Before I even begin, I’ll throw out the take-home message. Conservation acquisition and ownership are not enough. Most of our last best places disappear, if they are added to a portfolio of protected lands and left to their own devices.
I visited two such cases today, but I’m going to focus on one, which is known, at least by a few, as the Vernon Prairie-Fen. It’s part of the much larger Vernon Marsh Wildlife Area, which consists largely of low-diversity narrow-leaved cattail marshlands, but here and there are some exceptional fens, particularly around its periphery where calcareous groundwater emerges from below the surrounding uplands.
I wish I had visited it back in 2002, which was the time of the most recent inventory. At that time, notes from the surveying botanist, Larry Leitner, indicate that it was a “complex of calcareous fen, spring, sedge meadow, wet prairie, and shallow marsh.” He further notes that it “has been adversely affected by extensive ditching,” but that it still has “a nice species complement” and is “worthwhile preserving.” The inventory from visits in 2002 and the 1990s includes such goodies as twig-rush (Cladium mariscoides), beaked spike-rush (Eleocharis rostellata, a Wisconsin threatened species), blue-leaved willow (Salix myricoides), sage willow (Salix candida), Ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis), hairy valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), marsh blazingstar (Liatris spicata) and many others. This site was included in the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s Natural Areas and Critical Species Habitat Management Plan as a natural area of county-wide or regional significance, which means there aren’t many natural communities of the same type(s) of higher quality in the area.
Below is a series of aerial images showing the change in extent of the calcareous fen plant community at Vernon Prairie-Fen from 2000 to 2015. The drier areas of the fen, which support more wet prairie vegetation, are lost first. By 2015, the only remaining areas are those that are the wettest and maintain saturation to the surface year-round.
Here are some photos I took today.
None of this was particularly surprising, even if it still almost brought me to tears. I visited, because I had looked at the air photos, and I’ve seen enough of those to know what a wetland swallowed up by buckthorn looks like. I was heartened to still find a few real gems after crashing through the thicket.
I know that within the same project area resources are going into reconstructing communities in places where they have been previously completely or nearly completely destroyed, so why are these irreplaceable resources being allowed to fade away, particularly publicly-owned places that are supposedly protected? That’s rhetorical. There are limitations on how money can be spent. There are other priorities in wildlife areas. Most in the public don’t notice when a fen becomes a buckthorn thicket. There may even be a lack of awareness of what is there among professionals as staff turn over.
Maybe twig rush and blue-leaved willow don’t get people very excited. What about pickerel frogs, or the swamp metalmark butterflies that rely on swamp thistle?
All I know is that we need stewardship, because our last best places are blinking out all over SE Wisconsin, and a lot of this is happening on lands that were acquired for protection. DEVELOPMENT IS NOT THE GREATEST THREAT TO REMNANT NATURAL COMMUNITIES. IT IS LACK OF STEWARDSHIP. Yes, that was me yelling.