Authored by Jeffrey Edwards and edited by Brendan Woodall (U.S. FWS)
The steam of freshly brewed coffee slowly rising from the BHA Stanley mug mimicked that of a freshly stoked campfire in the backcountry as we sat awaiting the arrival of our crew in the crisp Wisconsin air. Stoke the fire. A statement I’ve heard Mr. Land Tawney repeat countless times, but it still has a way of seeping deep into my soul and reverberates with every inch of my being. Every time I apply for a grant through S. Kent Rockwell Foundation’s Public Land Stewardship Grant it sets off a chain reaction that not only stokes my conservation fire but sets it wildly ablaze. I had been planning this workday with Brendan Woodall, a USFWS private lands biologist since September 2021 and finally the day had blissfully arrived with a generous offering of a high of 40 degrees – perfect cutting weather! This workday was a collaborative effort between UWSP’s collegiate chapters of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) and Ducks Unlimited (DU) and the Wisconsin state chapter of DU and USFWS. Nervous anticipation is a constant state I’m in, perhaps it’s the copious amounts of caffeine, but I felt confident that I prepared the best I could, and Mother Nature was finally cooperating with me.
With our crew of 13 students, Kwik Trip glazers in hand, our convoy pointed the windshield south and embarked on our trip to Berlin, Wisconsin which is located in the central region of Wisconsin. The site of restoration was purchased by Ducks Unlimited (DU) in 2021 with fund from the North America Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund. Since then, the property has been transferred over to the City of Berlin as a publicly accessible wildlife area. This property is 230 acres that consists primarily of dormant ag fields, existing grassland and wetlands, encroaching eastern red cedar, and patches of bur oak and mixed hardwood forest. With this property secured, Brendan was contacted to perform various small wetland scrapes and ditch plugs across the property to restore the natural hydrology. Historically, this property was in agricultural production, and there are still dormant fields present. The goal is to seed these areas into a native grassland to support upland nesting waterfowl such as blue-winged teal and mallards. With the wetland scrapes and ditch plugs present, this property will create a matrix of wetland and grasslands that will promote nesting and brood-rearing habitat for the state’s cherished waterfowl species.
Upon arrival, Brendan introduced us to Tally Hamilton, the wetland habitat coordinator and private lands biologist for DU/USFWS, and Robert Hamilton, a maintenance guru for USFWS. Brendan provided a brief overview of the property, safety protocols, purpose of the project, and split our group into three teams. One crew would head to the northeast portion of the property to cut a path to a ditch plug. The path had to be large enough for an excavator to comfortably navigate through, and plenty of diamond willow, bur oak, and eastern red cedars stood in defiance. The second crew, including myself, were assigned to the central portion of the property to remove as much eastern red cedar as we could. Removing the larger cedar trees will allow a forestry mower to safely navigate and remove the younger, small cedars and tag alders. Later in the spring, there will be a prescribed burn conducted to further combat woody encroachment. Again, we are promoting a grassland landcover to encourage upland nesting waterfowl among other grassland reliant species including our beloved pollinators. Lastly, our third crew set off to remove old, barbed wire, and deer stands that had staked claimed to this place for an unknown number of generations before us.
Tasked with our jobs, each crew set off for their designated duty. Arguably, this was the most successful workday I’ve planned to date. A few maintenance issues tried to deter our progress but to no avail, and we all shoveled coals to fuel the conservation train that day. At 11:45, Tally and I departed from the site to pick up Christiano’s Pizza. Brendan seemingly ordered every flavor offering from the menu resulting in 9 large brick oven pizzas. DU and UWSP BHA split the cost thanks to the grant we were awarded, and we were able to provide our hard-working volunteers with some quality food and fuel for the remainder of the day. The best way to maintain morale is good food! During lunch, we huddled around vehicles to escape the unrelenting western wind allowing personal stories to float upon the breeze as we all listened intently. I’m consistently amazed at how fast strangers from across the state can become friends at a BHA workday. After lunch, the groups dispersed once again to continue our efforts. Around 3:30 PM, the crew consolidated on a bur oak stand we were thinning. In the words of Brendan, “Many hands make light work.” The truth in that statement is larger than we imagine. Let’s scale that statement up to the national scale. If we continue to recruit folks to organizations such as BHA and DU, we will make a larger impact on the natural resources around us. The conservation of wildlife and wild places is near and dear to me. I want to leave this earth knowing I fought to protect and manage these places for future generations to enjoy. We need these places. We need stewards of the land. We need conservation warriors!
This workday came at the most stressful point in my semester, and what better way to reset and recharge than to drown out the noise with the subtle hum of a chainsaw. For me, running a chainsaw has always been much more than cutting down a tree. On this day, it was removing encroaching eastern red cedars which will support biodiversity and restore the land to a native grassland. The whirring blade was promoting nesting and production of blue-winged teal, mallards, grassland songbirds, pollinators, deer, invertebrates, and more biodiversity than I can wrap my head around. Its roar was camaraderie amongst like-minded individuals and the forging of new friendships and working relationships. It’s truly incredible just how large of a difference we can make as good stewards of the land. Days like these make the hours I sit behind a computer worth it. It’s why I’m madly passionate about wildlife conservation and the protection and management of our public lands.
I want to express a sincere thank you to all collaborating parties, the volunteers, and the S. Kent Rockwell Foundation for making this workday possible. A shoutout to Brian Glenzinski at WI DU for introducing me to this project and allowing us to come support the restoration efforts. Collaborative projects should be a priority for every agency. We are in this together and I truly appreciate Brendan accommodating students from the university allowing us to gain experience and contribute to conservation efforts. Once again, thank you to the S. Kent Rockwell Foundation and BHA’s Collegiate Program for making these workdays possible and for providing unique opportunities to collegiate students across the nation to make an impact and contribute to OUR public lands. After all, we all own this land and it’s up to us to ensure it remains that way for future generations to cherish and escape to when they seek solace from modern day society.