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Muir Woods consists of a 7-acre forested tract northwest of Bascom Hall and east of the Sewell Social Science Building. Even though it is located near the busiest part of campus, with literally thousands of people passing by each day as they travel up Bascom Hill and Observatory Drive, it remains a relatively secluded part of the Preserve. In many ways, it is one of those little secrets that hides in full view. The formal name for this area is John Muir Park, a tribute to the great naturalist who once lived at North Hall just across the road.
The wooded north-facing slope on Bascom Hill has been known by several names since the establishment of the university in 1848. The earliest reference is simply University Woods. We surmise that the name Bascom Woods started to be used sometime in the 1920s, following the renaming of nearby University Hall to the current Bascom Hall in June,1920. The name Muir Woods probably came into use beginning in the early 1960s, following the formal designation of this wooded area as John Muir Park.
That this area should be named for John Muir, the famed naturalist and conservation leader, is fitting for several reasons. During the early 1860s, Muir was a student at the university, living and studying in North Hall. The window in his dormitory room looked directly out towards the place that would one day bear his name. There is little doubt that Muir visited this wooded area during his frequent botanical collection forays in the vicinity of Lake Mendota. It is even quite likely that he ventured into these woods to gather fuel for North Hall's stoves.
Four years after his death in 1914, the university first acknowledged his important contributions to the nation's nascent conservation movement by designating the knob of land across from North Hall as Muir Knoll.
Controversy over building in the woods
The second time the university honored Muir came as a consequence of a controversial proposal to construct a new building to the west of this same natural area. In the late 1950s, the university developed a plan to construct a "Sociology-Anthropology-Economics Building" in an area of Bascom Woods north of the Carillon Tower. For several years, angry faculty fought the Board of Regents and the Campus Planning Commission in defense of these woods. The land conservation values they invoked during this controversy had much in common with the ones Muir expressed in his land conservation battles out west.
Faculty members debated, prominent citizens wrote editorials, environmental groups circulated petitions. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright (a one-time student at UW-Madison) wrote a blistering editorial soon after the Board of Regents approved the project. Wright shared his views regarding,
Estella Leopold, the widow of the legendary wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold, was also disturbed by the proposal. Her open letter to the public was attached to a petition to the Regents circulated by the "Emergency Committee on Bascom Woods." She implored:
The faculty Advisory Committee on Campus Wooded Areas, headed by the renowned botanist John T. Curtis, and including members D. M. Angevine, Grant Cottam, Arthur D. Hasler, and G.W. Longenecker, developed a proposal that they hoped might thwart the entire project. In early 1959, the committee approved a resolution recommending the establishment of a John Muir Park—to include most of what was then Bascom Woods. The committee also recommended that the new park be augmented by additional wooded "outdoor biological laboratories," including: the area north of Lathrop Hall, land south and west of Birge Hall, the area between Sterling and Bascom Halls, and the land east of the Observatory Office building.
Despite the broad opposition to the building, construction was finally approved. The new Social Science Building was completed in two phases: an initial structure in 1962, followed by an addition to the north side in 1966.
The proposal to establish a John Muir Park was eventually implemented, but the boundaries of the park were drawn in such a way that the new academic building—by then a fait accompli—necessarily intruded upon the western portion of the wooded area.
John Muir Park dedication
A formal dedication ceremony for the new John Muir Park was held on February 8, 1964. Interestingly, the park dedication ceremony was attended by the U.S. Postmaster General, who as part of the celebration unveiled the design of a new John Muir commemorative stamp.
While it is true that a portion of the former Bascom Woods was lost to construction, it can also be said that this campus land-use controversy was an important turning point for university planners. No longer could it be assumed that every place on campus could be automatically considered appropriate for development. Some places would be preserved in an undeveloped condition for both educational and recreational benefits—and members of the university community and the public would be increasingly active in defending such lands against development
Indeed, it can said that the establishment of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve can trace its origins to the hopes and values expressed nearly 50 years ago by faculty and citizens who cherished this place and fought for its preservation.
Read these news clippings to learn more about the controversial construction of the Social Science Building and the creation of John Muir Park:
Rebecca Kagle, a graduate student at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, has been planning and implementing ecological restoration projects in Muir Woods since the summer of 2005. Her research and field work are being conducted under the direction of faculty advisor Professor Evelyn Howell, from the Department of Landscape Architecture.
Kagle's work on plant communities
As part of her master's research, Kagle has been observing and inventorying the plant community. When we asked her to offer a snapshot of the diverse trees and flowers to be found here, this is what she wrote:
The close proximity of Muir Woods to the central core of campus makes this part of the Preserve an enjoyable place for a short walk or a respite from the hectic pace on adjacent Observatory Drive and Bascom Hill. Most people probably experience Muir Woods mainly along the short trail from Muir Knoll down to the Lakeshore Path. Next time you are visiting the woods you might try venturing down one of several other trails that will take you to less visited areas toward the west.
One of the virtues of having a wooded parcel so close to major classroom buildings such as Science Hall, Social Science, Birge Hall, and Education is that students and their instructors can easily visit Muir Woods-even during relatively brief class or discussion sections. Students from geography, environmental studies, and humanities classes can often be found here either studying or finding inspiration in a natural setting.
The 2006 Lakeshore Nature Preserve Master Plan envisions a variety of cultural and ecological projects that will enhance educational opportunities, improve visitor experiences, and protect resources. Several restoration projects have already been implemented in Muir Woods, guided by the master plan and implemented by Nelson Institute graduate student Rebecca Kagle.
One of Kagle's first projects was to install an environmental monitoring grid in the woods to provide spatial referencing for a plant inventory. Once the reference points were in place, Kagle and students working under her supervision were able to identify, measure, tag, and precisely locate all of the major trees in their grid. They have also been identifying all of the woody shrubs and herbaceous plants. In the future, this information will be used as a baseline reference to gauge how different ecological restoration activities affect the plant community over an extended period.
Kagle has also mapped the maze of trails that criss-cross about this much-traversed parcel. After determining the routes least likely to promote erosion or damage the fragile soils and vegetation, she presented a proposal for trail improvement to the Preserve Committee. With the committee's support, Kagle and her volunteers have been hard at work rerouting, retiring, or stabilizing walking trails throughout the woods.
One project that visitors may wish to check out is the new walking bridge created during the summer of 2006 that crosses a highly eroded gully near the top of the stairs leading from the Lakeshore Path. The bridge helps to define the trail route, thereby minimizing erosion created by hikers creating their own routes through the woods. The structure was built by a crew of volunteers coordinated by a Troop 90 Boy Scout working on his Eagle service project.
Kagle's Muir Woods management plan also addresses the problem of invasive plants in the woods. Countless hours have been spent removing garlic mustard, honeysuckle, and buckthorn. With a stable, well-defined trail system in place, the work of replanting the understory with native plants can move forward in earnest. Wild geranium, elm leaf goldenrod, Penn sedge, and button brush plants are all slated for understory planting in the woods in the fall of 2006.
Funds to support Kagle's research and implementation efforts have been supplied by generous gifts from the Class of 1963, the Preserve Academic Endowment and private gifts. This financial support is vital to achieving the vision set forth in the Preserve master plan, and would not be possible without the extraordinary generosity of the Preserve's many donors and volunteers.
Muir Woods is among the easiest places in the Preserve to reach for even a brief respite from the busy central campus.
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