Ozaukee Washington Land Trust Plants Forest of Hope in Southeastern Wisconsin

Ozaukee Washington Land Trust Tree Planting in a Pandemic

When the spring planting season was interrupted by COVID-19, the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust — a driving force in conservation and a USDA Forest Service partner — persevered in their project to plant a Forest of Hope that will help protect water quality in the region.

Just north of the Forest Service’s Eastern Regional Office in Milwaukee lies Ozaukee and Washington counties. While they border Milwaukee County, the most populous in the state, these counties are by contrast marked by farms, rivers and rural communities along the shores of Lake Michigan. The proximity to the metro area has brought economic prosperity and industry — and, with them, urban sprawl and loss of agricultural lands, forests and riparian buffers.

While the Forest Service doesn’t own or manage lands in southeastern Wisconsin, its impact is still notable through the Eastern Region State and Private Forestry (S&PF) grant and technical assistance programs. These programs support organizations and communities that take creative local and regional approaches to protect, conserve and manage forests and community trees throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT) is one such organization.

Since 1992, the OWLT has promoted land conservation and restoration in southeast Wisconsin, with a mission of “Preserving the water resources, natural areas, and working lands of Ozaukee and Washington Counties.” In 2019, the OWLT received a sub-award under a Forest Service Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grant through the Southeastern Wisconsin Invasive Species Consortium (SEWISC). As a GLRI regional working group member, the Forest Service uses grants to assist organizations and communities working to improve the health of the Great Lakes basin and watersheds.

The goal of the broader SEWISC grant is to control non-native invasive species and restore native plant communities in two significant woodlands in Ozaukee County, the Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area and the Hurias Lake State Natural Area.  The OWLT project is located at Huiras Lake, a 149-acre preserve within the Milwaukee River watershed. The wetlands in this area are ecologically significant, as they make up a large body of headwater wetlands that discharge into the Milwaukee River and, eventually, Lake Michigan. The project aims to reestablish a pre-settlement swamp forest by planting a variety of native trees and shrubs, improving habitat and shading out a nonnative monoculture of reed canary grass.

This year, when spring planting season was about to begin, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like many Forest Service grant recipients, SEWISC and OWLT rely on dedicated staff, interns and volunteers to complete significant tree planting and restoration projects. One of the more arduous aspects of this project involved hand-planting 5,700 trees. Before COVID-19, such a project would have taken place over a long weekend with large volunteer groups and staff working with shared tools, borrowed gloves and no thought of social distancing. With the pandemic, this approach was no longer viable.

Rather than delay or cancel the project, they instead found innovative ways to move forward while maintaining safe social distancing and following CDC guidance. Though the OWLT could no longer host large volunteer groups, they were able to assemble a crew thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Small business Administration, a financial lifeline that allowed them to hire their staff and interns for this season. When their interns —recent college graduates from UW-Milwaukee and UW-Stevens Point— had their schedules altered due to COVID-19, they were able to begin their internships earlier than planned and assist with the spring tree planting season.

Even so, the loss of large volunteer groups meant that the laborious work of hand-planting a forest had to be stretched over more than two weeks. The work was different in other ways as well, as staff, interns and seasoned volunteers worked in four to seven person teams at set times to allow for significant social distancing. Tools were assigned to each worker and disinfected at the beginning and end of shifts.

With their unwavering commitment to restoration and conservation, and with ingenuity and significant safety considerations, the Southeastern Wisconsin Invasive Species Consortium and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust were able to plant all 5,700 trees, providing a Forest of Hope during this 2020 pandemic.

For more on this project: https://www.naturenowlt.org/post/huiras-lake-natural-area-tree-planting