Shortly before I left my previous employer, the Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas Coordinator proposed to my supervisor that a narrow tract of woods known as Cambridge Woods be designated natural area. Cambridge Woods is a well-documented, degraded site that has been passed over for designation before. The thinking seemed to be that the County was doing work there, so those efforts should be rewarded with a special designation. The Natural Areas Coordinator didn’t bring this up with me, because he didn’t think I’d agree. What’s going on here? Is it ecological restoration? Is it work? Is the natural community actually being restored?
Natural areas are essentially those areas that white people haven’t managed to destroy or severely impair over the last 200 years. They tend to support a lot of species, including rare ones, but more importantly, natural areas consist of natural communities that retain the interconnectedness of their biotic and phsyical elements—not just some populations of nice things hanging on. …or they have recovered, and re-established that interconnectedness of biotic and physical elements.
Cambridge Woods runs along the east side of the Milwaukee River north of downtown Milwaukee. It’s been forested continuously since Europeans arrived, and there are some elements of biodiversity there that have become uncommon. There are trees, birds, and flowers. For those with an ecological education, however, it should become quickly apparent that Cambridge Woods has some big, gaping wounds. Let’s take quick a tour.Much of the woods has been destroyed by ad-hoc trails and mountain bikes. In large areas, most or all of the original topsoil is gone. Through the length of the woods, eroded trails run in parallel within yards of each other. This damage cannot be fixed in on the the timescale of a human lifetime (or several). This area looks better. At least the soil is in place, and there are some nice, mature trees. …but all of those thin, woody stems are vigorous, invasive buckthorn re-sprouts. There is a thick invasive-dominated understory here smothering the native ground flora and the regenerative ability of the oaks, both of which are fundamental to this ecoystem’s food web. Where one buckthorn shoot was cut, two have replaced it. Treatment either did not occur, or it wasn’t efficatious. It was a lot of work cutting all this buckthorn. In my previous post about Franklin “Savanna,” we saw the exact same thing. What message does it send to volunteers and interns when they do hard work that leads to no benefit? Here a buckthorn thicket was transformed into…a slightly more dense buckthorn thicket. Billing such outcomes as restoration promotes ecological illiteracy.Where did all the cut buckthorn go? It was piled along the walls of this ravine. Maybe the misguided idea here was to slow erosion. Or maybe, if this was better-conceived, it was to shield some young, desireable trees from deer. Regardless, this ravine is the site of an occurrence of State-threatened forked aster. I wonder if it was surveyed before making these piles. The presence of forked aster here is no secret. A sign at the edge of the woods nearby advertises it.
Ecological restoration ain’t easy, so am I being to hard on Milwaukee County Parks? I don’t think so. The Natural Areas Coordinator claims to have restored thousands of acres. That’s at least an order of magnitude on the generous side.
All one has to do is walk several hundred yards south along the river to the Urban Ecology Center to see what ecological restoration really looks like. This is progress. Invasive species are gone. Human traffic is routed away from sensitive areas. Missing elements of biodiversity are being put back. People should applaud this work, and grantors and the general public alike should demand it.
It’s not enough just to cut invasive species and spray weeds. Ecological restoration isn’t the automatic reward for work done and money spent. It doesn’t settle for green. It requires an understanding not just of what species are present, but the structure and process of the ecosystem as a whole.
It’s true that Milwaukee County’s resources are limited, but it’s also true that Milwaukee County has access to Coastal funding sources not available to other counties. It’s also one thing to fall short, because resources are scarce. It’s another thing entirely to pretend that natural communities and ecosystems are healthy or “restored” when they are not, and take advantage of ecological illiteracy to greenwash everything with public relations.
None of this means that these extremely degraded open spaces aren’t important. They are the last remaining refuges for many species. Migrating birds are desperate for respite as they come through the urbanized corridor from Chicago to Milwaukee, so are monarchs. People need places to get out and stretch their legs and connect to nature. These are parks, greenways, and other open spaces…but they aren’t natural areas, and we don’t need to lower the bar just so the egos in conservation have something to brag about.