Alison Duff was guiding a small crew of prairie restoration volunteers up a hill through Indian grass, when she paused and encouraged everyone to lick and spit on the grass’s seed. The volunteers complied, each plucking a seed. When the seed became wet, the awn—a crooked hair-like appendage at the top of the seed—began to move. Everyone squinted at their seed, marveling as the awn slowly gyrated like a primitive drill bit. This motion helps fallen seeds anchor to the ground in response to rain, snowmelt or other moisture, explained Duff, an ecologist and volunteer coordinator for the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance.
As the volunteers wondered at the Indian grass seed’s ingenuity in this quiet prairie near the Wisconsin River, it was easy to forget this was once the site of the world’s largest munitions facility—the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant. The sprawling facility encompassed a 7,300-acre area south of the Baraboo Hills and North of the Wisconsin River, in Sauk County. The plant produced propellant for ammunition during WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. It was decommissioned by the Department of Defense in 1997.
Little remains today of the 1,400 dilapidated buildings that once cluttered this landscape. But the land carries the legacy of many decades of human disturbance. Duff led volunteers through Hillside Prairie, a remnant of a once dominant prairie and oak savanna landscape. That landscape has been mostly absent from Badger Plant lands since European settlers arrived. Settlers arriving in the 1830s displaced the Ho-Chunk people and converted the landscape to farms. Then, in 1941, the army seized land from more than 80 farms to build the ammunition plant.
On this unseasonably warm November day, I had joined Alliance volunteers in their effort to help prairie and oaks reclaim the landscape from its latest occupiers—invasive species. Following the demolition of the plant buildings, the Badger Plant lands have been given a chance at another stage of life with more room for wild landscapes. But biological competition to reclaim the area is fierce, and the remaining prairie and oaks need help to spread and thrive. Opportunistic shrub species such as honeysuckle and autumn olive have quickly colonized newly vacated spaces, creating dense thickets of impenetrable brush. And where brushy thickets have not taken over many invasive grasses and forbs—non-woody plants such as garlic mustard and wild parsnip—have proliferated. Duff divided us into two groups. I joined a group of nine volunteers headed into the prairie with garbage bags to collect and remove seeds from invasive forbs. And another six volunteers grabbed a collection of tools to hack at a thicket of shrubs under a stand of trees at the edge of the prairie.
Oak savanna and tall grass prairies are among the most threatened plant communities in the Midwest. These communities support many rare species and their loss has led to the decline of many animals and plants. The opportunity to restore native oak savanna and prairie communities within the Badger Plant lands through the cooperative efforts of the landowners and nonprofit partners like the Alliance could contribute greatly to the biological diversity and integrity of the region.
Since the Badger Army Ammunition Plant was decommissioned, it has been transferred to three primary landowners—the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Ho-Chunk Nation, and USDA Dairy Forage Research Center. The Hillside Prairie remnant is located on Badger Plant land owned by the DNR. It is one of the best remnants of prairie discovered in the area. When The Nature Conservancy conducted a biological inventory of the Badger Plant in 1993, it found two rare specimens here—the woolly milkweed, a species listed as threatened by the state, and the prairie bush clover, a species the state says is endangered.
As we hunted the prairie for invasive forbs on our volunteer restoration day, our primary target was the Japanese hedge-parsley, a fine-stemmed four to six-foot-tall plant. The plant had dropped all of its leaves, but at the end of each brittle stem it raised a flat-topped umbrella of tiny seeds to the sky. This time there was no spitting or licking. Instead, we cautiously snapped each stem, careful not to knock the seeds to the ground before stuffing them into our garbage bags. We also removed seedy stems from other invasive plants as we encountered them, including from the burdock plant, an invasive known for producing marble-sized burs that tenaciously cling to fleece jackets.
After about two hours we had stuffed several bags with seedy branches and migrated back down to rejoin the shrub-hacking volunteers. They had freed several trees from a thicket of shrubs, drawing back a leafy curtain to reveal an inviting understory. We gathered to chat, old volunteers sharing experiences with new volunteers. Many had volunteered for years and were strongly invested in the Alliance’s ecological restoration efforts and the future of the Badger Plant lands.
As we said our goodbyes, I climbed into a car with three other volunteers and we followed crumbling roads toward a former Badger Plant exit on U.S. Highway 12. A handful of yellow DNR “State Recreation Area” signs identified parcels open to public access. In 2014, portions of the property owned by the DNR were opened to hunting and other outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and bird watching. Not all of the property is open to the public, but these additions offer new opportunities to explore.
Landowners within the property are not required to permit public access and their lands will remain closed to the public. But in 2001, landowners signed on in support of a plan dedicating Badger Plant lands to uses that promote appreciation of the landscape such as education, restoration, research, recreation, and agriculture. The Ho-Chunk Nation, for example, may one day raise bison on their lands at Badger to feed the Ho-Chunk community and tribal elders. And the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center uses their Badger Plant lands to conduct agricultural research.
As we exited the plant on Highway 12, I looked back at the old entryway. While the entryway’s boarded up guardhouse had not yet been replaced with a welcome mat, the former plant’s chain-link fences no longer seemed as intimidating and unyielding as they once did. And opportunities for exploration may grow. The DNR is interested in creating a hiking corridor through here that would connect Devil’s Lake State Park with the Wisconsin River. Shared land management across ownership boundaries could help to facilitate this goal. However, the landowners are still engaged in discussions and the DNR and Ho-Chunk Nation are still in the process of planning their land use priorities for Badger.
Badger landowners and stakeholders have agreed to work within the framework of what is known as the Badger Reuse Plan. The plan identifies nine values that the signatories agreed should guide future land use at Badger. This shared land stewardship vision for the future of the Badger lands was not a forgone conclusion. It emerged through tremendous cooperative effort, unique partnerships and a locally driven planning process—overcoming many divided interests. The Badger lands represent a remarkable opportunity to protect and enhance natural assets across vast tracts bridging the landscape between the scenic Baraboo Hills and Wisconsin River. Realizing the great potential of these lands relies in part on Mother Nature’s helpers—e.g. Alliance restoration volunteers. But just as importantly, it also rests on the continued community and stakeholder commitment to this shared stewardship vision.
Patrice Kohl is a Ph.D. student in Life Sciences Communication at UW-Madison. Her research interests include science and technology studies and the public communication of science, with a focus on issues involving the environment and conservation biology. Contact. Twitter.