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Volunteers join city staff in inventory of city's natural spaces | Environment

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Volunteers join city staff in inventory of city's natural spaces
Volunteers join city staff in inventory of city's natural spaces

In an effort to manage and maintain the undeveloped land areas of the Madison park system, the city’s Parks and Engineering divisions recently initiated a citywide inventory.

Simon Widstrand, a retired conservation supervisor and planner for the City of Madison Parks Division, is working with other volunteers and city staff to inventory Madison's 4,000 acres of natural land to apply standard maintenance practices and prevent these areas from deteriorating or being overrun by invasive species.

"Most people embrace a land ethic that requires us to care for our land," Widstrand said. "To leave something for future generations, and to protect our investment, we should provide good stewardship of our natural lands. The inventory is the first step of developing a  plan for the city and volunteers to manage and restore more city natural areas."

He estimates about 800 volunteer hours per year are needed to monitor all of the natural areas. Volunteers have been asked to select parks to inventory while marking off woodland, meadow and wetland areas on a map and writing observations about invasive species in those areas.

However, due to lack of staff and coordination, it will need to be a collaborative effort.

"The city does not have enough staff and resources to manage all city properties, and it never will, so it will have to be done with a partnership of public, private and volunteer efforts," Widstrand said.

Sandy Stark, a council committee chair for the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association, said efficient use of volunteer staff is another component. 

"As downtown areas change, and neighborhoods grow, and budgets shrink, it’s a challenge to preserve parks and shared green spaces," Stark said. "So coordinating where and how to use volunteers in these areas is really important to getting more done."

About 3,000 out of the 4,000 acres have been previously inventoried, but Widstrand estimates that about half of the land receives no management to protect the habitat.

Without management, invasive species such as Norway maple trees and buckthorn shrubs have been infiltrating many natural areas and preventing native wildlife from flourishing.

"The trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses that are native to the Madison area are beautiful," Jan Axelson, president of Friends of Cherokee Marsh, said. "But a number of aggressive, mostly non-native species have the ability to out-compete the native plants and form monocultures that are of little use to wildlife."

According to Axelson, Cherokee Marsh Conservation Park has removed dense thickets of buckthorn and honeysuckle shrubs in the woods to allow for a more diverse and interesting understory of native wildflowers and grasses.

While Widstrand isn't expecting the areas to be fully restored, he hopes that new invasive outbreaks can be caught before they spread.

At a Friends of Hoyt Park meeting in late 2011, Widstrand explained the need for an inventory. "[The goal] is not proposing to restore all 4,000 acres to diverse high quality vegetation, but it does preserve the option to do that with some areas in the future," he said.

But the complexity of gathering all the information from the project can become overwhelming.

"Plant communities can be complex, and gathering information and managing 400 different properties compounds the complexity," Widstrand said. "We're trying to keep it simple, look at the big picture, and identify areas where actions ... can be most effective."

Despite the obstacles, Axelson remains optimistic about the completion of the project.

"If residents are inspired to care for natural areas as a result of the project, the project will be a success," Axelson said.

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