Endorsing An Ecological Restoration Mission to Restore Social, Racial, and Environmental Justice.

Basic Assumptions That Underlie Ecological Restoration

Like all undertakings in life, ecological restoration is based upon a number of  explicit and implicit assumptions.  This is not a complete list.  Not all restoration ecologists subscribe to all of these assumptions, nor, surprisingly, not everyone shares in this world view.

1.  One assumption that drives restoration is that many parts of Earth are damaged, destroyed, or missing.  As a result, the Earth’s natural capital (the total accumulation of the goods and services provided by global ecosystems) is diminished, to the detriment of the well-being of the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants.

2.  Further, restorationists assume that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems and their value to the world.  

3.  Thirdly, we also assume that some people  have some capacity to care for the planet and to repair the damaged parts of the Earth’s systems.

4.  People—except for neighborhood volunteers and local neighborhoods themselves—are not part of the restoration problem definition/solution.  Until recently ecological restoration confined itself to the repair of damaged plant an animal communities, with the occasional concession to local neighbors—frequently well-to-do white suburban neighborhoods.

5.  Restoration ecologists assume that our repair work can keep pace with environmental destruction all around us.  

6.  And, perhaps, the rest of the world will follow our example and quit messing up the environment, and pitch in to help out.

This is the basis upon which the global ecological restoration enterprise was founded and upon which it has thrives.

Restoration Contributions

Many desired restoration outcomes have been achieved across the globe in the past 85 years since the UW-Madison Arboretum and the restoration work in Australia began.   Restoration is a global efforts and the cumulative scale of the projects is impressive, but still tiny compared to the need; the achievement of restoration outcomes feels like swimming upstream to those doing the restoration.  It is exhilarating work but sometimes discouraging and it also creates a dilemma for restorationists—we work at the indulgence of those who cause the destruction; our work depends upon their continued wrecking of the earth.

Despite ecological restoration work around the globe, we are falling behind.  Our creative ecological work can’t keep up with the rate of destruction.  Why?

What’s Missing?

For one thing, restorationists, have sometimes been treating symptoms (drained wetlands, degraded prairies,) instead of the root causes of ecological damage which is human activities (mining, logging, commercial building, etc.)

Also missing is an explicit assumption that ecological restoration should benefit people—especially people of color, and civic communities—directly.

Ecological restoration should adopt a mission to repair our disintegrating cities;  to help our urban poor, assist the homeless, and the disenfranchised; ecological restoration should block the actions of predatory capitalist systems that pave over our farmland and natural areas before we an even think about restoring them.

As long as our fellow citizens and our communities suffer, are not free, and are not safe, then none of us will be healthy and none of us will be free and none of us safe, and the ecological damage will continue.

Things must change and restoration ecology is uniquely qualified to jump into the fray and help those already engaged in social and human services efforts.

We Need Some New, Additional Assumptions on Which Ecological Restoration Can Be Based.

Look around at the mess this country has  created and and you can see that ecological restoration’s  basic operating assumptions—while perhaps necessary at one time—are no longer sufficient in today’s world.  Before we can repair our nation’s damaged ecosystems, we must repair of our country’s social, racial,  cultural.  If you have any doubt about the need, look at the mass demonstrations across the country the past two weeks.  People in the streets are calling for social, racial, and environmental justice.

The SER Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles

The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) has a mission, vision, and guiding principles that address this issue head-on:  guidance.

“Across the globe, centuries of unsustainable activities have damaged the aquatic, marine, and terrestrial environments that underpin our economies and societies and give rise to a diversity of wildlife and plants. SER is dedicated to reversing this degradation and restoring the earth for the benefit of humans and nature.

Our Mission

SER advances the science, practice and policy of ecological restoration to sustain biodiversity, improve resilience in a changing climate, and re-establish an ecologically healthy relationship between nature and culture.

Our Vision

Ecological restoration becomes a fundamental component of conservation and sustainable development programs throughout the world by virtue of its inherent capacity to provide people with the opportunity to not only repair ecological damage, but also improve the human condition.

Our Guiding Principles

These underlying principles guide and inform our work:

  • Ecological restoration is an engaging and inclusive process. Restoration embraces the interrelationships between nature and culture, engages all sectors of society, and enables full and effective participation of indigenous, local and disenfranchised communities
  • Ecological restoration requires the integration of knowledge and practice. Science and other forms of knowledge are essential for designing, implementing and monitoring restoration projects and programs. At the same time, lessons learned from practical experiences are essential for determining and prioritizing the scientific needs of the field.
  • Ecological restoration is policy-relevant and essential. Restoration is a critical tool for achieving biodiversity conservation, mitigating and adapting to climate change, enhancing ecosystem services, fostering sustainable socioeconomic development, and improving human health and well-being.
  • Ecological restoration is practiced locally with global implications. Restoration takes place in all regions of the world, with local actions having regional and global benefits for nature and people.

“A Restoration Ethic”

Hull and Robertson (2000, “Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities.”)  suggest that by restoring damage to the Earth’s systems, we also enter into a relationship with the planet that helps repairs our connection to nature and our own communities, thereby increasing our own social  and personal capital.

This set of assumptions constitute what Hull and Robertson might call “ a restoration ethic”.   In their view, restoration blurs the distinction between culture and nature and opens up a broad  middle ground where it is acceptable for humans and nature to interact.

I would suggest we broaden the restoration ethic to include repairing our relationships with our fellow humans.

Examples of Direct Action

The SER guiding principles are excellent.  But I am suggesting that those in the discipline–both paid professionals and community volunteers–build upon them by taking direct action, on our own, in addition to our traditional ecological restoration work, to aid our communities, by, for example picking one of these suggestions for individual and community civic action.  Many of you, I know, are already doing one, or more, of these civic engagement strategies to great effect

Lend your expertise to start or working with a community garden in your area.

Teach people how to grow their own food.

Organize and lead efforts to restore and improve habitat in your neighborhood.

Work with a food bank or other community action non-profit.

Help with literacy programs in your area.

Find ways to fight poverty.

Help register people to vote in November 2020.

Join the governing board of a local non-profit.

Run for local political office.

Organize neighborhood clean-up efforts.

Join a local science-advisory board.

Offer your scientific or practical plant expertise to a local neighborhood-based restoration project.

Publish a news blog covering local news and events that are not covered by the local paper.  If there is no local paper, such an effort is even more important.

Help clean up a vacant lot and grow native plants in it.

Teach kids and neighbors how to identify plants and birds.

Help design and install residential rain gardens and/or pollinator gardens.

Human activities are the cause of environmental destruction.  Human activities are also the cause of the destruction of our cities, and their citizens. Only human activities c Gan reverse the damage we have done.

 We are where we are today as the direct result of the sum total of human activities throughout our existence and thus we are all complicit and we are all responsible for repairing the damage (Ghosh, 2016).   The vast disruption to, and outright destruction of, ecosystems, and the poisoning of the air, land, and water have presented restoration ecologists with vast challenges and opportunities and responsibilities.  Opportunities exist to attempt to reverse some of this damage; to save some small portion of the at-risk plants and animals, and to restore or recreate other small patches of prairie, savanna, coral reefs, and tropical forests.  But restoration of ecosystems is only half of the job; we have a responsibility to help repair our society..  Repair of our social and cultural systems is mandatory.   Without this effort, attempts at ecological restoration are irrelevant, meaningless, and futile.


Ghosh, Amitav. 2016.  The Great Derangement, climate change and the unthinkable.  Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Hull and Robertson (2000, “Conclusion: Which Nature” IN Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities, edited by P.H.Gobster and R.B. Hull, 299-307, Washington. DC Island Press

Posted in Basic assumptions of restoration ecology, Community-based restoration, Ecological restoration, Neighborhood restoration projects, Restoration ecology, Social Justice, Society for Ecological Restoration | 5 Comments

Edgewood Big Spring

Edgewood Big Spring aka Cadwallader Washburn Spring is located on the campus of Edgewood College just off the north shore of Lake Wingra, between Edgewood Drive and Lake Wingra.

On a recent morning I ventured down to the north shore of Lake Wingra, below the Edgewood College campus to revisit the Edgewood Big Spring. Also known as the Edgewood Deep Hole, I had not seen the spring in awhile and was curious to see how it was faring and this unusually warmish mid-November day was the perfect excuse to go exploring and photographing.

Also known as the Washburn Spring, the Big Spring/Deep Hole (Noland, 1951), is next to the Edgewood College boardwalk, along the Lake Wingra shoreline.  

I am fascinated by natural cold-water springs and like to spend time near them. The water I see bubbling up today may have traveled for years underground before it reaches the surface; this realization caused me to wonder about water’s underground route before it reached this point on Earth’s surface.

The cool, clear water of springs enters Lake Wingra year round and improves water quality and provides wildlife habitat. For this they are a precious natural resource, a window into the past, and a measure of how humans care for the landscape and water resources.

There used to be many more springs along the north shore of Lake Wingra before European settlement but most have been lost. The Big Spring or Deep Hole is one of the few known to remain. The spring is accessible from a narrow footpath below Edgewood Drive. The spring has a small seating area and is along a boardwalk that leads through the cattail marsh to the lake’s edge.

Noland reported in 1951 that by 1924 the spring produced “sufficient seepage” to keep the pool permanently filled with water. Today, in 2020, the spring appears to be about what Noland described in 1951–a deep pool, filled with groundwater seepage and with no apparent direct outlet to the lake. Perhaps there was, at one time, a stream channel running to Lake Wingra but today that route is not visible.

By the 1980’s and 1990’s the spring had become overgrown with brush, forgotten, and relegated to the annals of local history, until it was “re-observed” in 2000 by Edgewood College biology professor, Jim Lorman.  

A small sign commemorates the Washburn Spring. Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to the Native Americans (Ho-Chunk) who resided in the area before Washburn.

Names of Things

As I began composing images of the spring and gazing into the spring pool from the seating platform, I noticed a stream of walkers and runners go by on the pedestrian/bike only Edgewood Drive above. I wondered how many folks going by were aware of the lake and its springs?

As I stared into the spring pool trying to get just the right image, I keep thinking about how people claim–and place value on–things by naming them–plants, ideas, movements–and springs are no exception. I realized I did not know by what name(s) the Native Americans referred to the spring. I wondered if anyone knows the Native American name and questioned why–as with many aspects of our landscape and culture–the indigenous history has been erased and replaced with that of the dominant European culture.

Before me was a spring–on land stolen from Native Americans– with at least three different American names, but no known Native American names. Judging by the small (see photo above) Edgewood has settled on naming the spring after Cadwallader C. Washburn, a distinguished Wisconsin public official from the 1880’s.

Who Was Washburn?

In the early 2000’s Edgewood College built the boardwalk to the spring and through the marsh, bringing people right up to the edge of Lake Wingra. Also in the early 2000’s the Friends of Lake Wingra (FoLW) held a clean-up and restoration planting of Washburn Spring in which several species of native emergent wetland species were planted.

In the 1880’s Cadwallader C. Washburn–former Wisconsin representative and Wisconsin governor–resided in the mansion (now part of Edgewood College) perched above the lake. Washburn lined the spring with boulders and used it to raise trout.

Washburn was born in Maine, moved to Wisconsin where he set up a law practice in Mineral Point, served four terms in the US Congress and was elected governor of Wisconsin. To learn more about Washburn (1818- 1883) and his illustrious career, click here.

Washburn Spring in November, 2020.

Condition of Edgewood Big Spring/Deep Hole

Today, the spring appears to be in good condition. There is no sign of litter. Thanks to the boardwalk and viewing/seating deck there is no sign of human trails and resulting soil trampling. The spring pool surface is covered with lesser duckweed (Lemna minor), a native small floating aquatic plant which is among the world’s smallest flowering plants. At the water’s edge are various sedges and emergent flowering plants. In the summer native blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) blooms profusely. The spring appears to be free of watercress, an introduced aquatic pest plant which is common in many of the other springs around Lake Wingra.

Posted in Lake Wingra, Springs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Podcast Tour of Dancing Sands Spring from Unseen Madison

Dancing Sands Spring viewed from the boardwalk and looking toward Lake Wingra.

Dancing Sands Spring, just a few hundred yards from Monroe Street is a quiet refuge in the UW-Madison Arboretum. Emerging just southwest the Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring, the spring’s steady upwelling of sand, bubbles, and water is mesmerizing and soothing.

Dancing Sands has been given several names over the years, including: Ho-Nee-Um Spring, Marston, Topp, and Lime Kiln Spring (Noland, 1951). It is not known how the Native American (Ho-Chunk), who had encampments nearby, referred to the springs.

If you would like to learn more and get a first-hand account listen to Kathy Miner, Arboretum naturalist, and neighborhood resident talk about the Dancing Sands Spring, its natural history and explain its various names on this podcast from Unseen Madison.

Kathy Miner waxes poetic over the springs around Lake Wingra and especially Dancing Sands. She has license to do this because she is a published poet. Like all poets she is a keen observer and shares many of these observations in this six minute podcast from Unseen Madison. Unseen Madison, exploring Madison beneath the surface is a project of Jeff Durbin and Gordon Heingartner.

The sand boils that create the so-called “Dancing Sands” are in the lower center of the image.

The Dancing Sands Spring is a seepage/filtration type of spring (discharging directly to the soil surface) as compared with its neighboring spring, the Council Ring Spring which is a fractured rock type of spring which emerges through fractured bedrock (Wisconsin Geologic and Natural History Survey.)

Close up of the sand boils of this seepage/filtration type of spring.

Dancing Sands does not appear to produce a great volume of spring water but it flows continuously throughout the year. The volume of its groundwater discharge–measured in gallons per min (gpm)–varies throughout the year and from year to year. When the flow volume of Dancing Sands was being measured from 2007 until 2011, it varied from a low of 11 gpm to a high of 90 gpm with an average flow rate of 40.21 gpm over five years.

The nearby Council Ring Springs also has a continuous but variable flow. Over the same time period of 2007 to 2011, the Council Ring Spring flow rate varied from a low of 82 gpm to a high of 512 gpm with an average rate of 205.23 gpm over five years.

The streams formed by Council Ring Spring and Dancing Sands join and form a large pool just before they enter Ho-Nee-Um Pond. The local beaver population takes periodic advantage of this juncture to build a dam.

Again, to hear Kathy Miner talk about Dancing Sands, click here. Use the waning days of autumn to visit Dancing Sands and the Council Ring Spring, in the Arboretum just a few steps from the intersection of Monroe Street and Arbor Drive. Please use the nice boardwalk and large stepping stones to avoid compacting soil and getting your feet wet.


Noland, W.E. 1951. The Hydrography, Fish and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters, Madison, WI.

Unseen Madison

Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, Springs in Wisconsin

Posted in Council Spring, Dancing Sands Spring, Groundwater, Lake Wingra, Lake Wingra Watershed | Leave a comment

America’s Long National Nightmare Is Over!

Good luck Joe and Kamala. The country is with you.

Posted in Restoration ecology | Leave a comment

The Greene Prairie Spring Still Flows, Barely

UW-Madison Arboretum Madison, WI

Many years ago–in the 1940’s and 1950’s–when Henry C. Greene was planting the prairie restoration project that now bears his name, he hauled, from a nearby spring, buckets full of water to tend thousands of newly-planted prairie grasses and forbs.  

Greene Prairie became the world’s second prairie restoration– Curtis Prairie being the first–and is today regarded as an unequaled achievement of ecological healing. The spring from which Greene drew his water also continues to discharge groundwater flow–although at a greatly reduced rate–and is hidden in plain sight, nestled in a shrub thicket on the edge of the prairie.

Greene worked on his prairie planting in near isolation and almost single handedly created a restoration masterpiece.   Greene preferred to work alone and only allowed  trusted individuals—such as the famed Wisconsin ecologist James Zimmerman to help him.  By 1951 Greene had hand planted over 12,000 seedlings representing 133 species (Court 2012, Sachse, 1965). To learn more about Greene Prairie, click here.

The Greene Prairie spring from which Henry C. Greene drew water to care for the thousands of plants that he used to create Greene Prairie is to be found in a shrub thicket like this one..

History of Greene Prairie Spring

Little is known of the history of the Greene Prairie spring, nor of the stone well-housing that surrounds it. I have not found any information that would suggest when, or by whom the cobble stone surround was built.

One can assume that the spring once had a much greater flow rate than currently.  One piece of evidence for this is the width and depth of the spring surround—approximately 3’ wide and 3’ deep.  Another suggestion that the spring once had a greater discharge is that over many years Henry C. Greene hauled countless buckets of water from the spring across the vastness of the prairie restoration to tend his plants.  One can assume that the spring and its channel contained enough water to fill Greene’s buckets.

The stone surround of the Greene Prairie spring.

Before Greene’s time the spring was perhaps used by Native Americans and by early white settlers, such as the Grady’s, and the Bartlett’s or by Notley Henderson, a free Black farmer who settled just before the Civil War on what is now known as the Grady Tract. 

Notely Henderson is reported to have worked for Seth Bartlett, who owned a farm on what is now the north side of the Arboretum’s Grady Tract. Notely earned enough to purchase his own farm nearby.

Notley and Martha Henderson’s son Allen and his sons Paul and Walter kept the farm going through the years scratching out a living growing vegetables and raising chickens on the poor, sandy soil.  The Henderson’s eventually lost the farm after Charlle  Nelson, a while man, shot and killed father and son: Allen and Walter in 1927 (Simms, 2018, p. 10.)

Surface and Groundwater Resources Under Pressure from Urban Expansion

Greene Prairie is in the Upper Sugar River watershed, an area of southwestern Dane County that has changed dramatically since Greene’s time.  The Upper Sugar River watershed includes the cities of Fitchburg and Verona, the towns of Paoli, Basco and  Riley and the Village of Belleville on the south.   The Upper Sugar River watershed runs north to Pine Bluff and west to Mt. Horeb.  This is an area of great urban expansion and increased water use.  The Sugar River drains into the Rock River. To read more about the Upper and Lower Sugar River watersheds, click here

A recent report from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WIDNR) discusses the pressures on the surface and groundwater resources of the Sugar River watersheds. It says in part:

“The Upper Sugar River watershed lies in southwestern Dane County. The only permitted wastewater treatment facility discharging to the stream is in Verona, although a portion of the southwest side of Madison is also in the watershed. The area around Verona and Madison is experiencing rapid urban development. This puts pressure on both surface water and groundwater resources in the watershed.”

“A major water resource concern is the diversion of groundwater from the Sugar River basin to the Lower Rock River basin. This is the result of the city of Madison groundwater pumpage on the city’s southwest side for public water supply and subsequent treatment of wastewater at Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District Nine Springs facility.”

For the full report, click here.

The Spring Today

Today Greene’s Spring is little more of a “seep”, accumulating water on the surface that amounts to a mere puddle most of the time.   The seeping spring water is covered in layers of fallen leaves that fill both the well area and the spring channel.

Today, the Greene Prairie spring is barely more than a puddle formed by groundwater seepage.

These days, after a heavy rain or extended wet period the well housing accumulates standing water and if the local groundwater level is higher, the spring will have a greater discharge rate and a noticeable spring channel.


Court, Frank. 2012 Pioneers of Ecological Restoration, The People and The Legacy of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI

Sachse, Nancy D., 1965. A Thousand Ages. University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Madison, WI

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

Posted in Groundwater, Springs | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Marshland Creek

Marshland Creek seepage/filtratration spring area, looking north from Arboretum Drive towards Lake Wingra,

Marshland Creek in the UW-Madison Arboretum is not often recognized as the important groundwater discharge (spring) area that it is. However, the creek is a major tributary to Lake Wingra, contributing  an intermingling of both natural spring water and polluted urban stormwater runoff to Lake Wingra.

Marshland Creek flows north from Curtis Prairie and the Teal Pond wetlands, crosses under Arboretum Drive (through a stormwater culvert) at the big bend in the road on the east side of Wingra Woods.  From there, it flows northward where Marshland Creek becomes a large marshy area as it passes through an extensive groundwater seepage/filtration area where an untold number of springlets discharge.

From Skunk Cabbage Bridge Marshland Creek swings northwest before it enters Lake Wingra (Noland, 1951).  Marshland Creek shows up as an un-named stream on a 1904 of the Lake Wingra watershed with its headwaters is in the marshy area known today as the Teal Pond Wetlands. See the current Marshland Creek sub-watershed–of the Lake Wingra watershed– outlined in yellow below.

Map of the Marshland Creek sub-watershed of the Lake Wingra watershed. Map image credit to UW-Madison Arboretum

Geologic and Hydrologic Setting

Natural springs in the Madison area “emerge from permeable sandstones near buried bedrock valleys.” Marshland Creek would be classified as a “seepage/filtration spring” by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History system.  Seepage/filtration springs are those where, “Ground water discharges from many small openings in permeable, unlithified material.”  (Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey report on springs.)

Noland described “the Teal Marsh as a large marsh, which is fed by drainage . . .”—presumably meaning a combination of direct precipitation, snow melt, some spring seepage, and overland runoff.

Today, the hydrology of the area is quite different, with a major contribution of storm water runoff from the built-up areas of Madison south of the Beltline HIghway that drains into Curtis Prairie and then on the Marshland Creek and ultimately flowing into Lake Wingra. See the diagram below of the storm water path through the Arboretum and the amounts of water entering the Arboretum.

This diagram, courtesy of the UW-Madison Arboretum shows the storm water ponds in the Arboretum and the stormwater flow path (yellow arrows). The orange arrows indicate stormwater amounts in acre-feet per year. An acre foot is the amount of water required to cover 1 acre of land with 1 foot of water. Each acre foot is equivalent to 326,000 gallons of water.

How Much Water Flows Through Marshland Creek?

The amount of water that emerges from a spring is known as the flow rate, usually measured in gallons per minute, or cubic feet per second.  It is easier to measure this flow rate from a discrete point source such as is found at the Council Spring or nearby Dancing Sands.  It is harder to make this measurement when the spring discharge is from dozens or more scattered seepages as is the case with Marshland Creek.  

I am not aware that the spring flow rate for Marshland Creek has been measured.   It could be done but would take great effort and expense.  The effort to obtain an approximation of the Marshland Creek springs discharge would require a flow meter reading in the stormwater culvert just below Arboretum Drive to measure stormwater flow as it enters the spring seepage area, and a second flow meter just under Skunk Cabbage Bridge as the water leaves the seepage area, to measure the combined stormwater and spring flow rates. Simple subtraction would yield an approximate spring flow rate for Marshland Creek.

The view of Marshland Creek from Skunk Cabbage Bridge as it flows northwest towards Lake Wingra.

The UW-Madison Arboretum’s own stormwater management plan of 2004 states that the Marshland Creek sub-watershed receives an estimated 42,380,000 gallons of storm water runoff each year.  See diagram stormwater ponds, direction of flow and storm water amounts below.

Why Not Infiltrate the Stormwater Rather Than Send it to the Lake?

The answer to the current situation is an engineering solution, not an ecological or restoration solution. It would have been better, ecologically and hydrologically, for the City engineers to have gone with a stormwater infiltration design. There were realistic and feasible infiltration solutions upstream of Curtis Prairie that were not utilized.

True, water flows downhill so some of the rainfall south of the Beltline Highway would have made its way into the Arboretum anyway and a smaller percentage might have even flowed on into Lake Wingra.  

But, not wanting to leave anything to chance, City of Madison storm water engineers have designed a stormwater conveyance system that carries as much stormwater as possible, as fast as possible, into the Arboretum and the larger Lake Wingra watershed.  Rather than encouraging infiltration and recharge of the groundwater, engineers have designed a system that directs into the Arboretum and eventually Lake Wingra, any precipitation that falls on Arbor Hills, or Waste Management, or the Beltline commercial.

This section of Marshland Creek, just beneath the Skunk Cabbage Bridge is an intermingling of natural spring water and stormwater runoff.
Skunk cabbage bridge gets its name from the native plant that emerges in late winter or very spring, sometimes while snow is still on the ground. Skunk cabbage grows in abundance in spring areas such as this where the soils are moist and there is flowing water.

Along with the stormwater comes sediment and eroded material, some of which settles out in the marshy area north of Arboretum Drive, covering some of the springlets.

Restoration Work in the Area

The Arboretum’s restoration staff has done considerable work in recent years in the area by removing unwanted pest plants such as honeysuckle (Lonicera x bella) and buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). The restoration work has also focused on thinning the tree canopy to let more light to the ground layer vegetation. The work has had the added benefit of improving the hydrology and water availability by reducing the amount of water taken up by the shrubs and trees.

Looking south towards Arboretum Drive from the footpath near Skunk Cabbage Bridge. The area has recently been cleared of pest plants and the forest canopy thinned.


Noland, Wayland E. 1951. The Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Madison, WI

Posted in Freshwater resources, Groundwater, Lake Wingra, Restoration ecology, Spring ephemerals, Springs | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Story of the Reappearance of a Lost Edgewood College Spring

New Millennium Spring (by Lorman) aka Big Fish Spring (by Noland)

In late December, in or about the year 2000, Jim Lorman–at the time a biology professor at Edgewood College–was riding his bike to work along the Lake Wingra shoreline. The lake was frozen, nothing unusual, he recounts, because the lake (in those days) always froze over by the end of December. There was never any open water that time of year–never in the 20 years he had been working at Edgewood College–except for this particular day when he noticed a large body of open water just off the Edgewood boardwalk.

Upon investigation Jim realized that he was probably seeing the rebirth of one of the long-lost springs along the Lake Wingra shoreline that Noland (1951) had mentioned in his classic study of Lake Wingra. Jim referred to it as New Millennium Spring in reference the impending turning of the new century.

Nolan (1951) reported that the Big Fish Spring was a large one but stopped flowing in about 1935.

It is worth noting that the Native American name for this spring— as well as the names for many other springs—are apparently unknown.

Lorman’s tale was captured by Unseen Madison, the local oral environmental and cultural history project. Click here to listen to Jim describe his discovery.


Noland, Wayland E. 1951 “The Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, Madison, WI

Posted in Lake Wingra, Lake Wingra Watershed, Springs | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lake Wingra Watershed

The Ho-Chunk called the lake Ki-chunk-och-hep-er-rah (“where the turtle rises up”).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_0330.jpg
Lake Wingra sunrise from the pier at Wingra Boats.

Lake Wingra is the smallest (and fifth lake) in the Madison, Wisconsin Four Lakes region.  The four major lakes, Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa, form a chain along the Yahara River, with Lake Wingra providing flow into Lake Monona.

Reportedly, “Wingra” is a Ho-Chung word meaning duck,  for the lake’s abundant waterfowl.  According to Robert A. Birmingham (2010) in his book “Spirits of Earth, The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes”, the Ho-Chunk also called the lake Ki-chunk-och-hep-er-rah (“where the turtle rises up”).

Lake Wingra is a headwater lake, meaning that it does not have any tributaries into it and, because of this, was considered by early settlers to be a “dead lake.”   However, because of the many natural springs, the Native Americans, according to Birmingham,  must have thought of it quite differently–“as a source of life itself.”

Prior to European settlement, ground water inputs, natural springflow, and direct precipitation (rain and snow) provided the majority of Lake Wingra’s water; currently surface runoff (stormwater) has replaced springflow as the primary source of Lake Wingra’s water.

The Lake Wingra watershed, totaling about 4525 acres (2056 hectares) in Dane County, Wisconsin is about 75% built up.  Urbanization, storm water runoff laden with pollutants and sediment, and reduced flow from natural springs have opened niches for aquatic and terrestrial pest species that have invaded the lake and surrounding wetlands and uplands.  These changes affect property values, diminish the recreational experiences we all enjoy, and threaten to lessen the educational and scientific value of the lake and watershed.

The unbuilt-upon-and-unpaved-portions of the watershed contain a mix of remnant, restored, partially restored and degraded wetlands, grasslands and woodlands.  These natural areas are in a larger landscape context of residential, commercial and industrial activity.  Major restoration challenges include impacts from land use and cover type changes, fragmentation of habitat,  altered hydrologic regimes and human overuse.

We normally think of the watershed in terms of surface water, or where the storm water flows.  The size and shape of this kind of  watershed is typically determined by topography and the layout of streets and roads.  But there is also an invisible watershed below ground–the groundwater boundary.  The figure linked below shows these two watersheds in the Lake Wingra basin.
Groundwater/Storm Water Boundaries

The Lake Wingra watershed has a long history of human occupation. Native Americans–most recently the Ho-Chunk–and European settlers valued the numerous natural springs–most of which have been obliterated–that surrounded the lake.   This blog is about the current and former springs of Lake Wingra and the resulting changes in the landscape since European settlement.

Early in the 20th Century large-scale disruption began when developers divided Lake Wingra’s eastern marsh in two and cut off it from the Lake by a residential development and Arboretum Drive.  Subsequently, they ditched, dredged, and filled the marshes.  For more perspective and detail see “about the lake and the watershed”, provided by the Friends of Lake Wingra

As the Cities of Madison and Fitchburg and the Town of Madison have grown up around the watershed, population growth, residential and commercial development and associated highways, utility lines and storm water conveyances have further fragmented and perforated the watershed.

In the end, human activities have replaced soft, permeable soil with roofs, roads,  and parking lots with the result that more storm water runoff enters the wetlands and lake and less water infiltrates into the soil.  Annually, an estimated 110 million cubic feet/year (nearly 823 million gallons) of storm water runoff flows into the Arboretum and on to the lake.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is duck-pond-springs1.jpg
The Gorham Springs (aka Duck Pond Springs) is actually a complex of springlets. The site is across busy Nakoma Road from the historic and former Spring Trail Tavern.

These land use changes have dramatically altered watershed hydrology.  Originally, the watershed had nearly 30 groundwater springs, mostly near the lake; today only about 13 survive, the rest having been lost to roads, houses, utility infrastructure, and groundwater pumping for Madison’s water supply

The social and cultural history of springs is fascinating because in them is a reflection  of how humans relate to, think about, are aware of, and treat the landscape.  Springs are where groundwater emerges to replenish wetlands, streams, and lakes.   Springs are important indicators of social and ecological health.  Springs are where impacts upon the land are felt.  We will explore the death and revival of Lake Wingra’s springs in this blog.  To learn more about Lake Wingra’s watershed management issues, checkout my Storm Water page or Pest Species page.

Posted in Restoration ecology | 2 Comments

Ecological Restoration More Important Now Than Ever. say scientists

The global importance and imperative of ecological restoration was recognized in three news items in the past few weeks.  In case you missed these stories, here are links to them.

Ecological Restoration Can Fight Climate Change

First, a new study in the journal Nature suggests that restoring ecosystems in a global, systematic, and targeted way would be an incredibly important and effective way to heal the world’s climate.

“In particular, forests, wetlands, and grasslands would benefit most from restoration — protecting just 30% of these priority areas could save the majority of mammals, amphibians, and birds under threat of extinction and would absorb about 565 billion tons of CO2, about half of the carbon dioxide that has been accumulating in the atmosphere since the industrial age.” , according to a summary of the article reported in Our Daily Planet

Four Reasons Restoration is Important

Next up is an article in The Conversation entitled “Four Reasons Why Restoring Nature Is the Most Important Endeavor of Our Time” by the ecologist Jake Robinson at the University of Sheffield.

HIs reasons include:

  1. Healthy soils help sustain life on Earth.
  2. Our relationship with nature is failing.
  3. Indigenous culture and knowledge is being lost.
  4. Human health is dependent upon ecosystem health.

The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Restoration Practices

Finally, Science Friday, the popular NPR science broadcast had a recent conversation about indigenous burning or cultural burning and stewardship practices could aid in ecological restoration. Listen to the broadcast here.

Posted in climate change, Ecological restoration, Restoration ecology | 2 Comments

Imagining a Different World

“Our world is on fire. The arsonists are in charge.  Liberals propose to tinker and return to a past that is gone for good.  The future belongs to the bold.”   

—Naomi Kline in a Tweet on 12.09.19.

To Save the Earth

The “liberals” to which Kline refers could include ecological restorationists, because the the discipline spent a good part of its early years engaged in ecological tinkering with the aim of restoring a lost world. More recently, many of us have come to realize that the mission of ecological restoration is really to restore the landscape of the future–imagining a different world.  Some of us are even linking social and environmental justice, and human rights as necessary components of the ecological restoration mission.

By citing “the bold”  Kline is encouraging  ecological restorationists and others in the conservation movement to get more actively involved in extinguishing “the fires” and putting “the arsonists” out of business. Kline is urging us to get busy with imaging and creating a different world–one of ecological sustainability, social harmony, and equal rights.

The Mission

To Save the Earth will take energetic ecological restoration and much more.  This is a time for the bold and the need for ecological restoration has never been greater.  Not only do we need the technical and scientific knowledge and skills of ecological restoration, but we also must adopt the assumptions about the world and values that infuse and inspire ecological restoration. 

Among the assumptions of restoration ecologists are that the Earth’s natural systems and resources have been damaged by human activity and that humans have the capacity and responsibility to repair the damage.  Ecological restoration values include: teamwork, humility, working in a collective fashion for the common good, and a desire to heal wounded ecosystems and societies.

Restoration ecologists can lead the way because we are already in the business of imagining a different, more diverse, and better functioning world; a world that is fair and equatable, full of healthy and diverse ecosystems and a safe home to all creatures.   But ecological restoration will have to change and enlarge its vision.  Until now, the work of ecological restorationists—I should know because I am one—has mostly been “tinkering” on small, isolated patches and yearning for a return “to a past that is gone for good.”  Now, we must imagine a different world, work to create the ecosystems and social-cultural systems of the future.  To do this we can’t work alone but must recruit others to help repair the Earth in the Time of the Pandemic, Global Climate Disruption, and  Environmental Meltdown.

The Problem

Since that warning by Kline just last year, the situation has only gotten worse and the seriousness of the world’s plight has come into sharper focus.  There is a crime against the world in progress and each of us are eye witnesses.

It seems as if we are watching the Earth’s obituary being written before our very eyes: 

In the summer of 2020 wildfires have devastated the American West—destroying homes, livelihoods, and entire towns.  California, Washington, and Oregon are especially suffering from the effects of climate disruption.  In other parts of the world the wildfire situation is equal, or worse.

In 2019 Australia experienced an unprecedented drought and a wildfire season like no other.   The Sydney Opera House and the waterfront skyline were hidden in a haze of smoke that stretched for miles up the coast.  Now officials fear that the cycle is about to repeat as the Southern Hemisphere enters spring.

The Brazilian Amazon is being deforested at a rapidly increasing rate—a 30% increase over last year and the highest rate since 2008.  Nearly 4000 square miles have been cut and burned to clear the land for soybeans and beef cattle since Jair Bolsonaro became president.

Experts predict that when 25-30% of the Amazon rainforest is lost, it will reach a tipping point and will begin to self-destruct and convert to savanna; right now estimates are that 17% of the forest is gone.  It may have already reached that tipping point.  We will know for sure only when it is too late.

In 2020 Brazil’s Pantanal, wetlands are experiencing their worst fire season in history.  Wildfires are also tearing across grasslands in Argentina.  Indonesia, the Arctic, northern Sweden, and Siberia are also in flames.  Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is dying as ocean waters warm and acidify.

Here at home in the U.S. the Trump administration has rolled back one environmental protection after another.   The White House just opened up vast new acreage in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to lease rights for oil and gas drilling, at the same time it puts the squeeze on endangered species like the sage grouse—actions that threaten to exacerbate the climate crisis.

In addition to these troubles, our Planet needs help because it is dealing with several other worldwide emergencies at once: The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over one million; the resulting collapse of the global economy which has exacerbated poverty and income inequalities; global climate disruption (with melting ice fields; rising sea levels, flooded cities, and increased frequency and severity of storms); large scale human migrations across the globe; and mass extinction of species. Each of these emergencies alone poses an existential threat but in combination the consequences are beyond comprehension, threatening to lock us into panicked inaction.

The scope of the crisis is further described in two recent books:  “This Land”, by Christopher Ketcham and “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells.

Assumptions of Restoration Ecology

Restoration ecologists assume that many parts and processes of the Earth are damaged, destroyed or missing.  As a result, The Earth’s natural capital (the total accumulation of the goods and services provided by global ecosystems) is diminished, to the detriment of the well-being of the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants.  

“One assumption that drives restoration ecology is that many parts and processes of the Earth are damaged, destroyed, or missing.  As a result, the Earth’s natural capital (the total accumulation of goods and services provided by global ecosystems) is diminished, to the detriment of the well-being of the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants.  Restorationists assume that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems and their value to the world.  Restorationists also assume that people have some capacity for caring for the planet and repairing damaged parts of the Earth’s systems, thereby at least stabilizing the natural capital.” (Page 22 Howell, Harrington, and Glass 2011).

Ecologists have been restoring bits and pieces of the Earth in a systematic fashion for over 85 years.  Ecological restoration is needed now, more than ever, but is the discipline up to the job?   Is ecological restoration capable of helping to saving the Earth?   Well, success is not guaranteed but failure is certain if ecological restoration is not increased.   What should ecological restoration be doing in this time of multiple global crisis.

Why can ecological restoration contribute to society and the environment to helping today’s multiple emergencies?  Well, for one thing, ecological restorationists have expertise in helping to heal parts of the earth: its damaged ecosystems; cut-over forests; degraded wetlands;  plowed-up prairies; and restoring habitat for vanishing species.  

Necessary but not Sufficient

It is going to take more than the routine work that restoration ecologists have done for 80+ years. Ecological restoration will be necessary—but it is not sufficient—to  save the Earth.  

According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, the US natural areas have lost 24 million acres between 2001 and 20017.  “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.


As  restoration ecologists our responsibilities are no less than those of every other aware and caring citizen in the era of climate disruption:  That is, we all will need to pitch in.  

With bold action we need to restore much more land, much faster.  In the meantime we need to set aside as much land as possible to protect it from destruction.  Save Half of Earth as E.O.Wilson has called for.   “In order to stave off the mass extinction of species, including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet.”, says Wilson.

In addition to caring for and safe-guarding the biological earth,  we also need to address ourselves to its civic, social and cultural restoration.  In fact, these are all aspects of the same thing.

While the rest of the world heedlessly destroys ecosystems, decimates bird populations, wipes out insects, and paves over natural areas, and obliterates forests, prairies, and wetlands, restoration ecologists need to get busy.

Restoration ecologists must recruit others to join our team.  The team needs people with skills as community organizers, social workers, and humanitarians.  The restoration team can use social service workers, local office holders, and natural history teachers; as well as philosophers, police officers, and construction workers.

We must stop being (mostly) silent witnesses and paralyzed bystanders to our self-inflicted crimes against Earth, its climate, humanity and civilization, the results of which will be our own demise.

We must become active participants in our own salvation by stopping the causes of climate disruption; mitigating the impacts; and reversing the disruption of climate change.  Rather than being paralyzed bystanders we must take charge of our own fate.

That is to say, we must continue to be restoration ecologists who work to heal the world’s  physical wounds, and repair damage to its biological systems.  Beyond that we must join with other Earth inhabitants, and global citizens who strive to end human rights violations, work to lift people out of poverty, act to stem climate change, and put a stop to war and suffering.  It’s all part of the same problem.  

A Social Cultural Action Plan

Up to this point restoration ecologists have confined our attention to the air, land, and water.  We can no longer be bystanders to what is happening to our fellow citizens.

As long as people are suffering and there are human rights abuses (look at the immigrant children in cages along the US Southern border, for example), the Earth itself will continue to be misused.  Repairing the Earth and mending social and cultural systems are all part of the same mission. We can no longer deny what is happening to the Earth and to ourselves.  The restoration job is too large, the time too short, and the stakes too high for any of us to relax and let our neighbors do the caring for the earth and its people.  We must each of us get busy with the healing and mending.  

We must all become not only citizens of the Earth who work to save it.  This is to say, I will no longer be a bystander in the face of global climate disruption and will do everything I can to care for the planet and repair and reverse the damage.   The need is that urgent.

Do we assume—as restoration ecologists do—that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems (and the Earth itself) and their value to the world and that humans have some capacity for caring for the planet and repairing the damage that our activities have caused?  If we do then we must assume that there are solutions to repair the social and cultural fabric.

Or, will we continue to be collaborators, or facilitators—in the destruction of the Earth by human activities and climate change?

That is to say, do we want to pitch in to help stave off the coming climate change catastrophe or do we twiddle our thumbs as society has done for the past 50-+ years?Will we continue to stand idly by and watch as the climate is disrupted, ice sheets melt, sea levels rise, droughts increase, and people move mass migrations to find a habitable?  

Will we continue to ignore the fact that immigrant children are separated from their parents and caged in Texas?

Will we sit on the sidelines as our infrastructure crumbles and public and private water supplies are poisoned by manure runoff and intentional chemical pollution?

To save the Earth, all of us must become engaged in stopping the bleeding, and reforming the system.  None of us can afford to live any part of our lives as if we were innocent bystanders.

Here are some actions that we can take to help imagine and create a different world.

Combat global climate disruption.  

Reduce your energy consumption by driving less, buying less, and conserving more.

Demand environmental justice.

None of us are free until all of us are free.  Ecosystems can’t truly and completely be restored as long as much of the world’s citizens live in poverty and aren’t able to participate fully in civic life.

Restore wildlife populations.

Bird and other wildlife populations have declined from 50 to 75 percent over the last 50 years.  This is unacceptable and unsustainable.

Protect state and federal public lands

The Trump administration is rolling back protection for public lands, the last bastion of natural systems and biodiversity.  Lobby your elected officials to restore funding to state and federal land management and natural resource management agencies.

Protect and restore open spaces and public lands in your city.  

Same thing as for state and federal lands.  Plant native plants on every vacant and underused plot of public land in the city.  Your elected officials and staff will work with you if you approach them with resolute and reasonable requests and with a desire to help them do their jobs.

Volunteer your time and expertise

Volunteer to help a local civic group such as a neighborhood or community organization. Help on a local restoration project. Teach youngsters how to plant and care for a garden. Help in a local food bank. Volunteer to help at the local election site. Volunteer to help care for and clean up a local park. These are just a few “restorative actions” that we can take to help heal the Earth and society.


Howell, E.A., J.A. Harrington, and S.B. Glass. 2012. Introduction to Restoration Ecology. Island Press. Washington, D.C.

Ketcham, Christopher.  2019.  “This Land, How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Running the American West.” Viking.

Wallace-Wells, David. 2019.  “The Uninhabitable Earth, Life After Warming.” Tim Duggan Books.

Wilson, E.O. 2016 “Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life”   Liveright Books.

Posted in Restoration ecology | 1 Comment

Congressional Climate Crisis Action Plan Based on Environmental Justice and a Healthy Environment for All Families

Plan Links Restoration of Environmental Justice, Land Health, and Human Health as Critical in Fight Against the Climate Crisis

The Solving the Climate Crisis Action Plan, released on Tuesday (July 30, 2020) by the U.S. House of Representatives,

provides a roadmap for Congress to build a prosperous, clean energy economy that values workers,advances environmental justice, and is prepared to meet the challenges of the climate crisis.”

This plan is important because environmental justice and equity are at the center of the House Democrats’s plan; “it takes on environmental racism, economic injustice, and other inequities throughout — these issues are, according to the Plan’s authors, “crucial considerations” (according to a report from Our Daily Planet. on Wednesday. The plan is also important, because as Our Daily Planet says, “these groups have real political muscle.”

The action plan is supported by a collation of more than 300 progressive groups across the spectrum of environmental and civil rights organizations. The endorsers include the Dane County (WI) Office of Energy and Climate and Conservation Voters of Wisconsin.

You can learn more about the Climate Crisis Action Plan by clicking here. For the full report, click here. And, for a summary report, click here.

Restoration also part of the Action Plan

Importantly, from an ecological restoration perspective, the congressional climate crisis action plan include references to, and direct calls for restorative actions. For example, from this plan is the section that calls for

“Protect at least 30% of al U.S. lands and ocean areas by 2030, prioritizing areas with high ecological, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration value.”

Limit new leasing for fossil fuel extraction on public lands on shore and off􏰀shore.

•Protect and restore ocean and wetland ecosystems, forests, and grasslands to sequester carbon and improve nature’s resilience to climate impacts, including wildfire and coastal flooding.

•Create jobs through conservation and reclamation by re-establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps, creating a Climate Resilience Service Corps, and restoring abandoned coal mines and oil and gas wells.

CCC Redux

If you recall your environmental history, the ecological restoration movement got its start in Madison, WI–and across the country–as Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camps, filled with unemployed young people, worked on environmental repair and restoration projects: building roads, correcting erosion problems, planting prairies and forests. It is time for such civic-minded action again.

Here at the present-day Pope Farm Conservancy in Dane County, Wisconsin, The CCC boys from the Civilian Conservation Corps in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin in 1938 built this storm water spillway. The spillway has survived intact and functional for 82 years.
Posted in Civilian Conservation Corps, Ecological restoration, Ecological restoration as a values and social-political project, Environmental justice, Restoration ecology | Leave a comment