Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on the conflicting demands of conservation and development in the DeForest-Windsor Area.
At DeForest’s Sept. 21 Village Board meeting trustees welcomed a presentation on long-term planning, but unlike most it didn’t focus so much on what needs to change, as what must remain and what can be recovered.
Conservation consultant and senior project manager for Quercus Land Stewardship Services Jake Michaels explained how an environmental analysis could help identify areas in the village of special ecological value and help those areas thrive amid commercial and residential development.
A clear target in DeForest is the Yahara River, which feeds the Yahara Watershed and ends at the Mendota chain of lakes. Trustees discussed possible strategies for land management that would be beneficial for the river and residents. Michaels explained that there were a number of “less desirable” trees that could be taken out, like box elders, and invasive plants like buckthorn, which have blocked up the river. Those invasive plants have also prevented “more desirable” vegetation from coming in and leaving exposed soil, making heavy rainfall and flooding more of a problem.
“A good long-term plan would be to slowly remove as much of that over-story as you can,” said Michaels, recommending that they “chip away” at it. “If you were to try to do it all at once, it would be a really expensive, really overwhelming job.”
A natural state
As a naturally cold-water stream, the river features a number of freshwater springs that has historically attracted river trout that thrive among the shade of tall river grasses.
Although it is impossible to return land here to its original natural state prior to human intervention, we can step back and allow more indigenous environments to thrive. Several hundred years ago, according to Michaels, the DeForest-Windsor area would have been part of a mixture of savannah and what some people would call swampland, but naturalists call sedge meadow.
“You can have more of the diverse wetland vegetation growing in there and really sequestering a lot more carbon than any trees or shrubs would,” said Michaels. “The roots penetrate many more parts of the soil, so they’re cleaning a lot more of the water before it is running off into the river.”
One of the overall goals, for Michaels, is identifying healthy wetlands that exist throughout the area, and to connect them to create stronger more resilient environments that also provide habitat for wildlife.
“For example, where ABS is, I heard recently that they won’t be there forever and they have, between them and the river, a ton of this high-quality wetland,” said Michaels. “Those would be the type of areas you would want to look at and make sure there is nothing that is majorly rare that you’re going to be obliterating if you build something there.”
No going back
In the end of September, U.S. officials removed more than 22 animals and one plant from the endangered species list, they have been officially declared extinct. Although Wisconsin was not home to any of the delisted species, our state has already seen the passing of one of the most famous environmental cautionary tales.
Naturalist and Sierra Club founder, John Muir, writing about his boyhood home in Marquette County, just north of Portage, in the 1850s, described passenger pigeon migration, writing: “I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long.”
Unnatural habits of humans
In 2014 DeForest earned the designation of a Bird City for the quality of bird habitat in the area. Whistles, chirps and calls break through the noise of background construction noises as birds swoop in and out of the woods and wetlands between Conservancy Place developments.
Some residents have brought concerns to the Village Board as development has expanded to include the DeForest Athletic Complex, residential developments and the Pinseekers Golf complex, slated to begin construction later in the year. In the case of the sports facilities, they bring additional concerns of not only disturbing the land, but bringing in distractions to the natural order, such as high-power lighting and vertical netting.
Nocturnal birds often navigate by starlight, so unnatural lights can be disorienting, according to Executive Director of the Madison Audubon Society, Matthew Reetz. One of the most famous examples is the World Trade Center Memorial where massive beams of light pointed into the sky, attracting birds that would come in and circle until they became exhausted.
“That is not as big of an issue with something like a stadium or a golf course,” said Reetz, “but they can also attract insects, which attracts birds, and that can be a negative thing too.”
A particular hazard is placing powerful lighting near known habitat of nocturnal bird populations, like screech owls.
Animal populations can also be the victims of otherwise good intentions. When local governments discuss forest and green space management, typically one of the top items on the list is removal of trees at the end of their life cycles. Although that may prevent hazards from falling trees, it also eliminates habitat.
A 1999 paper published by Pacific Northwest Research Station, found that dead and dying trees have been chronically undervalued with guidelines of 50 to 140 downed logs per acre of undisturbed forest (previously the recommendation had been less than 10). Researchers noted that dead and dying trees are used for “foraging, nesting, denning, roosting and resting, often serving multiple squatters simultaneously.”
In our area, the decline of old-growth forest habitat has specifically been linked to dropping numbers of the American kestrel.
What is enough?
The question of what effort is enough to create healthy habitat for local wildlife is complicated with two very different, equally true answers.
The tougher of the two, according to Reetz, is that any naturalist will say that we are not doing enough. At that, two of the most potentially impactful steps we can take are deeply unpopular: building up instead of out with more multi-story commercial and residential development, and minimizing or eliminating traditional lawns.
The more optimistic answer is that every little bit still helps.
“Replacing the non-native plants with native plants, more than one or two plants, has a wonderful impact and positive impact for wildlife and natural protection,” said Reetz. “Monarch butterflies are a great example because they lost a lot of their habitat and as people plant for pollinators in their backyard, monarchs have a place to be during the breeding season.”
This option has been growing in popularity as homeowners increasingly look for ways to support local pollinators. Enough so, that Quercus is expanding their business to meet that demand.
“Our company recently started a native landscaping division,” said Michaels, “and so we’re planting super small plantings in people’s front yards and you put in one milkweed plant, but you may have a monarch caterpillar show up on that thing, so every little thing helps.”
On a municipal level, DeForest has provided good examples of making the best use of the smallest pieces of land. Some medians have been devoted to native planting, that attracts pollinating insects and then the birds, spiders and bats that feed on them.
“Alternatively that median could have been a little lawn that gets mowed five times a year,” said Michaels, “but instead, one hour walking through it and you see thousands and thousands of bugs and to me, that is a big win.”
If conservationists are able to work with something on the scale of 15 acres of woods or wetland, there are more and different benefits, that are much more difficult in small scale efforts.
“It’s harder in a 15 foot patch to get a plant to show up that is super-rare, or a bug that is super-rare,” said Michaels, “but in these larger areas we have more microcosms and more little micro-environments that different things can take advantage.”