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Leopold Week  •  Programs and Events

The Aldo Leopold Foundation will be closed to the public for a private event on Saturday, September 30.

Track loader sitting amid shrub

New Equipment Meets an Old Landscape

Introducing the modern machinery that’s transforming our historic property

When you’re attempting a 170-acre savanna restoration, instant gratification is tough to come by. But as we head into 2017, we at the Leopold Foundation are reminded that sometimes gratification does come under watchful, consistent, methodical, and evolving care.

And, then, having some powerful new equipment on hand doesn’t hurt either.

In July 2015, we posted a story to this blog outlining the five reasons why we were cutting trees in the shadow of Leopold’s Shack. Back then, we shared with you our lofty goals of restoring savanna and improving habitat for bird species of high conservation concern.

Red-headed woodpecker on a snag

A red-headed woodpecker seen in our savanna restoration last summer. Photo: John Zeiger

The intervening year and half has not disappointed. From the shade of an open-grown swamp white oak, you can now share a late spring morning with a pair of sandhill cranes and their colt, spot a redheaded woodpecker zipping to and from its nest tree, and watch the last of the morning dew disappear while listening to the melodic song of an eastern meadowlark.

While successes are mounting, however, it takes only a quick look around from the same spot to realize that the project has just begun and the land again needs our care.

Enter the Kubota SVL95-2 and the Fecon BH74SS: two pieces of machinery that are transforming our land stewardship program.

Fire Not Enough to Restore Savanna

As with all articles about savanna restoration, we must first step back to pre-settlement times, when 20 percent of Wisconsin was covered in oak savanna and wildfires burned large areas every year.

As the history goes, it was just a few years after white settlement that people began containing the wild, burning fires, and homesteads started popping up in the park-like savanna.

Whereas frequent fires had left the land open, lack of fire created a haven for shrubs, brush, and trees. Fast forward 100 years without fire, and you have a landscape hardly identifiable as a savanna.

Restored savanna

Our savanna restoration after a timber harvest in summer 2015.

Our 170 acres alongside the Wisconsin River have undergone a process ecologists call “mesification.” Shrubs cover up the grasses, trees shade the shrubs, and after 100 years you have a landscape unusable by many species that once thrived in the open habitat of Wisconsin’s oak savanna.

In a simple world, just reapplying fire to the landscape would bring back the savanna of yesterday. Fortunately or unfortunately, this isn’t a simple world and fire alone won’t return our 170 acres to the sprawling grass fields and scattered oaks we dream about. Which leads me to my next introduction.

Savanna Restoration on a Faster Timeline

Readers, meet the Kubota SVL95-2 and Fecon BH74SS. The SVL95-2 is a mighty, compact track loader courtesy of McFarlanes’ of Sauk City, WI, and the BH74 is a toothy, drum-style, forestry mower for cutting and mulching brush.

Here at the doorstep of Leopold’s Shack, modern equipment is now meeting a century-old landscape waiting to be reborn from under the shade of invasive brush and stunted ash trees.

Mounted on the track loader, the forestry mower makes quick work of unwanted shrubs – making our work much quicker, as well. Using the two, we can clear in four hours what would normally take a hand crew 12 hours to do. That’s a huge difference when we have 119 aces to get through in 2017.

It’s not overstatement to say that this equipment is revolutionizing how we conduct savanna restoration on our property. The ability to remove brush quickly and efficiently lets us provide wildlife habitat on a shortened timetable, while also allowing us to expand the number of acres we manage.

So, a hearty thanks to Kubota, McFarlanes’, and all the great supporters of the land stewardship team. Next spring under the swamp white oak, we look forward to watching grass pop up through wood chips of prickly ash, buckthorn, and cherry, as we wait for the return of our crane families, red-headed woodpeckers – and, who knows, maybe two, or three, or four eastern meadowlarks.