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Bill's Woods consists of a broad rectangle of wooded land between University Bay Drive and Eagle Heights Community Gardens . The eastern third of the tract was an established woodland before 1930, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the western two thirds was both cropped and grazed as part of a working farm. Later, the central and western parts of the area were used for agricultural research. and part of the eastern third was used as a storage area for campus landscaping operations, an activity that threatened the older part of the forest.
The present forest in the western two-thirds of Bill's Woods has come into being as a result of half a century of regrowth. After persuading the university to move its storage activities away from the older part of the forest, a dedicated group of volunteers from the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve has been working steadily since the late 1990s on a series of restoration projects here to return the older eastern portion of Bill's Woods to a more diverse native plant community.
The eastern third of Bill's Woods is one of the few parts of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve that was an established woodland before the 1930s. The woods extended east of the present service road and included part of the base of Picnic Point below the cedar-covered hill. By the 1890s, part of the original Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association carriage road cut diagonally a little to the west of the original woods, and the route is still present as a paved road open to walkers and bicyclists.
Eastern Bill's Woods (the 6.5 acre portion located to the east of the fire lane) is a mixed deciduous woodland, with a canopy of white, red and some bur oak, hickory, and other deciduous trees, almost all of which developed in a woodland setting rather than in an open area. The understory layers, before restoration, were less diversified, the original native plants having been largely replaced by non-native shrubs and saplings. The two middle and western portions of Bill's Woods have had a checkered history, having been long used for agriculture and other purposes. The westernmost part of Bill's Woods still had three large agricultural fields in use in the 1960s.
Eastern Bill's Woods Restoration Project
The section of the Eastern Bill's Woods just south of the Grounds Storage and Holding Area (“Upper Bill's Woods”) became part of the Grounds work area in the 1990s. Trees were bulldozed and this now open section was piled with mulch, gravel, and other work materials. In 1999, before the formation of the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, Glenda Denniston and Roma Lenehan lobbied to have Grounds remove the work materials and re-grade the area (which was done in the spring of 2000), and received permission from the Field Manager to begin restoration of this bare section, continuing the work they had started in the still-wooded portions nearby. In the fall of 2001 the bare ground was seeded with a mix of savanna seeds from Tom and Kathie Brock's Black Earth Pleasant Valley Conservancy, and many other open-area plants were added.
The Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve (then FCNA) “Eastern Bill's Woods Project” is a continuation and expansion of two previous projects: 1) the original 1999 “Upper Bill's Woods Project” and 2) the “FCNA Entrance Project,” begun by the newly-formed Friends group in the southeastern section of Bill's Woods in 2002. Thousands of invasive shrubs and trees have been and are still being removed. These are gradually being replaced with native understory trees such as Pagoda dogwood, various Viburnums, and Ironwood Hornbeam as well as by thousands of forbs, selected from a Curtis plant list previously approved by the oversight committee. These are native, local-ecotype wildflowers, sedges, and ferns obtained from native plant nurseries which use seed from southern Wisconsin to produce their stock and which are recommended by the Wisconsin DNR.
In 2003 the Friends received a five-year permit to continue and extend their restoration work to include the entire 6.5-acre eastern portion of Bill's Woods. Careful written and photographic records of plant and animal life in Eastern Bill's Woods have been and are being kept by the Friends. Yearly reports are sent to the Preserve Committee, and periodic updates are written for the Friends newsletter, now named “PRESERVE!”
Re-sprouting buckthorns are still a problem and garlic mustard is pulled each year. Weeds of all sorts still must be kept under control. There is noticeable change in the groundlayer vegetation, though (shown in photo at right). The Friends add new native plants each year, and now are able to divide and move some of the original plantings and spread their seeds to other areas.
Especially in the spring, the results of the restoration work are evident in the wooded parts of Eastern Bill's Woods. Spring ephemerals have thrived and spread, and plants which formerly were shaded by invasives now bloom in profusion. Among the many flowers that are now present are Great White Trillium, Prairie Trillium, Bloodroot, False Rue Anemone, Wood Anemone, Wild Strawberry, Wood Phlox, Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Sprengel's Sedge, Maidenhair Fern, Lady Fern and large patches of Troutlilly, Spring Beauty, Mayapple and Wood Geranium.
Upper Bill's Woods (the open area across from Grounds) is best visited in the late summer and fall, when the wetland savanna flowers there are in full bloom. In this season there is a profusion of savanna plants in flower, many over ten feet high. Birds and butterflies are abundant.
Since Bill's Woods is just to the west of Picnic Point, most people already know how to get to it. From the entrance to Picnic Point, instead of continuing straight to Picnic Point, take the main Service Road which begins at the iron gate in the decorative stone wall. Eastern Bill's Woods is to the left of this road, and evidence of the Friends' restoration efforts should be clearly visible there. A sign at the southeastern corner of Bill's Woods explains the restoration project. At the first road intersection take a left and you will be following the north edge of the project. If you walk or bike west from the Picnic Point entrance along University Bay Drive, you'll also be able to view Bill's Woods to your right, and the paved diagonal pedestrian and bicycle route to Eagle Heights Community Gardens can be used to cross the interior of Bill's Woods.
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