Friday, June 17, 2022

The Unexpected Discovery of a Real Oak Woodland

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.)


One of the photos that seemed impossibly rich for a woodland. Largely conservative and rare plants make up this turf, including yellow star-grass, robin’s-plantain, forked aster, wood pea, veiny pea, wood betony, low false bindweed, sky-blue aster, wood rush, Penn sedge, running savanna sedge, and blue-eyed grass.
(2016 photo by Dan Carter)

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 2016 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. 

Next Steps 

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. 

2. Expand

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.    

Most of the diversity on the island survives where over-growth by brush has been limited, perhaps due to the intense competition of diverse grasses and wildflowers.
If you’re tempted to take a look at this site, I don’t blame you. But please don’t trample such a tiny, vulnerable, precious remnant. You can pretty well observe what’s important through the fence (that was erected to protect it from boat launch and beach traffic) and on the unfenced half of the island. If you have a serious reason to study the flora and can’t restrain yourself from slipping through the fence, a little fishermen’s trail runs from the fence to the east side of the island. Perhaps some people could walk carefully on that? 
Additional views of the rich flora of Army Lake Woodland are below: 
Blooming in the center of this photo is the formerly common pale vetchling with its cream-colored blossoms. Also in bloom here are wood betony (yellow), shooting star (white), and wild geranium (pink). 

In bloom, Carolina vetch, blue-eyed grass, and wood rush. In bud: false dandelion. Prominent foliage: shooting star, bastard toadflax, and wood betony.

Blooming: yellow star-grass and robin’s-plantain. In bud upper right: Maryland sanicle. Identifiable by their foliage: bastard toadflax, woodland milkweed, NewJersey tea, northern hawkweed, showy goldenrod, white lettuce, false Solomon’s-seal, sedges, a white oak seedling, and bracken fern. 

Note on bracken and soils: Many ecologists these days expect bracken on sandy soils, but Army Lake Woodland soil, where exposed by bulldozing, is not sandy. Sand savannas and woodland remnants are much more common than on rich soils, perhaps because invasives take over more slowly there. Soils exposed by the bulldozing at Army Lake are not sandy. The biodiversity of rich soils survived here for other reasons.
Viewed through the fence that now somewhat protects the woods: alumroot, shooting star, blue-eyed grass, wild geranium, and pale vetchling. In seed on right is common dandelion; it's here because the site gets random trampling stress, which should be minimized. 

Endnote 1. What is original nature?
For most of human history, the concept of "nature" was a foggy one, at best. More often nature was something poets said "Oh my!" about in flowery language. More recently, as real nature was slipping away, it needed to be understood and defined.

The seminal Illinois Natural Area Inventory (INAI) of the 1970s was considered by many the most authoritative theoretical and practical approach to defining and conserving true nature in its various forms. Soon, as a result, Illinois protected most of its surviving high quality prairie remnants. They were priceless ecological heritage that had gone unrecognized in part because it had long vanished from productive lands over most of the U.S. and, arguably, the human-occupied world. But the Inventory did much less well on the fire-dependent oak communities. In the 1980s, conservationists figured out how to recognize savanna remnants and begin restoring them to high quality. Only in 2011 did oak woodlands get formally recognized as a category separate from maple forest. Conservation and restoration of oak woodlands is much less advanced than for prairies and savannas. 

Like Illinois, Wisconsin has been in the forefront of natural areas conservation, thanks to John Curtis, Aldo Leopold, The Prairie Enthusiasts, and strong communities of professional and volunteer conservationists. As with the savannas in Illinois, the long overdue discovery of Army Lake Woodland provides insights that suggest how to similarly upgrade biodiversity conservation for oak woods - quality recognition, prioritization, and restoration. 

Endnote 2. Learning from Army Lake
This site is now being used by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and others to develop new oak woodland assessment tools. This blog hopes to report on that effort and other Army lake learning, when there's something to report. 

Braving a light rain in June 2022, participants in improving tools for woodland evaluation included, clockwise from the foreground (back view, in red) Ryan O’Conner (Inventory Coordinator, WDNR), Dan Carter (The Prairie Enthusiasts), Brian Miner (Southeast Wisconsin Land Steward, The Nature Conservancy), Matt Zine (Habitat and Management Specialist, WDNR), and Pete Duerkop (District Ecologist, WDNR). 

Endnote 3. Why does this tiny gem still exist?
The site is only about 1.6 acres and was formerly a semi-island. If this find is as important as it seems, the likely reason is that a tamarack swamp separated it from adjacent uplands, and for that reason it escaped the heavy grazing that degraded the biodiversity of most woodlands. The intervening marsh is narrow enough and flammable enough that prehistoric fires could well have spread across or jumped it. But the site has not been known to burn in recent years. The dense diversity may have helped slow the invasion by brush. Higher-quality natural area are somewhat more resistant to invasion by species that would degrade them. 

Endnote 4: Politics
Both professionals and volunteers struggle with the balance between saying too much (thus making enemies) and saying too little (thus being ignored). When Dan Carter assessed Army Lake Woods for the boat launch, his job was with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. In his later post on what happened, he wrote:

"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? 
Public agencies are necessarily political. That's not a bad thing. "Politics" is another way of saying "democracy." Compromises and trade-offs have to be made. In challenging cases, the responsibility lies not just on the agency employees but on the whole conservation community. At one point decades ago, the entire Illinois Nature Preserves Commission staff got fired (its budget zeroed out) in part because of failures to compromise. A wise and valiant participant in that struggle, Jerry Paulson, the day-to-day director at that time, wrote a comment on this post (see below) that ended: "Public employees who speak-up to protect nature are true heroes! But, they can't be expected to do it all alone. Every state needs a Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves or The Prairie Enthusiasts to advocate for nature." 

Endnote 5: Army Lake Woodland Plant List

Assembled by Dan Carter as part of a "timed meander" assessment. According to the rules of this exercise, the list includes all the plants that can be identified in a brief survey; the investigator stops when they fail to find a new species in five minutes. There are likely many other species present. (A few additional common names were added for this post.) 



Acer saccharum

hard maple, sugar maple

Agrimonia gryposepala

common agrimony, tall hairy agrimony

Amelanchier laevis

Allegheny serviceberry, Allegheny shadblow

Amphicarpaea bracteata

American hog-peanut, hog-peanut

Anemone americana

round-lobed hepatica

Anemone quinquefolia

nightcaps, wood anemone

Antennaria parlinii

Parlin's pussy-toes, plantain pussy-toes

Apocynum cannabinum

hemp-dogbane, Indian hemp

Aquilegia canadensis

Canadian columbine, red columbine, wild columbine

Aralia nudicaulis

wild sarsaparilla

Asclepias exaltata

poke milkweed, tall milkweed

Aureolaria grandiflora

large-flowered yellow false foxglove

Berberis thunbergii

Japanese barberry

Calystegia spithamaea

low bindweed, low false bindweed

Carduus nutans

musk thistle, nodding plumeless thistle, nodding thistle

Carex cephalophora

oval-headed sedge, short-headed bracted sedge

Carex pensylvanica

common oak sedge, Pennsylvania sedge

Carex siccata

dry-spiked sedge, hay sedge, hillside sedge, running savanna sedge

Carex stricta

tussock sedge

Carya ovata

shagbark hickory, shellbark hickory

Ceanothus americanus

New Jersey tea, red-root

Celastrus scandens

American bittersweet, climbing bittersweet

Cerastium fontanum

common mouse-ear chickweed

Comandra umbellata

bastard-toadflax, false toadflax

Cornus foemina

gray dogwood, northern swamp dogwood, panicled dogwood

Cornus rugosa

round-leaved dogwood

Cornus sericea

red osier dogwood

Dactylis glomerata

orchard grass

Danthonia spicata

poverty danthonia, poverty grass, poverty oat grass

Diervilla lonicera

northern bush-honeysuckle

Elaeagnus umbellata

autumn olive

Equisetum arvense

common horsetail, field horsetail

Erigeron pulchellus


Euphorbia corollata

flowering spurge

Eurybia furcata

forked aster

Festuca saximontana

Rocky Mountain fescue

Fragaria virginiana

thick-leaved wild strawberry, Virginia strawberry,

Frangula alnus

European alder buckthorn, glossy buckthorn

Fraxinus americana

white ash

Galium boreale

northern bedstraw

Galium concinnum

pretty bedstraw, shining bedstraw

Gaylussacia baccata


Gentianella quinquefolia

ague-weed, stiff gentian

Geranium maculatum

Crane's-bill, spotted geranium, wild geranium

Helianthus hirsutus

hairy sunflower, oblong sunflower, rough sunflower

Heuchera richardsonii

prairie alumroot, Richardson's alumroot

Hieracium caespitosum

field hawkweed, meadow hawkweed, yellow king-devil

Hieracium umbellatum

narrow-leaved hawkweed, northern hawkweed

Ilex verticillata

common winterberry

Juniperus virginiana

eastern red-cedar

Krigia biflora

false-dandelion, orange dwarf-dandelion, two-flowered Cynthia

Lactuca canadensis

Canada lettuce, tall lettuce, tall wild lettuce, w

Larix laricina

larch, tamarack

Lathyrus ochroleucus

cream pea-vine, pale vetchling, white pea

Lathyrus venosus

veiny pea

Lonicera dioica

limber honeysuckle, mountain honeysuckle, red hone

Lonicera X bella

Bell's honeysuckle, showy bush honeysuckle

Luzula multiflora

common wood rush

Maianthemum racemosum

false Solomon's-seal, false spikenard, large false Solomon's-seal

Medicago lupulina

black medick

Melilotus albus

white sweet-clover

Melilotus officinalis

yellow sweet-clover

Ostrya virginiana

eastern hop-hornbeam, ironwood

Parthenocissus inserta

grape woodbine

Pedicularis canadensis

Canadian lousewort, forest lousewort, wood-betony

Phryma leptostachya

American lop-seed

Picea glauca

white spruce

Plantago major

broad-leaved plantain, common plantain

Poa compressa

Canada bluegrass, wiregrass

Podophyllum peltatum

May-apple, wild mandrake

Polemonium reptans

Greek-valerian, spreading Jacob's-ladder

Populus grandidentata

big-tooth aspen, large-toothed aspen

Potentilla simplex

common cinquefoil, old-field five-fingers

Prenanthes alba

lion's-foot, rattlesnake-root, white-lettuce

Primula meadia

eastern shooting-star, pride-of-Ohio

Prunus serotina

wild black cherry

Prunus virginiana


Pteridium aquilinum

bracken, bracken fern

Quercus alba

white oak

Quercus rubra

northern red oak

Ranunculus abortivus

little-leaf buttercup, small-flowered buttercup

Ranunculus fascicularis

early buttercup, thick-root buttercup

Rhamnus cathartica

common buckthorn, European buckthorn

Rosa carolina

Carolina rose, pasture rose

Rosa multiflora

multiflora rose

Sanicula marilandica

black snakeroot, Maryland sanicle

Sisyrinchium albidum

common blue-eyed grass

Solidago speciosa

showy goldenrod

Solidago ulmifolia

elm-leaved goldenrod

Symphyotrichum laeve

smooth blue aster

Symphyotrichum oolentangiense

sky-blue aster

Symphyotrichum urophyllum

arrow-leaved aster, white arrowleaf aster

Taraxacum officinale

common dandelion

Toxicodendron rydbergii

Rydberg's poison-ivy, western poison-ivy

Trifolium pratense

red clover

Vaccinium myrtilloides

velvet-leaved blueberry

Viburnum opulus

cranberry viburnum, European cranberry-bush, high-bushcranberry

Viburnum rafinesquianum

arrow-wood, downy arrow-wood

Vicia caroliniana

Carolina vetch, pale vetch, wood vetch

Viola sororia

door-yard violet, common blue violet, hairy wood violet

Vitis riparia

frost grape, river bank grape

More references, if you're interested

In that presentation, Dan offers the summary below from Veldman et al. It summarizes characteristics of ancient grassland ecosystems from a paper that focuses principally on the tropics. But it offers principles that may apply to our less-well-studied remnants as well. 

Three of the many posts on this blog that explore similar questions in Illinois remnants and restoration:


This post was written by Stephen Packard. Credit for the original discovery of the significance of Army Lake Woodland goes to Dan Carter. Dan is now with The Prairie Enthusiasts, a highly-respected organization that focuses volunteer and professional resources on stewardship and advocacy for biodiversity. 

For proofing and edits to an earlier version to Dan Carter, and for this version thanks to Matt Evans and Christos Economou.