The Nelsons’ Oak Savanna of Dreams

“If you build it, they will come,” said a voice in Ray’s head from the movie Field of Dreams. The voice led Ray to build a baseball diamond in his corn field. An act of faith for sure, considering the disbelief of relatives. If you saw the film then you know, Ray’s vision perceived the past, shaped the future and, in the end, they came.

In Southeast Monroe County, Carol Nelson wouldn’t be surprised if her husband Don was hearing a similar voice. Respectfully, Don puts it this way: “This work can be domestically challenging.”

In 1999, Don and Carol Nelson were living in Macomb, Illinois. Weekends found the Nelsons leaving corn country (the landscape of Don’s youth) for Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. They found 40 acres of hill, valley, woods, and field in Southeast Monroe County; this would become the landscape of their retirement. Much like in the movie, they had a vision for the land.

Restoring oak savanna

Don and Carol were aware of prairie, having lived in Illinois, and found two small remnants on their property. These treeless plant communities underscored to them how open their land used to be. The vision drove Don to restore oak savanna, the park-like plant community of open-grown oaks over prairie grasses once covering many millions of acres in Southwest Wisconsin.

By 2005, Don and Carol were fully retired and living on the land.  Oak savanna restoration became Don’s passion. He admits, “I’ve been ahead of Carol on this, but she has been supportive.” At the same time, Carol has grown hundreds of prairie seedlings in the greenhouse for restoration projects on the property.

Don meanwhile spent his early years of retirement releasing oaks and hickories by cutting and treating all the competing tree and shrub species. But Don’s ambition wasn’t keeping pace with his vision. He needed help.

Three panels showing the Nelsons at work on their land
Don and Carol Nelson carrying out the hard but gratifying work of restoring oak savanna.

He contacted Mark Pfost, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to see about cost-share money and potential contractors to do the work. After a couple of meetings, the landowners, the biologist, and a contractor became a team.

Erik Thomsen and Beth Schaldach of ‘Ku-le Region Forestry, Inc., of La Crosse took savanna restoration to a new level. This past winter Erik and Beth removed undesirable trees and shrubs from 3. 5 acres. Don’s vision was being realized, but the activity was also outside his immediate control. Don recalls, “The work, although exciting, created a lot of anxiety.”

This spring, however, all the work and stress proved worth it when the “players” took the field. Five red-headed woodpeckers came to Nelsons’ oak savanna.

As ball diamonds are to baseball players, oak savannas are to red-headed woodpeckers. The openness of scattered trees lets woodpeckers more easily catch insects on the wing. The acorns of oak trees make up as much as two-thirds of the woodpeckers’ diet. And inside the dead trees and branches created by natural fires is where woodpeckers excavate their nests.

“This has been a real ‘wow’ experience,” says Don. “The promise is there.”