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A return to the past with oak savannas in Dane County parks
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ON WISCONSIN | DANE COUNTY PARKS

A return to the past with oak savannas in Dane County parks

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TOWN OF BERRY — The hillsides here are overcrowded.

Towering black locust, buckthorn, Japanese hedge parsley, honeysuckle, garlic mustard and dame’s rocket have all played a role in the congestion.

But slowly, and with great effort, the oaks are getting more room to expand their reach, widen their growth rings and provide a glimpse into Wisconsin’s ecological past beyond the moraines left behind by a receding glacier more than 12,000 years ago.

Scores of volunteers at Indian Lake County Park over the years have been tirelessly whacking away to bring prairies, native woodlands and oak savannas back to the landscape at this 483-acre respite in northwestern Dane County. About 20 acres of prairie and 6 acres of woodland have been restored, while the restoration of 4 acres of oak savanna started in 2018 is visible from the parking lot just beyond the park shelter.

The oaks are no longer obscured, sunlight can penetrate the canopy, and red-headed woodpeckers, indigo buntings and monarch butterflies are drawn in.

“These oaks are pretty healthy. Opening up the sunlight to them should increase their vigor,” said Shane Otto, a land restoration specialist with Dane County Parks. “I think oak savannas are some of the prettiest ecosystems we have because you have this intermingling of prairie and herbaceous vegetation on the ground and the oaks. We’re trying to return a lot of these lands back to their original state. That’s our goal.”

Indian Lake Oak Savanna

Logs of invasive black locust are lined in an opening at Indian Lake County Park in the town of Berry.  

Oak savannas were once prolific in this part of the state prior to white settlement. The development of roads and farm fields took away natural fire breaks, and over the past 180 years or so, the kings and queens of Wisconsin hardwoods have had fierce competition from undesirable and invasive flora.

Room to grow

Otto helps manage about 10,000 acres of natural landscapes in the 15,000-acre park system, but a relatively small number of acres are restored oak savannas, even though there is potential for hundreds of acres. At Festge County Park, between Cross Plains and Black Earth, about 50 acres of oak savanna are being restored within view of passing motorists on Highway 14. Another 20 acres are being restored at Silverwood County Park near Edgerton, while efforts are also underway at Donald County Park southeast of Mount Horeb, where the Friends group has been removing invasive box elder and cherry trees and conducting periodic burns to give the remaining oak trees more room to grow.

Indian Lake Oak Savanna

Ruben Mazelin, 23, of Hillsboro, uses a chainsaw to cut down invasive trees as part of an effort to preserve an oak savanna at Indian Lake County Park.

In most cases, the work is about as manual as it gets. It includes trekking up steep slopes, and requires cutting trees and brush into small pieces and then burning the debris on site.

But volunteers are getting a huge assist this month from a pair of Amish loggers who are doing the heavy cutting and lifting on the restoration of 17 acres at Indian Lake Park’s eastern reaches just yards from the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Indian Lake Oak Savanna

Invasive trees harvested by crews working at Indian Lake County Park to preserve an oak savanna will be used for fence posts, pallets, firewood and planks.

The heat has not been friendly to the physically demanding effort.

“It feels better wet than dry,” a sweat-soaked Ruben Mazelin, 23, of Hillsboro, said on Tuesday morning.

Mazelin was armed with a chainsaw, pushing his way through thick brush and cutting 40- to 50-foot-tall black locusts. After each was felled, he scrambled toward the tree’s top to lop off branches.

The logs were then pulled off the hillside and laid in rows by Owen Detweiler, 33, owner of Valton Log & Lumber in Wonewoc. Only instead of using horses and chains, Detweiler was behind the wheel of a Caterpillar 525 grapple skid. The hulking piece of diesel machinery was equipped with thick chains on its back wheels for better traction, a plow on the front and a grapple in the rear to grab two or three logs at a time. As it moved through the toppled trees and standing brush, it mimicked the sound of a tyrannosaurus rex making its way through the jungle in a “Jurassic Park” movie.

Indian Lake Oak Savanna

Owen Detweiler, 33, owner of Valton Log & Lumber in Wonewoc, operates a grapple-skid to remove felled trees in an effort to restore an oak savanna at Indian Lake County Park.

Detweiler, who normally buys standing timber in and around Juneau County and spends a lot of time in the woods in winter, will sell his July harvest from Indian Lake to other Amish farmers and woodworkers who will turn the logs into fence posts, pallets, planks and firewood. Some will be sold to Midwest Black Locust in Viroqua.

“It’s been terrible. We don’t make it much past noon,” Detweiler said of the hot, humid weather. “We’re trying to get rid of all of the hardwood trees except the burr oak and white oak. Those are the two species we’re leaving. It’s going to look a lot different.”

Indian Lake Oak Savanna

Ruben Mazelin, 23, of Hillsboro, was drenched in sweat last week as he used a chainsaw to remove invasive hardwoods from a hillside at Indian Lake County Park.

Detweiler and Mazelin began working at Indian Lake on July 2 and will likely wrap up their work this week, depending on the weather. Detweiler used to have his own sawmill but now is focused on just logging, typically black walnut, ash, white and red oak, hickory, cherry and other species favored by Amish craftsman. Detweiler does not have a drivers license, is driven from his home to Indian Lake and is leasing the grapple skid, which is allowed under the rules of his Amish community.

“There’s a lot of different communities and each community has got its own set of rules,” Detweiler said. “We can’t own it but we can lease it and we can run it.”

Popular park

Indian Lake is one Dane County’s most popular parks. It attracts hikers and cross-country skiers, and has a dog area and a lake for non-motorized boats. There’s a picnic shelter, group camp sites and even a designated sledding hill. It’s also the home to St. Mary of the Oaks, a stone chapel built in 1857 on a hill overlooking the lake. The structure was constructed by John Endres and his son Peter, who used a team of oxen to haul tons of stone to the hilltop. The elder Endres was inspired to build the chapel in fulfillment of a religious vow he made in return for protecting the lives of his family during a diphtheria epidemic.

Indian Lake Oak Savanna

Black-eyed Susans are among the native wildflowers that have emerged from a recently restored oak savanna at Indian Lake County Park in northwestern Dane County. 

The restoration of the nearby oak savannas will only add to the park’s legacy and its place in Dane County’s history.

“We really have to have a contingent of volunteers to help with these projects, and when our staff and our volunteers form a synergy we can really make these projects happen,” said Otto, who prior to coming to Dane County worked for 12 years with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Portage and at Horicon Marsh.

“We feel this is a real win-win for the logging operation and for Dane County,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is set back time because oak savannas are some of the most endangered habitat types that there are out there. We’re turning back the clock.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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