In Dane County’s oak savannas, fall projects clear the way for a new year

Volunteers seed the prairie and savanna restorations that will take root on oak-time
Image description: A grassy path in the lower left corner of the image cuts in front of a cornfield, with a a hill covered in muted brown, red, green, yellow, and bare trees in the distance, under a clear blue sky. End image description.
A crew of Ice Age Trail Volunteers, a few dressed in blaze orange, clears an oak savanna in the distance at Halfway Prairie Wildlife Area on October 23, 2022. In two years’ time the cornfield in the foreground will be converted to prairie.

Volunteers seed the prairie and savanna restorations that will take root on oak-time.

This is the fourth of a four-part series from Sam Harrington tracing a year in the life of Dane County’s oak savanna restoration projects through the seasons. All photos by Sam Harrington.

Oak trees take things slow. While the woodlands of Dane County burst into the fire reds and oranges of maples and the buttery yellows of aspen and birch, oaks wait their turn. When they do change color, oak trees wear a more muted palette of brown, maroon, and amber. Oaks are like this throughout their lifecycle. They’re slow to leaf out, slow to color, slow to drop their leaves. I suppose if I lived for 300-plus years, I wouldn’t be in much of a rush either. 

One late-October Sunday on the steep incline of an oak savanna at Halfway Prairie, the whirring of summer’s birds and bugs was replaced by the growl of chainsaws. Sawyers, or chainsaw operators, with the Dane County chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance spent the last gasps of warm weather giving their weekend to the trees. 

Jim Parry, who led the sunny workday at Halfway Prairie in the northwest part of the county, says that restoration of the savanna began about five years ago when the Friends of Indian Lake group hired a contractor to clear out invasives and seed the savanna understory. The Ice Age Trail volunteers started their work on the savanna last year.

This time, they gathered to hack away at the invasive buckthorn that was crowding out the oaks and the understory. In the fall, buckthorn stands out against the warm-colored woods with its bright green leaves. The weedy shrub can grow 25 feet tall and spreads quickly, blocking light from understory plants so they die off.

Image description: Three people work hunched over, scattered among trees on a grassy, wooded hill under a blue sky. There is a pile of branches and brambles against one tree trunk. End image description.
Volunteers pile buckthorn against a tree. When the snow falls, they’ll return to burn the piles.

Across Dane County, the continued restoration of oak savannas depends on volunteers. In addition to the Ice Age Trail Alliance, volunteer work parties are led by Dane County Parks, the non-profit “friends” groups that augment public support for parks, the UW Arboretum, the Clean Lakes Alliance, and other organizations.

Collecting native seeds is another major fall project at sites across the county. Seeds are primarily collected at prairies, and then processed in the county’s massive seed drying and cleaning operation. According to Dane County Parks, in 2021 volunteers collected an estimated $1.256 million worth of native seeds, which the county used on 300 acres of new and ongoing restoration projects.

Many seeds are used to start new prairies in county parks, like the farm fields at Halfway Prairie. Lars Higdon, botanist/naturalist for Dane County Parks, estimates that about 90 percent of seed each year goes to starting new prairie or savanna habitats. All of the county’s savanna restoration sites were previously overgrown woodlands. Higdon said that around 95 percent of prairie sites, which share many flower and grass species with savannas but don’t have any oak trees or shady plant species, were recently farmed fields. The county has purchased hundreds of acres of farmland in the last few years (160 acres were purchased near Pheasant Branch Conservancy alone), with the intent to restore them to native landscapes. When agricultural land is purchased, the farmed fields are most often converted to prairie. If the land has wooded areas with oak trees, which often are on hills that were too steep for the previous owners to farm, they may be converted to savanna. This is happening at Halfway Prairie. 

In some areas, particularly around Madison’s lakes, land acquisitions are done in part to help control stormwater and limit flooding as climate change increases the risk of high-intensity rain storms.

In addition to going to restoration sites, some county seeds are sent to volunteer growers (of which I am one), who grow them into seedlings to be donated to schools and community groups. Some seeds are now available at four Madison Public Library branches for anyone who wants to grow their own native plant garden.

On October 16, a group of volunteer growers met at Anderson Farm County Park south of Oregon to celebrate the end of the growing season with a seed collection work party. Susan Sandford, the strategic engagement coordinator at the county, helps run the volunteer grower program.

“It’s the biggest seed collection program in the state, if not other states,” Sandford says.

While prairie seed is abundant in Dane County, seeding oak savannas can be a little more tricky. Prairies and savannas overlap in many species, particularly for the plants that grow in the sunny, open sections of the savanna, but savannas also host shadier plant species.

Gary Werner, one of the Ice Age Trail Volunteers at Halfway Prairie and a long-time volunteer in Dane County’s parks, says that it can be difficult to find seeds for shade-tolerant species like white snakeroot and zigzag goldenrod. Werner said that the Ice Age Trail does some seed collection in savannas to bridge this gap. The county supplements the seeds collected by volunteers with other species from Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minnesota.

Every time I attend a workday in an oak savanna, it strikes me how much work a group of people can get done together. In just a few hours, the Ice Age Trail crew had cleared out a significant pile of buckthorn and pulled down a couple large hickory trees that were shading parts of the savanna and blocking light from reaching the understory plants. In the section of hillside where restoration began just five years ago, the savanna was open and full of the fall foliage of native plants.

On an oak’s time scale, one day is nothing, nor is five years. But, of course, we live on human time-scales, and waiting five years to really see the fruits of a restoration can feel like a century. 

In an oak savanna, I always feel like the trees are telling me to move slowly. As I scrabbled up the steep hill toward old, gnarled oaks at Halfway Prairie, I lost my footing on a root and wrapped my arms around an oak trunk to stay upright. In early October I went to a harvest festival at the university’s Allen Centennial Garden. Ho-Chunk seedkeeper Jessika Greendeer spoke and asked, “What are you doing today that will outlive you?”

For the volunteers freeing oaks and seeding new growth, the answer to that question is: Tending a savanna.

Ice Age Trail volunteer Dave Tenenbaum—who uses the nickname “Half-Day” or “Day/2” to distinguish himself from a number of Daves in the group, says, “I come out here when politics are as terrible as they are and still I got something beautiful done.”

Image description: The view from a lightly wooded hill looks down to four cars parked at the bottom, a cornfield and rolling hills of fields and trees changing colors under a pale blue sky. End image description.
The view from the top of the hill in the oldest section of the Halfway Prairie savanna project.

I’m a bit sad to put a bow on the end of this Year on the Oak Savanna series. It’s gotten me out under the trees this year more than I would have otherwise. But I’m planning to get out there and work in the savannas once a season again next year. I hope you’ll consider doing the same. Together, we can get something beautiful done.

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