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Grant recipient plants Forest of Hope

Volunteers pose for a socially distant selfie.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, tree-planting in Wisconsin was still carried out. Pictured: Josh Schlicht, Spencer Henkel, Rachelle Ketelhohn, Stephanie Krausert (staff). Photo courtesy Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.

WISCONSIN—When COVID-19 interrupted the spring planting season, 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.

Ozaukee and Washington counties lie north of Milwaukee, a proximity that 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 Eastern Region State and Private Forestry grant and technical assistance programs support organizations and communities that protect, conserve and manage forests and community trees.

In 2019, a project proposed by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust received a sub-award under a Forest Service Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant through the Southeastern Wisconsin Invasive Species Consortium. As an initiative 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.

Volunteer Bob Dries pauses while volunteering as a tree-planter in Wisconsin.
Even during a pandemic, forest restoration work is carried out. Bob Dries was one of many volunteers this spring in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.

The goal of the broader consortium grant is to control non-native invasive species and restore native plant communities in two significant woodlands in Ozaukee County. The land trust project is in the Huiras Lake State Natural Area, which contains ecologically significant wetlands within the Milwaukee River watershed. With its aim to reestablish a pre-settlement swamp forest, the project called for hand-planting 5,700 trees.

Then, when spring planting season was about to begin, COVID-19 changed the landscape. Pre-pandemic, 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 not viable.

Rather than delay or cancel the project, the consortium and land trust instead found innovative, safety-focused ways to move forward. Though they could no longer host large volunteer groups, a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Small Business Administration enabled them to hire their staff and interns for this season. With COVID-related schedule changes, recent college graduates could 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 was stretched over more than two weeks. The work was different in other ways as well, as staff, interns and seasoned volunteers worked in small 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 ingenuity and an unwavering commitment to conservation, the consortium and land trust planted all 5,700 trees, providing a Forest of Hope during this 2020 pandemic.

Learn more about the Huiras Lake Natural Area project

Tree-planting volunteers pose with shovels at a social distance.
Staff and volunteers helped plant trees despite the COVID-19 pandemic. L to R: Rachelle Ketelhohn (staff), Kathy Stecker (volunteer), Josh Schlicht (staff), Spencer Henkel (staff), Christine Bohn (staff), Ryan Wallin (staff). Photo courtesy Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.

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