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Ecological restoration on lakeshore working on historic ground

July 7, 2010 By David Tenenbaum

The ongoing ecological restoration along the shoreline of the University of Wisconsin–Madison has reached a hillside near Eagle Heights that was once the summer home to hundreds of graduate students. The goal in the Tent Colony Woods, which is cut by gullies and invaded by exotic trees and shrubs, is to create a sustainable and ecologically diverse tract of sloping lakeshore forest.

Tent Colony Woods is part of the campus’s 300-acre Lakeshore Nature Preserve, which protects wetlands and woods along Lake Mendota westward from near Memorial Union and past Eagle Heights.

Exotic species, erosion and the need to create a landscape that can survive with little human maintenance are major challenges on the eight-acre Tent Colony site, says Catherine Bruner, who is the field manager for the Lakeshore Preserve as part of her work for the campus’s Facilities Planning and Management.

The restoration is funded by a gift from the Class of 1955. “This is the biggest grant received by the Lakeshore Nature Preserve restoration,” says Bruner. “The Class of ’55 is taking care of its own. By helping to restore the biggest gully, this grant protects the lake, protects the future.”

Some members of the Class of ’55 have direct memory of the Tent Colony, a low-cost outdoor housing project that operated in the summers between 1912 and 1962. The remains of the colony are visible in the abutments that once anchored a pier for boats and swimming — recreational outlets for the students and their families. In some years, the so-called “Camp Gallistella” even had a recreation director, and a water carnival was staged to entertain the kids.

The campus amassed its large, diverse and valuable Lakeshore Preserve, including Picnic Point and the Tent Colony Woods, through the actions of many people over a century, says Thomas Brock, a professor emeritus of natural science on campus and amateur historian and restorationist. “It’s unbelievable that four miles of lake frontage exists without a road crossing or any kind of development. You can walk all the way east to Memorial Union without ever leaving public land.”

The Lakeshore Preserve has engaged campus experts from landscape architecture, civil engineering, entomology, forestry, history, facilities management, botany and the Arboretum, along with students and community members, says Bruner. “It’s a big place and a big job, and we are trying to stabilize the slopes and bring back biodiversity, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. If we start working on too much acreage, we’ll have too much to maintain.”

With so much expertise at hand, the lakeshore has become a living laboratory for field biologists. Students of soil science professor Stephen Ventura, for example, are tracking the flow of nitrogen through water and soil on its way to the lake. Nitrogen and phosphorus are major causes of lake eutrophication, and retaining more of these fertilizers in the plants and soil would enhance water quality in Madison’s biggest lake.

A second goal is to find efficient methods that volunteers can use to eradicate invasive trees, such as buckthorn.

A third goal is to respect the history of the woods, which has served as both a farm and student housing. “This is a human landscape,” says Bruner, “and we must take that into account. We are not making a botanic garden but a self-sustaining ecosystem appropriate to the site.”

Instead of using the traditional approach to ecological restoration — killing exotic plants and replacing them with native species — the goal is to recreate ecological conditions so the site can more or less maintain itself. “We want to stop the spread of the horrible stuff, stabilize the soil, get some light in, get as much ecological function as possible from native plants and animals, and promote water infiltration,” says Bruner. “We are trying to learn how to promote these ecosystem services so we don’t have to engage in endless hand-to-hand combat against exotics. This is too big an area to garden over the long term.”