Tending to the heart of campus

A deeper look into the staff who manage the 300-acre Lakeshore Nature Preserve—and the history and future of the Preserve.

In May of 2023, UW–Madison published the final draft of a Master Plan for the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, the first since 2006. The plan proposes an ambitious, wide-ranging vision for the Preserve as a site of research, biodiversity, natural beauty, and cultural awareness, while acknowledging the vast importance of the natural area for the university.

The Lakeshore Nature Preserve has grown in its operations and significance for community members and the university mission. Spanning 300 acres of Ho-Chunk ancestral lands — one-third of UW–Madison’s main campus — and including nearly four and a half miles of Lake Mendota shoreline, the Preserve holds several marshes and woods, community gardens, prairies, and savannas, as well as 12 miles of trails. 

Aaron Bird Bear, director of tribal relations in the Office of University Relations, speaks during an Indigenous blessing ceremony of the proposed Lakeshore Nature Preserve Outreach Center – a concept in the early stages of public and stakeholder input and design development – was held at the entrance to Picnic Point at the University of Wisconsin–Madison during a mild autumn day on Nov. 1, 2022. The campus natural area resides on ancestral Ho-Chunk Nation land. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison)
Aaron Bird Bear, former director of tribal relations, speaks during an Indigenous blessing ceremony of the proposed Lakeshore Nature Preserve Outreach Center, which was held at the entrance to Picnic Point at UW–Madison during a mild autumn day on Nov. 1, 2022. The campus natural area resides on ancestral Ho-Chunk Nation land. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison)

The Preserve is many things. It has become an outdoor classroom for students, faculty members, and outside researchers. 150,000 people walk from the entrance to the tip of Picnic Point each year, seeking beauty and respite. The Preserve is one of the most identifiable, photographed and visited areas of the university. At the same time, it is one of many stages worldwide where invasive species and climate change challenge and transform native ecosystems.

And it is managed by a small team of four student interns and three full-time staff members: Laura Wyatt, the interim director; Adam Gundlach, the project coordinator; and Bryn Scriver, the volunteer and outreach coordinator.

“The Lakeshore Nature Preserve is an absolute treasure for the university—our largest classroom and research laboratory, a sacred space to the Ho-Chunk, and a living, changing ecosystem home to more than a thousand species,” said Missy Nergard, who is UW–Madison’s director of sustainability. “The team that manages the Preserve are experts in the field of natural areas and wildlife management, but they are also teachers, researchers, liaisons, fund-raisers, laborers, and protectors. I am constantly amazed at how three staff can manage and support the entire enterprise.”

“An outdoor learning laboratory”

Since she started at UW–Madison, Wyatt has drawn on her teaching background to bolster the educational project of the Preserve. 

“When I came [to UW–Madison], I’m not sure a majority of people on campus looked at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve as an outdoor learning laboratory,” Wyatt said.

Each year, between 70 and 90 different teaching, research, and outreach projects occur in the Preserve. Wyatt approves educational permits to track the research and protect the burial mounds and artifacts in the land. 

Research includes short-term class projects, doctoral studies tracking an aspect over several years, and university researchers collecting weather data. In another project, the DNR and United States Geological Survey are testing a vaccine at the Preserve’s bat house to help protect the animals from white-nose syndrome, a threat to the species in North America.

Bryn Scriver (right), volunteer and outreach coordinator at the UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve, shows UW student Mitchell Schroeder (left) and his family how to collect seeds from the native prairie plants during a Family Weekend event at the Biocore Prairie inside the Lakeshore Nature Preserve at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Oct. 19, 2019. (Photo by Bryce Richter /UW-Madison)
Bryn Scriver (right) shows a UW student and his family how to collect the seeds from native prairie plants during a Family Weekend event at the Biocore Prairie inside the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. (Photo by Bryce Richter /UW-Madison)

The educational mission of the Preserve extends beyond research, with hands-on learning in citizen science initiatives, student-led birding walks and learning series, volunteer-led field trips,  as well as volunteer programs that remove invasive species. The teaching becomes most involved with a 14-year-old internship program where students learn from staff to identify plants, use land management tools, and maintain the ecology over the seasons.

Layers of communities

The Preserve is a managed landscape of living organisms and trails. The removal of even a single branch can alter the habits of species and organisms living in the Preserve and allow for the growth of new ones. Historical aerial photos of the Preserve that are nearly a century old tell the story of the land and its transformations. 

“You can walk the land and see the remnants of formerly open-grown oak trees signaling the former savanna and open woodland communities that stretched across southern Wisconsin between pockets of prairie,” Gundlach said. “You can point to the decaying stubs of formerly open-grown limbs, long-since shaded out by the in-fill of trees, and it shows the passage of time without fire and browsing by large herbivores, processes that kept the land in a more open state.”

Gundlach and Scriver lead interns, contractors, and hundreds of volunteers to remove thickets of invasive brush for light to reach the ground and to grow a more diverse “understory” of plants, or those that grow beneath the tallest canopies. Without this intervention, shade-tolerant plants would dominate the space, excluding a range of species. Space for growth is limited, and the Preserve team follows a Master Plan to set goals for natural communities, as it must be selective with what kinds of plants, pollinators and wildlife it wants to encourage, not unlike curators at art galleries. Wyatt describes the Lakeshore Nature Preserve as “an outdoor plant museum.”

“There’s a decision to be made,” Gundlach said. “We’re trying to walk that line of peeling back layers of vegetation to allow opportunities for growth of increasingly rare plant communities. We’d like to have examples of the communities that have been here historically alongside that more contemporary, novel community.”

Fire might be the most complex but effective technique for managing growth. Prescribed burns at the Preserve result from an extended, expert preparation and implementation, and they can provide learning opportunities for students, staff, and campus visitors. Gundlach, who helps lead exercises for a new prescribed fire course (LAND ARC/​ENVIR ST  581) through the Nelson Institute, begins with setting goals. His burn plans commonly aim to remove aggressive and unwanted brush, set back invasive species, or stimulate the growth of native species. He reviews the burn site, details hazards, sets logistic and contingency plans, and drafts smoke maps and projections. Burns require sufficiently dry conditions to carry fire, considerations of weather patterns, coordination with the Madison Fire Department.

Students in protective gear tend to a fire in an open field in the UW Arboretum, with fire and smoke in the foreground.
Adam Gundlach works with students on a prescribed fire at the UW Arboretum. Photo by Andy Krashaar.

Gundlach and Wyatt described fires as another way the university can continue to honor the native traditions that have tended to the land since time immemorial.

“My mind always jumps to the variety of reasons native tribes would set fires and how we can weave some of that into our management objectives,” Gundlach said. “The [misconception] is that these fires would just be set and they would race across huge areas, but I don’t think that was always the case. There was an intimate relationship with fire and its different uses—for instance, burning it in the fall to clear ground under oak trees to collect acorns, or burning certain shrubs at certain times so they would regenerate nice straight new growth to use in their basketry.”

Scriver noted the importance of communicating with the public, especially in areas where passersby would find cut trees or singed brush.

“As a teaching and research institution it’s really important to communicate what’s going on out there,” said Scriver. “Even just information about what’s in bloom or, did you know, we’ve got a federally endangered bumblebee in the Preserve.”

“It’s all of our responsibilities”: the future of the planet, and the Preserve

Without the work of the Preserve staff, an important piece of the research and learning central to the university would degrade. The Preserve would likely become impassable due to trail blockages and erosion, and the land would see a significant loss of biodiversity. While the staff prevents these outcomes, they confront regular challenges due to the size and shape of the area.

“I always like to say we basically just manage a giant edge,” said Gundlach, referring to the miles of possible entry points and fragmented habitat blocks. “All kinds of wide-ranging species can adapt well to these edges, and invasive species often are introduced along edges because that’s just that borderland between two worlds, where things are deposited. We have edges everywhere, and trying to maintain all those edges, both aesthetically and ecologically … is a lot.”

At the same time the team fends off challenges from the edges, it continues to adjust to the increasing severity of climate change, which will make maintaining trails and shoreline more difficult.

Educational signage about the Lakeshore Nature Preserve is pictured as rising water from Lake Mendota floods the University Bay shoreline at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Aug. 24, 2018. Area lake levels continue to rise after a record-breaking storm on Aug. 20 dumped more than 10-inches of rain on parts of Madison and Dane County. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)
Educational signage about the Lakeshore Nature Preserve is pictured as rising water from Lake Mendota floods the University Bay shoreline in 2018. Area lake levels continued to rise after a record-breaking storm on Aug. 20, 2018 dumped more than 10-inches of rain on parts of Madison and Dane County. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

“Probably our biggest challenge is and will continue to be invasive plants: as it warms up, there are going to be some species that will recede and some that will push forward,” Wyatt said. “I am concerned about insects and fish and the impact just a quarter of a degree of a temperature can have. Then also storm water, as the storms we have are very, very severe. They come down very quickly; the winds can be high. Trees can be knocked down; water can rush across the land. It can just be devastating.”

The Preserve can address new challenges with collaboration from campus partners, as the Master Plan and proposed Outreach Center will allow the university to further outdoor learning and sustain cultural connections with the land.

“Wisconsin does have the ethos of environmental awareness and appreciation,” Wyatt said. “Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day, John Muir, Aldo Leopold—we have a history we are supporting that enables students of all ages to be involved in continuous learning and care for the environment. If students, faculty, staff, and community members have a good experience here, learn the values and what they can do, they can be better citizens in the areas where they eventually live. It’s not one person’s role. It’s all of our responsibilities.”

By: Marek Makowski