A Labor of Love: Woodland Restoration

Laura DeGolier is a great example of the diverse kinds of volunteers who can have a significant impact on restoring natural areas throughout the state. Having established an independent insurance business, she has combined her management skills with her love of nature to make a real contribution to a number of restoration efforts.

“I enjoy being involved in scientific projects that protect nature,” she says. In 1990 she was an Earth Watch volunteer working in the Virgin Islands to save turtles. Then-governor Tommy Thompson appointed her to be executive secretary of the Wisconsin Conservation Corps from 1999 to 2000. She has volunteered with the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the Nature Conservancy, among other land preservation groups — but she is proudest of her work in Fond du Lac, where her efforts galvanized the creation of a 24-acre forested natural area in the middle of the city.

An avid birder, she started walking the parks of Fond du Lac only to find that birds were not gathering in the city parks. “Those parks were mowed to within an inch of their life and had no natural habitat,” DeGolier remembers. “I could find more birds in residential neighborhoods, which at least had shrubs.”

DeGolier reported the lack of natural areas to the Fond du Lac Parks Director, who told her the city owned a lot of natural land, but that their whereabouts were not recorded in one place. “I went to the Community Development Officer and asked that a map of Fond du Lac’s natural areas be created. After 10 months I had a map of the city’s open land.”

Working with a group of volunteers she had gathered called Park Watch and members of the Audubon Society, they explored the areas and identified a heavily wooded site that skirted a river. “This was a perfect piece,” she says. “Kids had already created trials through it.”

Known as Bums’ Jungle, the woods were choked with buckthorn, brambles, and garlic mustard, with construction debris piled along one side that bordered a small shopping area. Today the Greenway Arboretum looks quite different. It’s an evolving natural area with oak woods and two small prairies.

To accomplish this minor miracle, DeGolier has availed herself of all the restoration information she could find. From the start, her main reference has been The Vegetation of Wisconsin: An Ordination of Plant Communities by John T. Curtis, which  helped her determine that the soil type and plant community she was working with is an oak hickory woodland recovery area. She learned what plants she should be looking for in what seasons. The growing list includes bottle gentian, Solomon seal, trout lily, bellwort, coneflowers, and sunflowers.

 “I knew people in the Department of Natural Resources, and I wasn’t afraid to ask questions,” she says. “I attend seminars sponsored by the Nature Conservancy, and the Natural Resources Foundation. I belong to Groundswell. I have driven down south of Madison to visit an oak woodland open house and get a feel for what it should look like. I attended a two-day seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum on prairies, woodlands and fire.”

Another reference DeGolier finds useful is The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees by Douglas W. Tallamy.  “I am encouraging oaks in the Greenway Arboretum,” she notes. “The squirrels and jays are planting them, and I mark and fence them for protection. Every year I find new ones. In the spring I deliver a little fertilizer and in the winter I cut off a few lower branches to encourage them to grow tall. New walnuts — I cut them. They don’t play nice with others.”

Laura DeGolier considers woods restoration to be her calling. “You have to inhabit your land to understand what it needs, what is there and how to best manage it,” she says. “Trees are living things, and any time you are working with a living thing, yes there is science involved, but it is also an art, and a labor of love.”

By Denise Thornton

Join Doug on November 10th at 7 PM CST to explore the importance of oaks in complex ecosystems and understand how YOU can contribute to their health in your natural communities. My Wisconsin Woods coordinator Catie Geib will be your host for the evening.

Register today.