Army Lake Oak Woodland

In 2016 I was part of an environmental assessment at the site of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) planned boat launch to Army Lake in Walworth County, Wisconsin. My heart sank at the time, because I knew the site. It held the last best remnant of oak woodland acre for acre of any site in southeastern Wisconsin. Just why the woodland there remained in such good condition while the surrounding upland areas became choked with buckthorn, bush honeysuckle, and Asian bittersweet is a matter of conjecture, but it just might be that this island escaped the hard grazing of the early 1900s. There are other such islands, and while not quite so jaw-droppingly intact, they all tend to be in better shape than nearby uplands.

This oak woodland at the site of the Army Lake boat launch looked like this when I visited in 2016. It hadn’t been burned; brush had not been cut. It persisted in this state while nearby uplands were overwhelmed with invasive woody plants.
This is the herbaceous layer in May, 2016. Hyposis hirsuta, Luzula multiflora, Carex siccata, Pedicularis canadensis, Erigeron pulchellus, Calystegia spithamaea, Symphyotrichum oolentangiense, Sisyrinchium campestre, etc., etc. This was the typical state of the groundlayer vegetation!

The WDNR had purchased the woodland several years prior for the purpose of the boat launch. There was access to the island by a narrow lane of old fill that had been put in for access to a small lakeside tavern (now long gone) in the early part of the previous century.

The assessment was specifically to delineate wetlands and flag the locations of forked aster (Eurybia furcata), a state-threatened species that had been found there during a prior assessment associated with the land purchase in 2012. I found and flagged several patches of forked aster scattered around the island. I emphasized to the WDNR property manager, who was present for the assessment, just how special the woodland was. He assured me that the impacts would be minimal, sticking largely to an existing mowed loop, but it was going to be a paved, American with Disabilities Act-compliant launch.

I contacted some local stakeholders and advised them of a public meeting (listening session or some such thing) about the launch, warning about potential impacts to something precious and irreplaceable, and I promptly got an upset phone call from the property manager (though I appreciate him not going straight over my head like the Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas Coordinator did a few years later). In hindsight, I kind of wish he had called my boss. It might have freed me up to more strongly oppose what was about to happen.

This was taken in 2020 after the paving at the launch. You can look at the 2016 photo and see that we’ve lost one mature white oak. The other two are going to die, having had large portions of their root zones graded down and paved over. Much of this area was covered with the same sort of rich groundlayer shown above.
They paved a circle, but they still had to pave this turnaround, I guess, and they had to put the aquatic invasive species removal area down on top of the irrepleable woodland and not in an existing large gravel parking area just uphill of the access.
Large parking area at the top of the hill. Pave this FFS! Also, the runoff from this all follows the access downhill, carrying tons of sediment with it. Where does it end up?
It ends up in the wetland. Really WDNR? We deserve better. The visible flora are mostly Aronia melanocarpa, Ilex verticillata, and Osmundastrum cinnamomeum or those interested.

Aldo Leopold wrote (and this resides in my profressional email signature), “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” What happened at Army Lake wasn’t just wrong, it was insane. Really, the forked aster was the only thing there with protected status that might have helped it, but that’s also insane, because communities support rare species; it’s not the other way around. …and the project led to take of some of the forked aster I had flagged. Was there any public notice of this incidental take or permit before the fact? No. Work began without a permit, and one was issued ex post facto. The WDNR is a resource conservation agency that operates in the public trust. Conservation all too often defeats itself.

Seeing this was a gut punch. It was a failure. This was a hill worth dying on. I’m happy to say that there are folks working to protect what is left and minimize the impacts. I also have learned a lot from this place and drawn inspiration from it. I was able to share it with a few people before the launch went in. Still, it’s difficult for me to look past what happened. It’s yet one more thing that my kids won’t see in full glory. Europeans came to the Midwest and stole this benevolent landscape for pasture, crops, mines, and development; when will we stop savagely destroying it?

Primula meadia is abundant in much of the woodland.
A riot of Vicia caroliniana and Pedicularis canadensis at the Army Lake Oak Woodland.
Krigia biflora, Comandra umbellata, and Vicia caroliniana.
Luzula multiflora with Aureolaria grandiflora in the background.

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Oak leaves must burn to release their ghosts and set the stage for renewal.

A fitting scene for this election day. Tomorrow will be welcome.

Any steward presiding over bur oak that does not welcome fire onto the landscape, or at least relentlessly try to do so, is a steward in name only.

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What Counts as Restoration? This Does.

A few months ago I wrote a post critical of the types of hasty, ill-concieved, and poorly executed efforts that are sold to the public as ecological restoration.

The work done at Vestal Grove in Cook County, Illinois has been wildly successful, but it also required ecological competance and sustained effort. Read about it in this fantastic article published in PLOS ONE and at the YaleE360 blog. This is what restoration is, and it is proof that it’s possible.

I’m thinking about Franklin Savanna. It’s a failed site now, but it’s ripe for restoration, and it’s the best opportunity to restore savanna on deep, mesic soils in the Wisconsin Coastal Zone. The know-how is out there. Franklin Savana also falls within the Great Lakes watershed, so there is a deep well of potential funding for restoration projects. We should demand better as citizens.

Killing invasive species is not restoration. Planting trees and prairie plants is not restoration. Burning is not restoration. A volunteer work party is not restoration. Restoration includes some or all of these things, but it also requires prolonged stewardship and well-conceived, ecologically appropriate goals that do not dismiss the possible in favor of what’s easy.

Above: Another Franklin Savanna, a better Franklin Savanna, but this isn’t the one in MIlwaukee County.

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