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Carla Kelly inspects a prairie filled with yellow coneflowers in the Town of Stanton. Saturday's tour of local conservation projects included this stop at a waterfowl production area.

Local eco-tour turns some heads

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More than a few passing motorists were wondering what a large tour bus was doing around rural Star Prairie, Wis. on Saturday, July 17.

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Dozens of riders were periodically dropped off at various fields along rural roads, where those people stood for lengthy periods of time in the blazing sun.

The scene prompted more than a few curious glances.

The event was a bus tour sponsored by the Star Prairie Fish and Game organization, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Wisconsin-Extension office and Star Prairie Land Preservation Trust.

The purpose of the tour was to highlight several nearby natural preservation areas that are managed by the federal, state and local environmental organizations.

Tour organizers invited elected officials, local governmental leaders and landowners who may be interested in land preservation for their own properties.

The goal of the group was to show what can be accomplished when landowners, nonprofit groups and governmental agencies cooperate and pool their resources.

"More can be done collectively than if we did things separately," said Tom Kerr, manager of the St. Croix Wetland Management District for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

McMurtrie Preserve

First stop on the tour was McMurtrie Preserve near Cedar Lake.

Stuart Nelson with Star Prairie Fish and Game said the 63-acres is a gem that has been set aside to educate people young and old about the environment and the challenges it faces.

The Menke family worked with the Star Prairie Land Preservation Trust to protect the property from development. As a result, 1,000 feet of frontage on Cedar Lake will never be disturbed, and 1,400 feet of frontage along Cedar Creek will remain in its natural state.

"This was the one preservation project that means the most to us," Nelson said. "It's the most generous gift I've ever been involved in."

Phyllis Menke, who is the furniture business in southern Indiana, said the success of her family's business allowed her to preserve the land for future generations.

"It's been a win-win situation," she told the tour group.

Menke said her father purchased the land in 1952, when it was "a huge cow pasture."

Since then, there have been several proposals to develop the property. Now it will never be excavated for economic gain.

"Do keep involved in saving your beautiful country up here," she urged the assembled tour group.

Cedar Lake

The next stop on the morning tour was the new Cedar Bay Landing, which was developed by the Star Prairie Fish and Game and Star Prairie Land Preservation Trust groups.

The access on the southwest end of Cedar Lake provides a wildlife viewing area and walk-on access to the 1,100-acre lake. A 100-foot boardwalk extends out into Cedar Bay.

"It was a huge, cooperative and partnership project," said Mike Kelly, with Star Prairie Fish and Game.

The 1.3-acre project was made possible with funding from Wisconsin's Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Star Prairie Fish and Game.

Several other efforts on Cedar Lake are the result of agencies and organizations working closely together.

Kelly noted that a $400,000 grant is being used to study the water quality of Cedar Lake.

Cedar Lake suffers from excessive algae blooms in the summer and officials hope to find a way to minimize that green growth.

Early indications are that Cedar Lake is in a constant state of mixing, and as a result sediments on the bottom are always stirred up. If the lake can be treated in such a way that sediments can be locked on the floor of the lake, the algae growth can be controlled.

Another major project on Cedar Lake is the placement of fish cribs in various parts of the lake.

Star Prairie Fish and Game have a Wisconsin DNR permit to place 500 cribs in the lake. Some 268 have already been placed.

The cribs simulate weed beds in some of the deeper parts of the lake, thus providing fish protection from predators and also providing a place for them to feed.

"We think this has had quite an impact on the fishery on Cedar Lake," Kelly said.

The numbers are promising so far. Walleye numbers in 2004 were around 2.1 per acre. A recent survey indicated 5.3 walleyes per acre. Panfish numbers have also jumped up in Cedar Lake, he noted.

WPAs

The tour then swung through a series of waterfowl production areas in the Town of Stanton area.

The Star Prairie WPA, Bierbrauer WPA, Hanten WPA and Oak Ridge WPA all have been restored to oak savanna prairies.

"There's not that much oak savanna left on the landscape any more," Kerr noted.

Those prairies, with a smattering of oak trees throughout, were found in this area prior to the pioneers' settling here. The oak savannas help provide ideal habitat for nesting waterfowl and songbirds.

Because large areas of grassland were converted to farmland years ago, populations of songbirds and waterfowl have declined, according to Kerr.

Funding for WPAs comes from the sale of the Federal Duck Stamps, which cost $15 annually. Kerr said people who support the protection and restoration of prairie habitat should consider buying a stamp.

To restore the prairies, Kerr explained, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses controlled burning quite often. It's a controversial practice, he said, but it's the most cost-effective way to accomplish habitat restoration.

Prior to settlement of the region, Joel Kemm, prescribed fire specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said fires started by lightning periodically swept through the land and regenerated the soil. Once settlers arrived, fire was effectively snuffed out as part of the natural cycle.

As a result, invasive species took over many plots of non-farm land and the prairies were choked out. Conservation groups are working to turn back the hands of time and restore those lost prairies.

"Fire is the best thing we can do for the land," Kemm said. "It's the least expensive thing we can do, and it's the most effective thing we can do."

The service also removes invasive plant and tree species, and occasionally uses chemicals, to help ensure the success of the individual restoration projects.

Jim Riemer, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said once a prairie is restored, the work has only begun. WPAs must be watched to make sure invasive plants don't return.

"It's a never-ending process to maintain the areas in permanent grasses," he said.

Stimulus money

Thanks to federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife office was able to work on 15 prairie restoration projects over the past year.

Kemm said the New Richmond office received about $260,000 of ARRA money to help with the work.

Through the work, Kemm reported, the local office was able to remove about 300 semi-truck loads of invasive trees from area lands.

"We feel pretty good about what we've accomplished," he said.

Lunch

Star Prairie Fish and Game members put on a lunch at River Island Park at the conclusion of the tour. Officials said they are considering making the tour an annual event so people are more aware of what conservation measures have been accomplished in the region.

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