I woke, as if from a dream (a bad dream). The photos and plant list suggested a far richer woodland than I’d ever seen - but for which I had long looked. It had recently been bulldozed, in part. But – more important – the treasure mostly still exists in this world. Botanist Dan Carter called the site "jaw-droopingly intact." Conservationist Eriko Kojima, on seeing it for the first time was so blown-away she declared that she "wouldn't sleep for a week."
Oak woods had seemed dull. Compared to prairies, savannas, or fens - these days they excite few natural areas conservationists. The word biodiversity is currently hot; it invokes the tropical rain forest, the prairie white-fringed orchid, coral reefs - but not woods.
For context, let’s revisit the “discovery” of the prairies and savannas. Prairie consciousness came only in recent decades, when John Curtis, Aldo Leopold, May Watts, Robert Betz and a few others opened our eyes. (See Endnote 1: The Re-discovery of Nature.) Now we know that original prairie remnants are extremely rare and rich. If you’ve never had the experience, it’s worth learning to identify the plants and to perceive the structure so you can truly see one. An original prairie is strikingly superior (in plant and animal biodiversity) to degraded remnants or restorations. We’re learning to care for and expand them, but there’s nothing like an original.
The discovery of the savanna was unexpected and yet more recent. Even in the 1970s, the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory essentially didn't find them, in part because they're rarer than the prairies and in part because they didn't know what to look for.
So now for true remnant woodlands: many of us had sought them for decades. Did woods of high quality still exist? Writings by Jerry Wilhelm and others suggested that they should and perhaps do. But where were they? Can we visit and study them? And now - will the "discovery" and recognition of the quality of Army Lake Woodland go down in history? I hope it does. How big a discovery is Army Lake? Individual endangered species are under various circumstances variously somewhat protected by laws, regulations, and standard practices. Rarer and more important, a very high quality woodland ecosystem is not so protected. (See Endnote 2. Learning from Army Lake.)
Most woodlands today, if they have any quality at all, impress people who care by their dense displays of common spring ephemeral flora. In contrast, Army Lake Woodland has dense, diverse, rare spring, summer, and fall flora that is principally not ephemeral. Because of grazing or excessive shade at some point, most woodlands have lost most conservative plants - especially those of summer and fall - as well as the other biota associated with them. (See Endnote 3.)
Few heard of Dan's
Few heard of Dan's2016 discovery the time. Further documentation and analysis was needed. People are busy. The site was supposedly secure in the ownership of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). But then came the bulldozers.
“A gut punch ... a failure ... a hill worth dying on.”
I personally heard about the site in 2022 when Christos Economou sent me a link to a remarkable 2020 blog post by the perceptive Dan Carter. I didn't know the man. Later, in response to inquiries, Dan expressed two regrets: 1) as a scientist, he regretted that he wrote that post when he was emotional with anger at the destruction; 2) as a person, he wished he'd been more outspoken in defending the site from development, though it would likely have cost him his job. Many eco-experts work for public agencies, or otherwise get funded by them, or just need to cooperate with them. They speak calmly. When the damage came, it was worse than Dan or his colleagues expected. Dan called it "a gut punch." In retrospect a battle to save this woods would have been "a hill worth dying on." (See Endnote 4: Politics.)
Central to what makes a Grade A prairie remnant striking is the density and diversity of rare plants. When Dan Carter was asked to evaluate Army Lake Woodland as a potential site for a boat launch, he found a woodland as rich as a remnant prairie. (See Endnote 5. Plant Species List.) The plants are important in themselves, but they're also the best indicators of full biodiversity that includes the invertebrates, fungi, bacteria and other biota that are principally associated with true, rich remnants because those organisms rely on the plants. .
Army Lake Woodland had a substantially more diverse and conservative woodland community than is known anywhere else in southeastern Wisconsin (perhaps anywhere in Wisconsin or northern Illinois?). So, how could it get bulldozed by a conservation agency, when that boat launch could have been put on many other spots on the shore of Army Lake? Recommendations were not followed. Insufficient advocacy and public concern emerged. About a third of our best woodland remnant was destroyed. That's the bad part. But, again, two-thirds of this gem and quite a bit more restorable remnant still exist.
In the conservation of small remnants, there are typically three values and associated goals:
1. Save, restore, and study what's there.
2. Expand the size of the remnant, if possible, as small plant and animal populations are vulnerable.
3. Use seed and knowledge to restore larger areas.
1. Save, restore, and study
An anticipated program of restoration management is crucial, as increasing shade and invasives threaten more and more quality. The site has to date received no invasives control and no prescribed burns. WDNR staff resources are stretched thin and deserve higher appropriations. But volunteer stewards could carry a lot of the load on this small site, if properly facilitated and empowered. Needed stewardship would likely lead to additional species emerging, knowledge, and insights.
The high-quality remnant biota could be restored into poorer-quality adjacent areas. A first step that could start any time would be invasives control. Crown vetch has recently been discovered along the boat launch access road. Many dangerous invasives are there in small numbers. They should go soon. Some native species now cast damaging amounts of shade, in the absence of fire. Regular controlled burns are a must. Many managers would recommend annual burns of half or more of such a site, at least while it's in the "intensive care ward" stage.
3. Use seed and knowledge to restore larger areas.
Can-do management and restoration of Army Lake Woodland would benefit other nearby remnants (and needy oak woodlands throughout the midwest), in part by what could be learned here in the next few years. Also, many nearby areas would benefit from seed from Army Lake, especially once it has recovered overall quality.
Additional views of the rich flora of Army Lake Woodland are below:
"I contacted some local stakeholders and advised them of a public meeting (listening session or some such thing) about the launch, warning about potential impacts to something precious and irreplaceable, and I promptly got an upset phone call from the property manager (though I appreciate him not going straight over my head like the Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas Coordinator did a few years later). In hindsight, I kind of wish he had called my boss. It might have freed me up to more strongly oppose what was about to happen."
"What happened at Army Lake wasn’t just wrong, it was insane. Really, the forked aster was the only thing there with protected status that might have helped it, but that’s also insane, because communities support rare species; it’s not the other way around."
As Dan points out, the kind of public support that might have made the stakes clearer to decision makers – perhaps to a point that Dan would not have felt his job in jeopardy – was lacking. A strong constituency for Army Lake Woods’ biodiversity might, in fact, have allowed conservationists to feel empowered to look for creative potential solutions. A key question is, how do we caring conservationists build such constituency?
hard maple, sugar maple
common agrimony, tall hairy agrimony
Allegheny serviceberry, Allegheny shadblow
American hog-peanut, hog-peanut
nightcaps, wood anemone
Parlin's pussy-toes, plantain pussy-toes
hemp-dogbane, Indian hemp
Canadian columbine, red columbine, wild columbine
poke milkweed, tall milkweed
large-flowered yellow false foxglove
low bindweed, low false bindweed
musk thistle, nodding plumeless thistle, nodding thistle
oval-headed sedge, short-headed bracted sedge
common oak sedge, Pennsylvania sedge
dry-spiked sedge, hay sedge, hillside sedge, running savanna sedge
shagbark hickory, shellbark hickory
New Jersey tea, red-root
American bittersweet, climbing bittersweet
common mouse-ear chickweed
bastard-toadflax, false toadflax
gray dogwood, northern swamp dogwood, panicled dogwood
red osier dogwood
poverty danthonia, poverty grass, poverty oat grass
common horsetail, field horsetail
Rocky Mountain fescue
thick-leaved wild strawberry, Virginia strawberry,
European alder buckthorn, glossy buckthorn
pretty bedstraw, shining bedstraw
ague-weed, stiff gentian
Crane's-bill, spotted geranium, wild geranium
hairy sunflower, oblong sunflower, rough sunflower
prairie alumroot, Richardson's alumroot
field hawkweed, meadow hawkweed, yellow king-devil
narrow-leaved hawkweed, northern hawkweed
false-dandelion, orange dwarf-dandelion, two-flowered Cynthia
Canada lettuce, tall lettuce, tall wild lettuce, w
cream pea-vine, pale vetchling, white pea
limber honeysuckle, mountain honeysuckle, red hone
Lonicera X bella
Bell's honeysuckle, showy bush honeysuckle
common wood rush
false Solomon's-seal, false spikenard, large false Solomon's-seal
eastern hop-hornbeam, ironwood
Canadian lousewort, forest lousewort, wood-betony
broad-leaved plantain, common plantain
Canada bluegrass, wiregrass
May-apple, wild mandrake
Greek-valerian, spreading Jacob's-ladder
big-tooth aspen, large-toothed aspen
common cinquefoil, old-field five-fingers
lion's-foot, rattlesnake-root, white-lettuce
eastern shooting-star, pride-of-Ohio
wild black cherry
bracken, bracken fern
northern red oak
little-leaf buttercup, small-flowered buttercup
early buttercup, thick-root buttercup
common buckthorn, European buckthorn
Carolina rose, pasture rose
black snakeroot, Maryland sanicle
common blue-eyed grass
smooth blue aster
arrow-leaved aster, white arrowleaf aster
Rydberg's poison-ivy, western poison-ivy
cranberry viburnum, European cranberry-bush, high-bushcranberry
arrow-wood, downy arrow-wood
Carolina vetch, pale vetch, wood vetch
door-yard violet, common blue violet, hairy wood violet
frost grape, river bank grape