I went to the woods…


Alas the end is in sight, but there is a mountain to climb before I get there.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

I have started the capstone closure internship for my Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies with an emphasis on Environmental Management and Planning at the University of Illinois at Springfield (a real mouth full), and I plan to utilize this blog to log the hours required. To explain the internship, well, I guess I could write a thesis that will never be read by anyone (nor published) or complete a research project that again, will advance the knowledge little, or instead get my hands dirty in the field and actually work the job.

As I am already a volunteer at the Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest – Southern Unit, it seemed natural to work the 240 required internship hours in the Southern Kettle Moraine. DNR Assistant Forest Superintendent Anne Korman agreed to sponsor the internship and a plan was written. My goal is to improve natural diversity and habitat at the Springs Trail, plus other projects and events that come about. There are certainly trail infrastructure projects that need addressed and the first and foremost issue is the invasive plant species that are choking out the native plant life.

It is easy to formulate grand restoration scenarios, but I must remain realistic in my planning. State Conservation Biologist Matt Zine gave me a welcome dose of reality when he explained that restoration takes a great many years, and that projects should be prioritized based on the time I have available to work at the springs. I have already spent some time working the trails, the woods, and placing nesting boxes, but here begins the official work. I am glad to have this opportunity.

May 10th – Whitewater Oak Opening prescribed burn with the Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation. Nine hours tending firebreaks on a 200 acre burn. Classic Kettle Moraine topography, but overgrown with honeysuckle. The fire should keep woody invasives at bay for the season.

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June 3rd – Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail – Pull white sweet clover near the Hotel springs and garlic mustard on the south end of sand prairie, east face of big kettle. Seven hours – 16 total.

June 7th – Scuppernong River – Place fill material behind coconut husk bio-logs in Scuppernong River to narrow channel and displace sediment. Pull watercress out of springs in big valley, south of Hotel Springs. Ten hours – 26 total.


June 9th – Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail – Pull spotted knapweed from patches of lupine on sand prairie. Two hours – 28 hours.

So just as Thoreau did, while also ushering in a period of transcendentalism, I have chosen to enter the woods and learn the essential, natural, facts of life through sweat equity. There is a time for books to be closed and boots to be laced. I have 212 hours to go.





Categories: Conservation, Restoration Ecology, Scuppernong Springs, Springs Projects | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

nothing but flowers

I often discuss preserving or restoring landscapes that have been overgrown, unmaintained, and mismanaged, though management practices are sometimes just a reflection of the current planning trend or philosophy. Funding dictates what can or cannot be done on a property. So no animosity towards the planners and managers except in the case of complete neglect. But parks, preserves, reserves, and natural areas are sadly only a fraction of the landscape as a whole. I often blog and complain about housing and commercial development expanding, but honestly, they aren’t ripping up pristine forest and wetlands to build condos (at least not yet [ok they are, but hear me out]).

New development in Southeastern Wisconsin predominantly occurs in parceled farmland. Tracts are sold to developers, who in turn break them down into lots, and homes and businesses move in. It’s certainly a lot more complicated than that. Sewages, water, power, roads – there is a great deal of planning involved that I can’t begin to describe. Ultimately, there is a great deal of money to be made, and it starts with changing land use zoning from farm to future development. Given the increasing costs of food, generally attributed to transportation costs. I think it’s insane to displace agriculture further away from the urban centers. But this isn’t about food security, I’ve got another agenda.

Can we convert farmland back to wildland?

Well, of course we can, and we see evidence of this in parts of Iowa, where farmland is being reverted back to tallgrass prairie. But unless state natural resource agencies or organizations like The Land Conservancy buy farmland, it is more likely for a farmer to seek the larger buyout from developers. Verburg and Overmars explored successional vegetation growth on abandoned farmland throughout Europe. Their modeling exercise found that agriculture lands are somewhat elastic. They grow and decline. If we experience a decline in ag use lands in America, I am suggesting that we let them be naturally recovered rather than immediately rush in to develop them.

Verburg, Peter H., and Koen P. Overmars. “Combining top-down and bottom-up dynamics in land use modeling: exploring the future of abandoned farmlands in Europe with the Dyna-CLUE model.” Landscape ecology 24.9 (2009): 1167-1181.

Categories: planning philosophy | 2 Comments

Wild continuity

It was suggested to me this past weekend that the recession has been good for nature because it has slowed down development. I had never thought of it that way, but a recovery must be underway, as I have starting spotting bulldozed hillsides making way for oversized houses and condos once again. I think that development is inevitable, but I can’t imagine how a developer can justify projects without emphasizing sustainable practices. Of course this is guided by market demands and property owners have a stake in the process as well. Is this a call for regulation and restrictions? Well, if that is the only means to the end, then so be it, but I think that sustainable development should be a selling point, or better yet an innate moral responsibility that developers and buyers willingly embrace. Beyond calling a residential community Rolling Meadows Estates or Prairie View Grove, developers need to embody the aesthetic are they simulating in name only.

How? Conservation easements automatically built into the projects.

Consider a housing community project. Aside from environmentally responsible building practices, development zoning code should include provisions for wetlands, restored woodlots, wildlife corridors, etc… This isn’t simply about protecting plants and animals, easements provide vital ecosystem services to residents. A wetland can be used as a storm water catch basin or aid in recharging a local water table. Nature preserves (reserves, take your pick) provide recreation and education value, while protecting biodiversity.

Such projects are not maintenance free. I was lucky enough to participate in a prescribed burn to maintain a wild refuge between blocks of residential development Saturday with the crew from the Kettle Moraine Land Stewards LLC.

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Lighting the backfire, a headfire crossing the kettle, and a selfie while watching the firebreak

My outline of conservation easements is realistic, and I feel applicable to urban settings as well if planned correctly. In either case, rural or urban, these are small potatoes in the eyes of regional planning.  Wildlife corridors are popular post on Facebook, if you subscribe to eco-conscious pages, but they actually exist.

wildlife overpass  wildlife underpass

An overpass in Alberta, Canada, and a wildlife underpass in British Columbia

Canada obviously gets it. Whereas my friends at the Wildlife in Need Center regularly deal with wildlife that has been struck by traffic.

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A snapping turtle with its shell wired back together following a hit and run

If we must develop the limited spaces we have in front of us, then we must protect the dwindling refuges we have left and create conservation easements to connect wild spaces. We can look at Southeastern Wisconsin and see where flora and fauna are restricted. It is easy to draw that conclusion that wide open agriculture fields are the missing links, but nobody is plowing up fields to create parks, they are being partitioned off into housing lots.

Urban and Wild  SEWisc

Urban circled in blue and relatively wild spaces in green

When it is all said and done, I am implying restrictions on development, but I am not suggesting an opinion that displaces residents or business interests. It forces sustainable development through a larger game of connect the dots, wild dots. A holistic vision must be adopted across the development community – wildlife, waterways, preserves, and habitat must all be considered in the expanding human domain.


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A Song for Mason Creek

On a walk through the Springs property with my new friend Jill Bedford and good ol’ Paul Mozina, Jill spoke of the Tall Pines Conservancy’s efforts to restore Mason Creek in Northwestern Waukesha County. Mason Creek is a feeder stream of North Lake, and through a series of connecting streams, Pine, Fowler, Oconomowoc, La Belle, Beaver, Keesus, Moose, Okauchee, and Silver Lakes. Mason Creek is considered a threatened stream due to the high levels of sediment and runoff that occur. This naturally affects the quality of the chain of lakes further downstream. A management and planning process is underway, involving the Tall Pines Conservancy, local planning authorities, Trout Unlimited, and the Wisconsin DNR.

mason creek map

After hearing my aspirations for a career in resources management, Jill asked if I would like to be a fly on the wall for the next meeting. This is a great opportunity, plus I love the fact that we were social networking on a nature trail. Additionally, Mason Creek is in the Upper Rock River Watershed which is under a larger USDA management, protection, and restoration plan. Knowledge gained is never a bad thing.

There is clearly an issue with pollutants and discharge in this stream, and they are rooted in the adjacent farmland, but from an environmental justice point of view, we must consider the farming community as stakeholders and not just a culpable party. According to the EPA, “environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (EPA website).

Development throughout lake country is ever-increasing, and the value of lakefront property exceeds the reaches of most of us. Degraded lake waters decrease property and recreational value, therefore, the return on property investment is diminished. This is where I believe the environmental conflict truly persist. The interests of the wealthy are influencing watershed management policy, which in turn, affects agricultural practices. An equal argument exists on the side of local farmers, where lakefront property owners consistently construct lush, green, fertilizer induced lawns directly down to the lake shores. To suggest that the farmers are solely to blame for the phosphorus cycle is incorrect. Plus the increase in lakefront development will only bring additional infrastructure which will introduce more runoff issues.

This is not an Erin Brockovich-esque case of corporations denying the impact of their factories’ pollutants on low-income neighborhoods, but it is an example of how environmental justice and fair treatment between parties plays a role in land-use and planning. Farmers need to limit their runoff and comply with the statutes and daily allowable discharge set by the state, no doubt about it. At the same time, I don’t believe they should be placed in a financial situation that disrupts their way of life, to only increase the value of lakefront property. As the DNR has already suggested, Mason Creek is a threatened stream, and a management plan will describe what steps are necessary to protect the watershed. The next hurdle is funding the clean-up. Will lakefront property owners that stand to gain from the restoration finance the efforts, or will farmers pay for runoff containment? I believe it will be a mix of both, but the contention between the two parties (and other stakeholders) is surely going to go the distance.


Categories: planning philosophy, Restoration Ecology | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

rise of the skunk cabbage

This is a short post, because I think the first sprout of spring should speak for itself.


Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) melts the frozen ground above through cyanide resistant cellular respiration (Vernadsky & Argentaria-Visor, 1999) . What an adaptation! It pops through the soft soil to be the first plant on the block, goodbye winter.

Vernadsky, V. I., & Argentaria-Visor, F. (1999). The Journal of Biospheric Science. The Official Journal of the International Biosphere Group, 1(1).

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Big blue sky for small bluebird boxes

I woke Sunday morning to my smartphone speaking the time, date and outside temperature. 14 degrees! I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to pound the U-posts  I bought to mount bluebird houses through the soil at the Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail. When I arrived at the Springs trailhead, Paul Mozina and Pati Holman were prepping for a beautiful workday. I pulled a wagonload of bluebird nesting boxes down the trail and Paul followed with a wheelbarrow load of posts.

We tiptoed through a marsh, trying not to break through the top crust of ice, to mount the first box. It took a couple of knocks with the post driver before the post broke through the frozen layer and sank into the soft sediments below. We oriented the boxes to face southeast, as the prevailing western winds can chill baby birds. Bluebird boxes also need to be mounted in relatively open areas, and the wet mesic prairie adjoining the trail is prime bluebird habitat (I hope).


Box “B1”

Any fear that the cold weather was going to slow us down soon passed, as we worked our way around the Marl Pits and up the Scuppernong River towards the head springs. I was able to finally get close enough to inspect the biologs that the SE Wisconsin Chapter of Trout Unlimited installed to narrow the river and cut a deeper channel. They are essentially mats of coconut husk tied together with rope. You can make one out below next to box “B7”.

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Box “B5” west of the Marl Pits                                       Box “B7”  –  expecting Battleship jokes at some point

We wrapped up installing the 20 bluebird nesting boxes and the last four woodland boxes around 3 o’clock.  I went back out to take GPS readings at each box so that they can be monitored by other volunteers. The first few boxes that we installed were in a frozen marsh. My next step into the same wetland was a soaker. I broke through the frozen crust and had to contend with a wet foot for the rest of the trek.

I usually have a song in my head as I go about my business, but when I’m at the Springs it’s usually the Allman Brothers “Blue Sky”. Makes sense, right? I sometimes wonder if I’m singing it aloud or not.


I believe this is Box “B15” near a Red Oak (Quercus rubra) below the Sand Prairie

I am jealous of the views these bluebirds will get to see each time they look out their front doors. Sadly, this was the last day of my spring break and I will have to wait a few weeks before I can return to the property to see if any birds move in.


Categories: Bluebirds, Restoration Ecology, Scuppernong Springs, Springs Projects | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

how to build a bird sanctuary

After intimately living with 30+ nesting boxes for a month, the time and opportunity had finally come to hang the boxes at the Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail. There was a little scrutiny in the naturalist circle about the design I used and the ease of entry to count eggs and monitor bluebird chicks (see http://www.braw.org/ for monitoring details). So be it, I’m flexible. These are now woodland nesting boxes, and I’ll be happy if nuthatches, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, swallows, and titmice nest in them.



Last Thursday I escaped the day job and made my way west, towards the Springs. I stopped by the Wildlife in Need Center for a quick visit. Wildlife rehabilitator Chelsea Matson was checking on a recently admitted patient. The Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana, (though I’ve always known them simply as possums) is not a native of Wisconsin. They are really more of a southern animal, and as they have worked their way north, they are prone to frostbite on their ears and tails.


They really are beautiful animals up close. I know most people think of them as nasty rat dogs, but they are extremely unique creatures (after all they are the only marsupial in North America). They can be a nuisance animal, but they probably think the same of humans (and they’re right). This guy came in emaciated with a little frostbite on the tip of his tail. The winter has been hard on wildlife, especially species that are at the northern fringe of their range.

Once at the Springs, I jumped right in to mounting the boxes. I figured the Aspens would make great posts as I carried a 16′ aluminum ladder and pulled a sled full of boxes and tools along the trail. Paul Mozina was burning the buckthorn piles from this winters clearing and Dick Jenks was cutting firewood as I made my way to them.  Paul shot a video and I gave my best shot at explaining the purpose of the boxes.

I mounted them every 150 yards or so, and tried to get as creative in the placement as I could. I’ve never really been a bird watcher, but I soon realized that I have no choice but to become one now. After seven hours of mounting boxes, I grabbed a quick snack and Paul and I headed back out to get the GPS coordinates of the 26 boxes I installed. I’ll post their locations on the Springs website and hopefully we’ll get some feedback on the tenants.

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A few days later, I pulled out the saws and went to town on some proper bluebird nesting boxes.  All of the boxes are made from reclaimed and scrap lumber, and for this design I followed a sparrow proof plan forwarded by Mike Fort of the Friends of Lapham Peak. Sparrows and starlings are invasive birds that will take over or push out bluebirds. As prairie habitat has already declined, bluebirds need all the help they can get. The side entry box allows for easier access to monitor the nest. They will have to be mounted in open areas if we plan to attract bluebirds, so I bought some 6′ U-posts to mount them on.

Bserieshouse Bserieshouse2

I finished 20 boxes and plan to put them up this weekend, plus mount the 4 “A” series boxes I couldn’t get to on Thursday. In total, the Springs will have 50 new nesting boxes, plus 5 other boxes that were already on the property. As the birds make their way north into Southeastern Wisconsin, hopefully they will find sanctuary at the Springs and stay the whole season. It’s amazing how some simple boxes could help change a landscape, but I can only imagine how the trophic scale will be altered if even half the boxes are used this year. Most of the cavity nesting birds are bug eaters, and with the addition of our invasive plant removal plans, the Springs will only improve for the better.

Categories: Bluebirds, Restoration Ecology, Scuppernong Springs, Springs Projects | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

The shortest distance between two points

As our cities inevitably grow, a fringe landscape is created where the urban environment meets rural lands. The fringe is a sort of transition zone, where we see wild turkeys and coyotes entering our neighborhoods, but also the inverse. Construction and sprawl trampling the countryside and bringing foreign elements (invasive species, asphalt) and pollution (light, noise, chemical) to the wild. The countryside is by no means a pristine environment. The rural has already seen agricultural development and that delivers its own problems (runoff issues, invasive hogs), but patchwork farms aside, the rural is the modern refuge of biodiversity.


Turkeys visiting my urban front yard orchard

Mattias Qviström (2005) uses the weed metaphor to describe the land planner’s perception of the fringe landscape. It is not that the weed is a mutation or hybrid in the botanical sense, it is simply a plant out-of-place, without value in its current convention.  This is a fallacy of urban planning. Both worlds can easily co-exist if we stop drawing sharp lines across the map to define space. We must take our cues from nature, and reshape our transitions from urban to rural.

treeshape Meander

Our city streets can unlearn the right angles we constitute as order. The rivers and streams can once again meander their way through the valley. It is all about perception. We find the shortest distance between two points, and believe this is a road to progress, but this is where we deviate from nature and deliberately create a grey transition between urban and rural. The fringe will continue to be pushed outward by the urban expansion, swallowing the rural landscape, unless we allow nature to weave our urban matrices.



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Bluebirds and juice fast

This past week has been an anomaly. The great factory I slave for has slowed down production and I’ve escaped having to go in all week. It was unpaid, but sometimes my free-time is more important than a paycheck. The weather has finally recovered from the Artic Vortex that kept us in record lows for most of the winter. It’s strange how 20 degree days feel like a warming trend, but Tuesday and Wednesday were easily in the 30s plus. I spent Tuesday helping Paul Mozina and Zach Kastern cut invasive buckthorn at the Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail, and Wednesday was an equally beautiful day.

I’ve been collecting scrap lumber from work for the last few months to use in the construction of nesting boxes and benches at the Springs. So I overdressed (as we are used to daily wind chills subzero) and headed out to the driveway workshop. I pulled out the chop saw and dug out the table saw from its snowed-in coffin that is our shed. The ice in the driveway was melting as I pulled out hunks of 1″x12″ pine in lengths ranging 8″ to 4′ from the garage.

I decided to start out building bluebird nesting boxes, and if this was successful, move onto wood duck and bat houses. I had found a few different designs online, and Zach Kastern encouraged me to check out the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin (aka BRAW) website for guidance. I decided on a bit of a hybrid between designs. It’s the science of ornithology, not rocket science. This shaped box can house tree swallows, nuthatches, chickadees, titmouses, and downy woodpeckers. I cut enough lumber for 36 boxes, with 30 slated for the Springs property.


36 unassembled bluebird nesting boxes

As the day wore on, my back and wrist were killing me. After I cleaned up, I noticed my right wrist was swollen twice the size of the left. The twisting and turning of chainsaw work the previous day had sprained my wrist bad, but hey, I’m no doctor, so I put a frozen bag of broccoli on it.

Thursday I bought a brace for my wrist, it seemed like the logical thing to do, and started assembling the nesting boxes. On the inside, under the oval shaped opening, I stapled a piece of hardware cloth so the nestlings can get a hold as they make their first climb out of the coop. A brad nailer makes short work of box assembly. The hard part was installing the tiny hinges that hold the lid in place, especially with a game wrist, but I did get 10 built Thursday night.


This has been the most difficult part of the project

Karen wanted to do a juice fast on Friday following Zuzkalight’s One Day Juice Cleanse. I knocked out another 14 nesting boxes between a mix of raw juices. I have to say, they were good, and I’m sure they were good for me, but I was dying for a cracker or a few bread crumbs. After five juice sessions, I literally cleaned myself out tenfold. I threw in the towel and went to Qdoba for a vegetarian burrito (why ruin a good thing with pizza?).


The abbreviated armada

There’s no doubt that I will have to return to work this next week. It was nice to have some time to work on these projects. The bluebirds are moving north everyday and will be here soon. Paul and I were discussing when we can get out and mount the boxes, but the ground is frozen deep, so it may be the Ides of March.


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Rest, relaxation and restoration ecology

Monday started off perfect, I went into work and found out that a lack of materials has caused the line to slow down. I was given the option of going back home. A no brainer, it’s like a free unpaid vacation day. So I went home and rearranged all the furniture. Karen wasn’t surprised, this is the sort of thing she’s come to expect.

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The living room has never been this organized and probably never will again

Tuesday, was seasonally normal for a change, that means a high in the 30’s, so I wore shorts out the door. Again, a lack of parts meant that I was given the freedom to go home. I know my pal Paul Mozina was at the Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail cutting invasive buckthorn, so I jumped at the chance to join him. I rushed to get together my chainsaw and gear, forgetting any real lunch and hit the road.

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The happiness of leaving the day job is overwhelming

On the way out to the Springs, I stopped by the Wildlife In Need Center to say hi to my feathered friends and the wildlife rehabilitator Mandy. My switch to first shift last September meant that I no longer can volunteer on Tuesday mornings. She was surprised to see me, and I helped her clean out the cage of an injured mallard. I jumped right into starting a load of dishes and switching over the laundry. I found my friend, the Muscovy Duck, Daphne, and we exchanged pleasantries. I rubbed her webbed feet and she bit my arm.

Mandy and I discussed a great video about how the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has improved the quality of the rivers in the region. Both her work as a wildlife rehabilitator and my dreams of working in restoration ecology directly relate to the video.

We said our goodbyes and I headed down the snow covered roads to the Springs. The Parking lot was plowed in so I had to park on County Highway ZZ. I pulled my sled full of gear to the infamous Buckthorn Alley and surprised Paul. We have been working on a stretch of the trail that is completely walled in with invasive buckthorn. Paul has been my chainsaw and restoration mentor since I first began volunteering at the property last October. Please check out his blog: http://scuppernongspringsnaturetrail.com/

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Buckthorn Alley

Zach Kastern soon showed up and the three of us made a huge dent in the buckthorn. We have been able to open the view to a former cranberry bog that has returned to a wetland. It’s amazing to see the transformation of this property.

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The aftermath – was this wetland always here?

We wrapped up the day with a hike around the property. Paul and I picked Zach’s ecological brain about bluebird nesting boxes and some of our other crazy ideas to improve this park.

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Paul and Zach headed back to the trailhead

For getting out of work, I managed to work myself out. By the time I got home, I realized that I had sprained my wrist while twisting and turning with the chainsaw. That’s what I get for sitting around so much this past winter.


Categories: Buckthorn, Restoration Ecology, Scuppernong Springs | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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