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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison maintains its parks with the help of extraordinary volunteers
Battle of the buckthorn
Volunteers clear invasive brush from Hoyt's Sunset Point overlook.
Credit:Tim Kessenich

Underneath the layers of snow lie dormant the roots and seeds of plants native and alien, desirable and noxious, waiting to emerge this spring.

In preparation for the thaw, the Friends of Hoyt Park have used the winter to raise funds and prepare prairie seeds, waiting for the real work to begin. They are just one of over a half dozen groups of citizen volunteers across the city taking a stake in the natural areas closest to them.

The city of Madison owns thousands of acres of parks and other undeveloped land, including drainage ways and traffic ways. The city's Parks Division, as well as Engineering, which is responsible for greenways used to manage stormwater, lack the resources to rid all of these areas of invasive species and reestablish healthy ecosystems. Invasive weeds pose a major hurdle to restoring Madison parks land to healthy native habitat. Garlic mustard can take over a forest, leafy spurge can infest a prairie, and reed canary grass can dominate a wetland.

Where the city lacks the labor necessary for time-consuming hand weeding, volunteers can make all the difference.

Hoyt Park, on Madison's near west side, has a rich history with '30s-era stone picnic tables and fireplaces and a former quarry that supplied the sandstone for buildings downtown. It also boasts a Friends group of around 150 members, the vast majority of whom share the park's zip code, says Tim Kessenich, who has participated in the group for the past decade.

In Hoyt Park's small prairies and open oak woods, says Kessenich, controlling buckthorn is a major problem, second only to garlic mustard. Combating unwanted vegetation and coaxing along desirable species is the main work needed to restore the park's native habitats.

The Friends of Hoyt Park host monthly workdays to do what they can with hand weeding, but for years they've also pooled their resources to hire a dedicated forest ranger to work in the park each summer. Along with trail maintenance, the ranger's primary work involves clearing areas of invasive species. The Friends pay the ranger's salary, while the city handles the hiring and personnel details.

Plenty can be accomplished, though, with far less support. Russ Hefty, conservation resources supervisor with the city's parks, tells of the difference just one dedicated volunteer can make. Over the course of a decade Ken Haak, a 73-year-old retiree, has helped convert Kettle Pond Park, off Old Middleton Road, from "a wall of buckthorn" to a woods providing wildlife habitat.

Volunteers like Haak can nudge the city into making further efforts for a park. "Since we have so little staff and so many natural areas, we have to basically do triage," says Hefty. At Kettle Pond, Haak's work inspired the city to dredge the park's pond, which is now frequented by cranes.

Occasionally something goes awry in the coordination between city staff and volunteers, such as the erroneous mowing during full bloom of the prairie along the Capital City Trail near Atwood Avenue last summer. The volunteers who maintain the prairie were livid. In general, though, the city welcomes volunteer restoration efforts, lending guidance and occasionally tools.

"We're lucky in this community," Hefty says, noting the interest in restoration work.

Besides a willingness to work, there's a fair amount of expertise among citizen volunteers. Tim Kessenich knows the life cycles and spreading mechanisms of his foes in Hoyt Park: buckthorn and garlic mustard. The former DNR employee has a background in geology but has long been interested in woodland plants. Buckthorn's seed is spread by birds and can grow into a dense, 30-foot-tall thicket. "Very few native plants can tolerate the shade," Kessenich explains.

Scott Taylor's expertise comes from his business helping landowners enhance the ecological value of their properties. He volunteered with the Friends of Starkweather Creek on a tree-removal project along the creek's west branch. They worked with the Carpenter-Ridgeway Neighborhood Association to remove box elder trees and plant grasses and wildflowers along the creek's bank in order to better prevent erosion and filter the stormwater flowing into the creek. Eventually the work became more than the volunteers could manage, so they reached out to the city.

City Engineering, responsible for the land adjacent to the creek, has only one maintenance crew. After being approached by the volunteers, though, Engineering allocated funds to clear the remaining box elder trees. The Friends group and neighborhood volunteers then reseeded the banks.

Engineering's primary concern is preventing flooding rather than restoring habitat, says Greg Fries, an engineer in the sanitary and storm sewer division. Nonetheless, "Engineering staff were very graceful with seeking our input," Taylor says.

It's not easy to get the right plants established and keep the wrong ones from coming back, says Taylor, and not all of the area they planted did well. It can take years of hand weeding and reseeding for a good species mix to take hold. That's the kind of commitment particularly suited to the devotion of local volunteers taking ownership of a place.

The Friends of Hoyt Park volunteer workdays are usually the third Saturday of the month, and the spring schedule will be up on the website ( soon. The Madison Area Weed Warriors also have work parties planned at parks throughout the city. For more information, call Tammy at 608-257-1329 or email

Further, former Parks Department conservation specialist Si Widstrand will speak on volunteer stewardship on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. at the UW Arboretum Visitor Center, or see his blog at for more information.

It's not all work, though. The Friends of Hoyt Park are hosting a Full Moon Night Walk to listen for owls on Friday, Feb. 14, starting at 6 p.m. at the main shelter.

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