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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Touring UW-Madison's Lakeshore Nature Preserve and Class of 1918 Marsh
Carpenter (right) with Shapiro (in white): "You had a lot of
people who thought, 'Well, maybe we should have a natural area here.'"
Carpenter (right) with Shapiro (in white): "You had a lot of people who thought, 'Well, maybe we should have a natural area here.'"
Credit:Kait Vosswinkel

Not far from the University of Wisconsin Hospital, tucked behind the Goodman Diamond softball complex, a sea of green cattails shuffles in the breeze and a red-winged blackbird peevishly chases a couple of sparrows in the Class of 1918 Marsh, an often-overlooked part of the UW-Madison's Lakeshore Nature Preserve. The area is a quiet, scenic escape from the hustle of the nearby campus and city, and its history is unique and endearing.

Monday afternoon, Quentin Carpenter, a senior lecturer in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, shares that history with a group of residents as they tour the marsh during one of the Preserve's free events.

"I used to have my wetland ecology class come here," Carpenter says. "By the time time the red-winged blackbirds come in March, it's noisy here. During the migration there are all kinds of birds in the trees."

The Class of 1918 Marsh is so unique, in part, because it has changed forms many times. Initially, the area was a glacial lake cut off by beach ridges. As a spawning spot for northern pike, the lake was an important part of local hunting and trade circuits.

After UW-Madison attained the land, however, it became the focus of a new drainage demonstration project. Using ditches, tile drains and a state-of-the-art electric sump pump, the area was transformed into arable land.

During the 1960s, however, as the College of Agriculture moved west, the land was abandoned and, after returning to its marshy state, it was slated to become a shining tarmac parking lot.

"You had a lot of people who thought, 'Well, maybe we should have a natural area here.' The person leading the charge was my mentor, Jim Zimmerman," Carpenter says. "He helped organize a group of students, as was the custom of the time, and raised a lot of hell. [They] got in front of the bulldozers that were trying to make the parking lots, and generally slowed things down."

After successfully postponing the project, Zimmerman enlisted a group of alumni from the class of 1918, effectively securing protection and public access for the park indefinitely. Zimmerman's success in the late '60s is slowly being tainted, however, as the marshland loses the diversity that made it special. What was vibrant marshland is now a swamp of interlocking cattails. Each year, the cattails soak up more minerals and water that allow an array of plants and animals to prosper. This complication isn't a death sentence for the marsh, however.

"A lot of what is choking this is really just organic matter, now," says Carpenter. "And that likely could be managed."

After working with the Lakeshore Nature Preserve for 15 years, Carpenter knows that there are ways of dealing with pesky cattails.

"The idea of somehow dredging out some of the sediments and getting some more open water and a little bit deeper water -- that would give a larger variety of habitats," Carpenter says. "If you have more variety of habitats, you'll get more species in."

Carpenter is not alone in his support for the marsh. Local residents enjoy the proximity of a natural preserve and the experience it offers.

Ken Shapiro, a recently retired UW-Madison professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics, is taking the opportunity to acquaint himself with the area.

"I've been walking on the path since I retired a year ago, and I was interested to learn more about what I see each time I take a walk in the morning," Shapiro says.

Shapiro even invited his grandchildren along. Caitlin Haskett is glad to take the tour of the marsh, and enjoys the learning experience that the area has to offer.

"I lived here for a while but I never came down here," Caitlin says. "I'd like it to definitely stay a natural area. It's nice to have just undisturbed places in a city like this."

Carpenter hopes that local support and awareness of the marsh will spread.

"It's really a great urban amenity here," Carpenter says.

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