonies of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle to uncover native trees and red osier dogwood, we display signs with excerpts from the Master Plan for the Preserve to explain why we are doing this work. With these small signs, we invite visitors to enjoy with us the gradual habitat enrichment process that is part of the never-ending stewardship work of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.
Why stewardship matters
Our stewardship starts by striving to prevent erosion and pollution and inadvertent damage by human activity.
We watch as closely as we can to try to understand the natural forces that are at work in the Preserve. We pay attention to the ground beneath our feet, building soils to hold plants, encouraging benign plants and removing pest ones, preventing soil compaction wherever we can. We find ways that we as humans can create welcoming places for birds and butterflies looking for glens in the woods beside this beautiful lake.
In the end, we celebrate that even places that once seemed barren and denuded can eventually sustain a veritable riot of native plants and animals—amongst which we wander and celebrate as we celebrate the fruits of our own stewardship.
Text: Cathie Bruner, ver 1c, edited by W. Cronon
Images: Cathie Bruner: Willow Creek flood, visitor sign, Glenda Denniston collecting water for new plants, Frautschi Point drainage way. All other images, Glenda Denniston