America In Crisis–It’s Worse Than You Think

What Can Ecological Restoration Do About It?

Monday June 1, 2020

I usually write about environmental topics like water use and issues in ecological restoration, but not today. Given the crisis in America, those topics seem a little small and irrelevant. But, the crisis in racial, social, and environmental justice in America that was laid bare, like a hospital X Ray, by the coronavirus pandemic, has also exposed the similarity between how society treats its citizens and how it treats its natural areas and wild spaces. In this country, both get the short end of the stick.  

The role of ecological restoration as a values and social justice project is my topic today.

Country Being Ripped Apart by Multiple Emergencies 

Amid the triple catastrophes of the  global climate crisis, the  Covid-19 pandemic, and resulting depression-era unemployment, along comes a nation-wide uprising against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis , Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other black Americans who have lost their lives to racial violence.  This uprising has been a long time—over 400 years—coming.

The protests—the majority of which are peaceful—were sparked initially by outrage over the cold-blooded killing of Mr. Floyd and others.   Over the weekend, protests were held in more than 70 U.S. cities—including Madison, WI..

Tbe looting and burning that has taken place amidst the peaceful protests is separate from, and antithetical to,  the cause of racial justice.  The looting is reportedly incited by both right and lift-wing extremists.

Slavery, Racism, and Environmental Destruction, are components of the same human pathology, and has gone on for way too long.

But the nation-wide outrage is  also fueled by 400 years of slavery, abuse, inequality, suppression of voting rights, the poisoning and pollution of  Black communities—think the Flint, Michigan crisis of lead in drinking water—and decades of systemic inequality, and racism.  All of this has made the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic worse for communities of color.  In short, America’s history of slavery and racism and led to environmental damage for us all.

A World of Wounds

As citizens, and human beings, we should be concerned and enraged by the mistreatment of our fellow citizens and humans.  If we aren’t we have not been paying attention.  

Likewise, as environmental activists, restoration ecologists, or birders, if for example, we are concerned and enraged by environmental damage, species extinctions,  destruction of habitat and the poisoning of our land and water, we must at the same time be concerned and enraged by the systemic police brutality as practiced against African Americans.  (NBC News has just reported that Minneapolis Police have rendered dozens of individuals unconscious, in at least 44 separate cases over the last 5 years through the same “knee on the neck” technique used to kill George Floyd.)

“ . . . Aldo Leopold sized up the psychological state many of us today find ourselves in today, when he wrote in his essay “Round River”:  “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds . . . An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” (1949, p. 197) From Introduction to Restoration Ecology page 5.  

Others have also written about the challenge of living in a wounded world.

For example, William Carlos Williams, the poet and physician, has said of America and its conquest of lands and peoples: “History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery.” (William Carlos Williams,  “In The American Grain”,  New Directions, 1925 page 44).  

Likewise, Robert Kaplan in his recent book, “Earning the Rockies”, describes as “irreconcilable” the American dichotomy between its “manifest destiny” to conquer the landscape, and the material riches that flowed from the subjection of land and native peoples.  These two strands of American history cannot be reconciled.    This un-reconcilable “chicken” has come home to roost this week, in the words of Charles M. Blow in the New York Times on June 1, 2020.

What Should Restoration Ecologists Do Now?

Leopold’s comments about land doctoring foretold what has come to be known as the discipline of ecological restoration.  The profession  (which didn’t even exist as a self-conscious and named endeavor in Leopold’s day) has grown since Leopold’s early vision into a global enterprise, with an international organization to support its thousands of projects and practitioners around the world.   

But what can, and should ecological restoration do today?  Today, when the United States, seems anything but united.  Today, when there is a bomb thrower and riot inciter living in The White House? What should be the mission and purpose of this earth mending science?  What are the challenges facing ecological restoration?  Should it be the job of ecological restoration to attempt to correct these social ills as well as ecological ones?

Simply put,   yes, it should be the mission of ecological restoration to correct these racial, and social ills.  Because, without racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice, attempts at ecological restoration are meaningless, irrelevant, and futile.

Restoration ecologists must hold their “restoration shovel” in one hand and extend the other hand in helpfulness and understanding to those less fortunate and downtrodden by systemic racism.  I think that Aldo Leopold, were he alive today would urge similar action.


Posted in Aldo Leopold, Ecological restoration, Ecological restoration as a values and social-political project, Environmental justice, Racial justice and ecological restoration, Restoration ecology, Social Justice | Tagged | 2 Comments

PFAS Found In Sediment and Surface Water At Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern

PFAS Are Highest In The Kinnickinnic River

MADISON, Wis. – The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has received results from surface water and sediment sampling performed in November 2019 to determine if per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly called PFAS, are present in areas that are targeted for potential cleanup-related dredging across the US EPA-designated Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern (AOC).

PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals used for decades in numerous products, including non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and certain types of firefighting foam. These contaminants have made their way into the environment through spills of PFAS-containing materials and discharges of PFAS-containing wastewater to treatment plants and through use of certain types of firefighting foams. PFAS can persist in the environment and the human body for long periods of time. Recent scientific findings indicate that exposure to certain PFAS may have harmful health effects in people.

Great Lakes Areas of Concern

A Great Lakes Area of Concern (AOC) is a location that has experienced environmental degradation.  The U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Annex 1 of the 2012 Protocol) defines AOCs as “geographic areas designated by the Parties where significant impairment of beneficial uses has occurred as a result of human activities at the local level.”

An AOC is listed when it has been determined to be “impaired” because of a detrimental impact on “beneficial uses” such as fish habitat, beach closings, or impacts to drinking water quality.  For a complete list of the Beneficial Use Impacts (BUI’s) click here.

EPA and other federal and state agencies are working to restore the 27 remaining U.S. AOCs in the Great Lakes basin.  To learn more about Great Lakes AOC’s and efforts to rehabilitate them, click here.

Milwaukee River Estuary AOC

The Milwaukee Estuary is one of 31 US-based Areas of Concern created under the authority of the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement under the auspices of the International Joint Commission.  At the time the main concerns were related to PCB’s and heavy metals; the addition of PFAS to the list of contaminants, appears to be new.

For on overview of the Milwaukee Estuary AOC beneficial use impairments and rehabilitation work, click here.  For a look at the boundaries of the Milwaukee Estuary, click here.

Results indicate the presence of PFAS compounds in sediment and all surface water samples taken in the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern. PFBA (Perfluorobutanoate) was found in 100% of the surface water samples. PFBA is considered less toxic than the more widely studied compounds PFOA (Perfluorooctanoate) and PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonate).

Thirteen locations in the Milwaukee, Menomonee, Kinnickinnic Rivers and inner and outer harbors, as well as one location in Lake Michigan, were sampled for 35 PFAS compounds. This watershed is the most urban watershed in the state of Wisconsin with approximately 90% of the area considered urban.

Remedial Action Plan

In 1991, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WIDNR) developed a Remedial Action Plan for the Milwaukee Estuary AOC.

The main priorities for the Milwaukee Estuary AOC include:

  • remediation of contaminated sediments in tributaries and nearshore waters of Lake Michigan;
  • nonpoint source pollution control;
  • improving water quality for recreation; and
  • enhancing fish and wildlife habitat and populations.

Why This Matters

PFAS are a human health hazard.  Eating fish, or drinking water contaminated with PFAS is not a good idea.  The WIDNR is currently awaiting test results on fish collected in the Milwaukee Estuary.  The current DNR fish consumption advisory can be found by clicking here.  Continue to monitor the DNR site for results of the fish sampling conducted in the Milwaukee Estuary.

Posted in Great Lakes Areas of Concern, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, PFAS, PFAS compounds | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Elevated PFAS Levels Found in Dane County (WI) Regional Airport Stormwater Runoff

MADISON,  WI–May 8, 2020

Dane County (Wisconsin) has announced new test results that show that water draining from the Dane County Regional Airport (Madison) contains harmful PFAS compounds at thousands of times the concentrations considered safe by other states.

Samples were taken from 23 separate outfalls or drainage outlets around the airport. The outfalls drain into Starkweather Creek which in turn drains into Lake Monona in the City of Madison.

Previous sampling had revealed PFAS in both water draining into Starkweather Creek and in the creek water itself.

Water from 12 of the outfalls had levels of one such compound, PFOS, which tends to accumulate in fish, that exceeded the 12 parts per trillion limit set by Michigan, one of the few states to adopt PFAS standards for surface water.

One site had a PFOS concentration of 17,500 parts per trillion; another had a concentration of 2,220 ppt. According to the Dane County report published in the Wisconsin State Journal (May 7, 2020.).

The report did not list specific test results, locations, or methodologies. The on-going cleanup and investigation have been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.


Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1950s. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) are the most widely produced and studied of these chemicals.

Although some of these substances have been phased out of production, such as those through the PFOA stewardship program, they may still be found in everyday consumer products, such as some grease-resistant paper, nonstick cookware, stain resistant fabrics, cleaning products, and other personal care products like shampoo and nail polish, according to information on the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website.

Why This Matters

PFAS are a public health issue.
For starters, PFAS are probably in your drinking water. They are almost certainly in your bloodstream. PFAS compounds have been found in fish taken from Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona

Madison’s water supply now comes partly from its aquifer and partly from its lakes, such as Lake Monona. This is so because Madison’s groundwater has been so depleted that lake water now drains into the groundwater aquifer, meaning that contaminants in lake water subsequently contaminate drinking water.

“Most people in the US have PFAS in their blood, similar to the low levels observed in blood for other industrial compound classes like flame retardants and plasticizers.”

Science is still learning about the health effects of PFAS. For a detailed discussion check out the Wisconsin Department of Health Services wetbsite:

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WIDNR) has issued a fish consumption advisory for elevated PFOS levels in Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona.

Posted in fluorinated foam, Groundwater, PFAS, PFAS compounds, Starkweather Creek, Water quality in Madison | Tagged | Leave a comment

Inspiring Restoration Story from New Zealand

Hugh Wilson, a New Zealand botanist, has spent 30 years regenerating a native forest on degraded farmland on New Zealand’s South Island. Hugh has worked his regeneration magic in the Hinewai Nature Reserve, on the Banks Peninsula, on the Atlantic side of the South Island.

Hugh Wilson’s work is showcased in a 30-minute documentary titled: “Fools and Dreamers: Regenerating a Native Forest”. Click here to view the video.

Hugh’s land, like that of his farmer neighbors, had been overtaken by gorse ( Ulex europaeus), a weedy shrub native to Europe that has been introduced into many other parts of the world. Gorse has become a widespread pest plant in disturbed lands in New Zealand. Learn more about gorse by clicking here.

When, in 1987, Hugh first set out to restore the native New Zealand forest, his neighbors labeled him a “fool and dreamer” for his intention to let the gorse grow while he used it as a nurse crop for the native forest species he knew would reclaim the land. Hugh has since won over the local community and has been declared a local and national hero. He now oversees 1500 hectares of “resplendent native forest.”

Hugh uses the regeneration approach which does little planting of native species and uses a “light hand” to encourage native species to move in.  Hugh does a wonderful job of explaining how his approach works.

The film is well done and tells an inspiring story of thirty years of dedicated hard work. Hugh is an appealing character and dispenses much wisdom about restoration, how to live creatively, and lightly on the land in the modern world.


Posted in Ecological restoration, Restoration ecology | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Ecological Restoration Is Needed, Now More Than Ever

Our Planet is dealing with three worldwide emergencies at once:

The coronavirus pandemic, global climate disruption, and mass extinction of species.  Each of these emergencies by itself is an existential threat to the planet, humanity, and the rest of the species that call Earth home.

So far, these problems appear to be distinct, but with impacts similar in scope and scale. We do know that the global climate disruption is influencing species extinctions. However, if all three threats somehow begin to work together to exacerbate the effects of one another, in a synergistic way, the consequences are beyond comprehension. Such an outcome could push us into distraction and paralysis–just at the time when we all need to be working to help save our communities and the Earth.

Time to Stay Focused and Engaged

Now is not the time to give up. We all need to stay engaged and focused on prevention, restoration, and civic engagement.

We need to stay healthy, don’t panic, and remain focused on our work. That is to say, stay in the game so that we can continue–even ramp up–our ecological restoration work, help others, and continue to be engaged–although at a distance–in our community and civic improvement projects.

To do this we need to heed the advice of medical experts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Dr. Anthony Fauci: don’t panic, wash our hands frequently, maintain a safe distance from others, avoid large gatherings, and don’t go out in public if you are ill.

Is Working Outdoors During the Pandemic Safe?

Of course it is, if you are careful and follow guidelines about social distancing, etc. Being outdoors with fresh air and breezes and with room to maintain social distancing is a great way to do good works and maybe also get some much-needed productive distraction. As the US Surgeon General said today, (Thursday 03.19.20) “Social distancing does not have to mean social disengagement.”

On a similar note, in a message today from Scott Fulton, the president and acting executive director of The Prairie Enthusiasts, he urged members to continue their engagement with restoration projects:

“During these difficult times of “social distancing” and isolation, safe ways for maintaining community contact and getting outdoors into nature are more important than ever.  Outdoor events such as burns, work parties and field trips appear to be low risk, as they are not in confined spaces and have relatively small numbers of people who can easily maintain the recommended 6-foot distance. We suggest that these events be continued wherever possible.”

If you don’t feel confident being in a group of any size right now, that’s understandable and respected. Instead, spend your outdoor time on your own working in your garden–or that of a neighbor–by increasing the number and diversity of native plants. Create a pollinator garden in a spare corner; improve overall bird habitat in your yard; pull invasive pest plants; plant more milkweed and nectar plants for the monarchs and other butterflies that will be returning soon.

We Need to Live Up to the Moment We Are In

Other restorative acts that are also important include those volunteer efforts that help strengthen civic communities. Examples include checking in on neighbors to assess their health and needs. Offer to pick up groceries or meals or prescriptions for them or do odd jobs around the house. You can think of other such acts of kindness. Simple things, but ones that will help hold us together in these tough times.

All these words are based upon the coronavirus situation as we know it on March 18, 2020. The situation is likely to change quickly and, as Dr. Fauci said, “will get much worse, before it gets better.”, thus perhaps rendering the above recommendations mute.

Posted in Restoration ecology | 1 Comment

Vanishing Natural Areas

If it seems to you that there are fewer forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural places than there were a few years ago, you would be right. And if you think there is a lot more areas in need of restoration, then you would also be right—and distressingly so.

A report issued last year describes the situation: “The United States is quietly losing its remaining forests, grasslands, deserts, and natural places at a blistering pace. Every 30 seconds, a football field worth of America’s natural areas disappears to roads, houses, pipelines, and other development.1”, according to a report issued in August 2019 by the Center for American Progress (CAP).

You can do the math to calculate how many acres of natural areas have been lost since the report came out, but you better be sitting down while you run the numbers.

The estimate is based upon a report that the Center for American Progress (CAP) commission from a non-profit group of scientists, the Conservation Science Partners (CSP)

“The scientific team at CSP found that human activities are causing the persistent and rapid loss of America’s natural areas. The human footprint in the continental United States grew by more than 24 million acres from 2001 to 2017—equivalent to the loss of roughly a football field worth of natural area every 30 seconds. The South and Midwest experienced the steepest losses of natural area in this period; the footprints of cities, farms, roads, power plants, and other human development in these two regions grew to cover 47 percent and 59 percent of all land area, respectively. If national trends continue, a South Dakota-sized expanse of forests, wetlands, and wild places in the continental United States will disappear by 2050.6.”

This is an alarming report
Think about the conclusions for a minute. The US has lost not just 24 million acres, and counting, but also the biodiversity that the land nurtured; the ecosystems services of the lost prairies, wetlands, and woodlands; the birds and other wildlife that inhabited the former natural area; the cushion against climate disruption provided by the vast carbon sinks of prairies and forests; the environmental protections protections against flooding and contaminants provided by wetlands.

Possibly the worst and most regrettable consequences are that we are loosing not only our natural heritage, but also the raw materials of restoration—the land and flora and fauna we work with. And with these losses goes the the potential for restoring the destroyed natural areas. As restorationists, we all know how difficult and nearly impossible it is to restore an acre of land under the best of circumstances. Can you imagine the magnitude of the task without the natural ingredients or reference systems?

30 X 30 Proposal
The CAP-commissioned study has spurred the organization to support a plan to encourage the United States to set aside and protect 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030. The plan is called 30X30 and is based upon a Senate resolution (30 X 30 Resolution to Save Nature) introduced on October 22, 2019 by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). The resolution is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Warren (D-Mass.). Note that several current 2020 presidential candidates (Bennet, Booker, Harris, and Warren) co-sponsored the bill.

Sen. Bennet said in support of the proposal: “We can’t address climate change without focusing on conservation,” said Bennet. “Committing to conserving 30 percent of America’s land and oceans by 2030 is exactly the kind of ambitious strategy we need to protect our wildlife and lands, and tackle this urgent crisis. Setting an aggressive, tangible conservation and climate goal has been a long-standing priority of mine, and I could not have asked for a better partner to advance this legislation. That’s why I am thrilled to be leading this resolution with Senator Udall today.”

The press release from Sen. Udall’s office announcing the 30 X 30 Proposal can be found here.

The Center for American Progress report offers eight guiding principles that should be employed in support of the 30 X 30 effort. Featured prominently is ecological restoration.

  1. “The restoration of degraded lands and coasts will be critical to achieving 30X30. Logging, mining, development, and other activities have left many ecosystems in a degraded state. For example, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that between 65 million and 82 million acres of national forest lands require restoration, and the amount of necessary restoration on other public and private lands is certainly much higher.32 On the coasts, much restoration work such as salt marsh and dune restoration is caught in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ $98 billion backlog of unfunded projects.33 Restoration work is essential to bolstering both the quantity and quality of protected lands in the United States.”

Lots of Conservation and Restoration To Do In the Midwest
You can see in the chart above that the United States midwest region has suffered the greatest loss of natural areas in the country: 7.7 million acres, or 59.4% of the total land area in the region. This means that as restorationists we have plenty of work to do. We need to pick up the pace of restoration–we need to restore more acres faster.

These lose of 24 million acres, and counting means, that as conservationists, we need to begin purchasing, setting aside, or otherwise preserving natural areas before they are destroyed. Any open, green area, has great potential and importance; no area is too small or too degraded to be set aside as open space. If this conservation-first approach means that we can’t do the quality and quantity of restoration that we are accustomed to right away, then so be it. But at least the land will be set aside in safe hands until we have the time and resources to get down to restoration.

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Some Winter Scenes from the Springs

The snow is deep. The lake is iced over. The springs flow on.

Stevens Spring is barely a trickle but the warmth of the ground water and its radiant heat seems to be enough to keep the immediate stream channel free of snow.

Stevens Pond, mostly frozen but for where the spring flow enters.

Down at the springs this afternoon, all was quiet, except for the bubbling and trickle of spring flow and the territorial calls of the northern cardinals, who have just begun to sing in the early morning. I heard the neighborhood cardinal for the first time this winter at just before 8am this morning. The timing of the cardinal’s song tracts the lengthening days, with the chorus starting earlier each day.

It seems the cardinal is the first to call each morning, followed by the black-capped chicadee and then the American robin. No robins were seen this afternoon but I suspect they are across Lake Wingra at the Arboretum’s Big Spring with the abundant berry supply on buckthorn trees.

Whitetail deer tracks

Raccoons, and whitetail deer–along with squirrels, rabbits, and the rare possum–frequent the springs area because of the abundant food, shelter, and freshwater supply. I did not see any deer this afternoon but their tracks were everywhere, leading from the springs to the conifers in the nearby horticultural garden, and then on to residential gardens with their lush plantings of evergreens in the Nakoma neighborhood.

Springs are embedded in complex ecosystems, comprised of various plant community types. Above we see a cattail marsh, open water, shrub carr, ( a type of shrub meadow), lowland floodplain forest; nearby is sedge meadow, fen, and Lake Wingra itself.

The springs with their up-welling groundwater, coming from some deep, unknown and unknowable place, are themselves magical. Beyond that, the environment of the springs is a keyhole view into the past; perhaps the nearest we can approach to an imagining of what the undisturbed landscape looked like and how it functioned. An irreplaceable resource.

Posted in Cattails, Nakoma Neighborhood, Springs | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Gorham Springs of Lake Wingra (aka Duck Pond Springs)

Gorham Springs (akaThe Duck Pond) University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Photo by Stephen B. Glass

A natural flowing spring is both an event and a precise location.  A spring is an upwelling of groundwater and also the physical spot on the Earth’s surface where the sometimes ancient groundwater—a message from the past—meets the modern-day world.

A spring is an historic artifact in the landscapes’ memory bank;  a spot where one can catch a fleeting glimpse the undisturbed past—the primordial Earth—as it rushes out into the transformed world. 

One such spot in the Lake Wingra Watershed is the set of five springs, or springlets, located in the University of Wisconsin Madison Arboretum, at the bend in Nakoma Road south of the intersection where Nakoma Road and Odana Road become Monroe Street  (Noland, 1950) This set of springs has been known over the years as Gorham Spring, Spring Trail Pond, or the Duck Pond Spring.

This location may be familiar to long-time Madison residents as being across Nakoma Road from the old Spring Grove Tavern (now a private residence), a stop on an original stage coach line.  The tavern provided lodging and refreshments for travelers before they made the final, day-long trip into downtown Madison.

The Hydrology

The springs emerge from beneath a rock outcrop and flow into a widened area known as the Duck Pond (because of the year-round resident population of mallards) then over a small dam into Gorham Creek and through the West Marsh and into Lake Wingra.

The Lake Wingra springs have long been studied by hydrologists and the set of springs are thus known by the designations of various researchers as: 1) Sp 2a in the 1983 report by Pennequin and Anderson (1981) on The Groundwater Budget of Lake Wingra, Dane County, Wisconsin”, and 2) as Dn 6 Sp (Dane County Spring #6 in the 1975 report on the “Hydrology of the Lake Wingra Basin, Dane County, Wisconsin” by Oakes, Hendrickson, and Zuehls.

The history of the Lake Wingra Watershed, and it’s springs in particular, is recorded in an early history of the Arboretum (Sachse, 1975) and in W.E.Noland’s 1950 study of the “Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra.”


A non-migratory population of the common mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) has resided at the Duck Pond for many years, taking advantage of the warm spring water that keeps the Duck Pond open year round. Year-round residence of the mallards is encouraged also by area neighbors—especially one particular residence on Spring Trail Road—that believe they are doing the ducks a favor by providing food.  This feeding practice at the top of Spring Trail Road has led to the deaths by vehicle of numerous mallards as they cross busy Nakoma Road on foot; using a slow waddle instead of flight to get to the spread corn. The mallard parade across Nakoma Road also causes periodic rush-hour “duck jams” as traffic comes to a stop to allow the birds to get safely to the other side.

Other common, year-round resident bird species include species that frequent urban areas such as Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chicadee, Kingfisher, White-breasted nuthatch, and Downy, and Hairy woodpeckers.

Social & Cultural History

According to Nancy Sachse (1974, page 47-48) early historian of the Arboretum, 

“The Mandan Realty Company had created Spring Trail Park from 1.5 acres which included one of the best natural springs.  The steam was widened to form a duck pond and Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to design stone wall and entrance for this area as well as for the old Spring Grove Tavern, which remained (now a private residence) across Nakoma Road.”

Sachse (1965) goes on to recount how this original park plus 30 acres of adjoining marsh became one of the first parcels to become part of the Arboretum.  The donation made possible by the Madison Realty Company, whose president, Judge Edmund Ray Stevens sat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Another member of the court, according to Sachse, was one Paul E. Stark, a Madison realtor and member of the Arboretum Advisory Committee.

The Lost Henderson Farm

An interpretive sign in the UW-Madison Arboretum explaining the story of the Henderson Farm and the murders of Walter and Allen Henderson. Sign is at the T5 Trail intersection in the NE corner of the Grady Tract.

Among Madison’s prominent citizens were many African American families who began moving from the southern U.S.  to Dane County and Madison as early as the 1850’s (Simms 2018).  Newly-arrived African Americans were small-business people, cooks, cleaners, barbers, and farmers.

Notley Henderson was part of the northward migration after the Civil War.  Henderson  moved from Kentucky in the late 1960’s (Simms, 2018).  Henderson worked as a farm hand and in the late 1880’s had earned enough money to marry Martha and buy a farmstead.  Henderson’s land was located on the northern portion of what is now the current Grady Tract of the UW-Madison Arboretum but was at the time on the southern outskirts of the Arboretum.   The Arboretum has installed an interpretive sign near the site of the Henderson farm.

Unfortunately, Notley Henderson’s son Allen and Allen’s son Walter were both shot and killed on March 5, 1927 by one Charles Nelson (according to both Simms (2018) and Arboretum research and interpretive materials.).  Walter’s body was found in a section of woods along Nakoma Road;  Allen Henderson was next and was shot at his farm. 

Charles Nelson, “a former mental patient and son of a local real estate developer, shot himself when approached by officials.” (Simms, 2018)  

The Henderson’s, unable to support themselves, lost their farm soon after the murders and moved into downtown Madison (Simms, 2018).

The Mystery of the Henderson Murders

The double-murder of the Hendersons is related to the springs only in so far as the body of Walter Henderson was tossed into the woods along Nakoma Road, at an unknown spot that was probably not too far from the Duck Pond Springs.

There are several unanswered questions about the Henderson murders.  One,  where exactly, was the Henderson body dumped?  Two, why was the body hauled three to four miles up Seminole Highway and Nakoma Road to dump it in a wooded area along Nakoma Road?   

I don’t know the answer to the second question but one possible answer to the first is somewhere near the springs and most likely the Duck Pond Springs.

This is just speculation but is a reasonable guess because Nakoma Road is not a long street; there are not many wooded lots along it; and an easily-accessibly spot with a wooded area, would have been the Duck Pond Springs—close to the road and all that.


Noland, W.E. 1950. The Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters, Madison, WI.

Oakes, E.L., G.E. Hendrickson, and E.E.Zuehls, Hudrology of the Lake Wingra Basin, Dane County, WI., U.S. Geological Survey, Madison, WI.

Pennequin, D.F. and M.P. Anderson. 1981. The Groundwater Budget of Lake Wingra, Dane County, Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Water Resources Center. Madison, WI

Sachse, Nancy.  1965.  A Thousand Ages.  Board of Regents of The University of Wisconsin.

Simms. Muriel.  2018.  Settlin’, Stories of Madison’s Early African American Families.  Wisconsin Historical Press.  Madison, WI

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The Council Spring and Dancing Sands Springs

Remnants of A Former World

One of my favorite spring locations in the Lake Wingra watershed is the Council Spring, and the nearby Dancing Sands Spring on the north shore of Lake Wingra, above the Ho-Nee-Um pond in the UW-Madison Arboretum.  

This is where I go to reconnect with the Lake Wingra Watershed, to visualize what it used to be, and to imagine how the Native Americans interacted with and cared for their home. This spot has a long history of human habitation and by closely reading the landscape, one can notice the additions: the Ho-Nee-Um Pond dredged in the late 1930’s, the storm sewer pipes emptying into the pond, and the council ring itself.

The subtractions include the effigy mound complex that once overlooked Lake Wingra from where Wingra School now sits, and the springs that have dried up or been built over.

The Council Spring, flowing south towards Lake Wingra.

The Council Ring and its Springs

Located south and east of Arbor Drive and Monroe Street, the Council Spring flows out from the base of a rock outcrop just below the Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring.  Nearby, just to the south west is Dancing Sands Spring (aka Ho-Nee-Um Spring).  As the name suggests this spring emerges directly onto the surface through a bed of marl and sand, causing the sand to appear to dance as it flows towards the lake, as it has done for millennia.  The two springs, which merge and flow into Ho-Nee-Um Pond before they enter the lake, are known collectively as Marston, Topp, or Lime Kiln Spring (Noland, 1950).   

The Council Spring and Dancing Sands Springs, are also known, more scientifically, as Spring #6 in the recent statewide survey of springs in Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.  Click here for the survey results.

The famed landscape architect Jen Jensen designed and built the council ring—for “intimate and reflective gatherings” (Birmingham, 2010)—to serve as a memorial for Jensen’s grandson, a landscape architect student at the UW who died on the eve of his graduation (Sache, 1965).

The Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring perched above the Council Spring. One of the large open-grown oaks that shaded the council ring recently topped in a storm.

The Council Spring flows magically to the surface from underneath the Council Ring, emerging from a crack in a rock outcrop which seems to be part of the Council Ring itself. Standing in the center of the Council Ring, one can almost hear and feel the upwelling groundwater beneath ones’ feet.

Like most springs, the Council Spring has a flow rate that varies throughout the year. Flow rates in gallons per minutes that were measured a few years ago show a range from 82 gallons per minutes to high of 512 gallons per minute. The nearby Dancing Sands Spring had flow rates at the same time of from 16 to 90 gallons per minute.Lake Wingra Hydrology

These are just two of the 13 or so Lake Wingra springs that remain from the over 30 that existed at the time of European settlement.  Lake Wingra was, at the time of European contact, a spring-fed lake with a year-round fairly-constant flow of clear, cold, hard water.  This spring-flow  provided the lake with the majority of its water; the remaining water coming from direct precipitation  (rain and snow) and some overland flow.  This was its hydrology; that is, the amount, timing, and duration of water flow.

Today, the hydrologic situation has been reversed, with Lake Wingra receiving only about one-third of its water from springs, the rest of its water coming from rainfall, snowmelt, and stormwater that enters the lake through the storm drains that ring its perimeter.  Or, as Noland said: the lake receives “an irregular flow of  . . . rain water containing the dissolved and suspended dirt and oil of city streets” (Noland, 1950.). However, the list of pollutants entering Lake Wingra and the other Madison lakes today is much longer and more toxic than in Noland’s day.  The contaminants include a variety of heavy metals, petroleum products, and herbicides and pesticides.

Like most springs, the Council Spring has a flow rate that varies throughout the year. Flow rates in gallons per minutes that were measured a few years ago show a range from 82 gallons per minutes to high of 512 gallons per minute. The nearby Dancing Sands Spring had flow rates at the same time of from 16 to 90 gallons per minute.

Lake of Sacred Springs

In addition to the large number of natural springs around Lake Wingra, the watershed also was home to a huge number of Native American effigy and burial mounds (Birmingham, 2010) which were chiefly associated with the springs, making the area unique in the world for its co-occurance  of springs and nearby effigy mounds.  Birmingham (2010) in his excellent book “Spirits of Earth, The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes (2010) describes Lake Wingra The Lake of Sacred Springs.” 

(Each of Madison’s four lakes, Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa, and Waubesa has their own mound groupings which are discussed by Birmingham but here we are just focused on the Wingra groupings.)

Like the springs, many effigy mounds were destroyed by European settlers, so the best remaining example of the mound/spring association is found in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum,  which preserves the Lake Forest #1 mound group in Wingra Woods atop a glacial moraine, and the associated West Spring, Big Spring, and White Clay Spring below near the lakeshore.

The former Wingra Mound Grouping, high above the Council and Dancing Sands Springs, where now sits the Wingra School on Monroe Street, once illustrated the close connection between springs and effigy mound groups (Birmingham, 2010).

Another former mound group once graced a section of the current Monroe Street business district where the University of Wisconsin Press has its offices.

Remnants of other mound groups can today be found at Forest Hill Cemetery, the Edgewood College Campus, Vilas Circle Park, with its Bear Mound, and in Vilas Park itself.

The springs are special, sacred, and quiet places. Most are protected on public land and those are being well cared for. They are worth a visit, especially in winter when, sometimes on a very cold morning, the steam from the warm ground water wafts across the snowy landscape.

The Council Spring flowing towards Lake Wingra.


Birmingham, Robert A.  2010.  Spirits of Earth, the effigy mound landscape of Madison and the four lakes.  University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, WI.

Noland, Wayland E. 1950. The Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Madison, WI.

Sachse, Nancy D.  1965.  A Thousand Ages,  Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.

Posted in Council Spring, Effigy Mounds, Four Lakes Region, Jens Jensen, Lake Wingra Watershed, Springs | Leave a comment