Watershed Management History

West Wingra Marsh

The West Wingra Marsh, nestled on the west and south ends of Lake Wingra,  consists of the Wingra Marsh, Wingra Fen and the West Lowland Forest,  site of the Secret Pond storm water detention pond  and Manitou Stream.

The West Wingra Marsh and Fen is 72 acres (29 hectares) in size.  The area is mostly level with a very gradual NW facing slope at the south end.  The soil is peat and much.

The West Lowland Forest is 20 acres (8 hectares) in size; it rests on Houghton muck, with small areas of silt loam soil.

West Marsh Vegetation History and Past Management

Our best description of recent management activity comes from the UW-Madison Arboretum biological master plan (Kline 1992, pages 165-169).  The Kline Plan is available for review in the Arboretum research library.

“Before 1900 the vegetation of west wingra marsh and fen was sedge meadow, grading into a zone of emergents along the shore of the lake, which was 0.3m higher that its present level.  Upwelling, calcium-rich water supported a fen part way up the gradual slope; the fen contained unusual species such as the small white lady slipper (Cypripedium candidum).  It is  unlikely that the sedge meadow and the fen were mowed for hay after European settlement of the area.”

“Urbanization of the uplands draining into the marsh caused heavy sedimentation, especially where storm sewer outlets fed directly into the marsh.  The storm  water cut channels, one as deep as ten feet, and the material displaced was subsequently deposited farther out in the marsh, along with the soil, sand, and debris from City Streets.”  (It is interesting to note that the City of Madison continues to regard the Arboretum as a legitimate destination for storm water runoff.)  ” Reed canary grass, as well as trees and shrubs, colonized the sediments and spread into large areas of the marsh.  At first the invading woody species were native, but before long two exotic buckthorns, common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and fen buckthorn (R. frangula) dominated large areas, and European alder (Alnus glutinosa), a species  planted in the Duckpond area upstream, began to appear along the drainageways.”

“Prescribed burns have been used in attempts to control woody invaders.  The entire marsh and fen were burned  in 1972  and in 1976; earlier burns were known to have occurred,  but were not recorded.”  Prescribed management burns were most recently conducted in 2004 and 2007.

“Several observers noted a dramatic increase in shrub cover in 1983, possibly due to summer drought.”

“In 1993,  (storm water) holding ponds (Ponds 5–Marian Dunn Pond;  and 6–Secret Pond) were built at two storm sewer outlets to protect Wingra Marsh (and the lake)  from further sedimentation and other damaging effects of the runoff.”

“The fen has been particularly vulnerable to woody invasion, perhaps because of reduced water flow resulting from pumping by municipal wells.  Attempts to control the invasion began with a study initiated in 1937 by John Curtis, where he showed excellent growth and flowering response of white ladyslippers after the fen was mowed five years in a row.  Curtis recommended mowing as a management tool.  He noted that bog birch was a major invader, but did not mention buckthorn.”

Wingra Fen in the middle foreground (the beige patch is the invasive reed canary grass) looking northwest from Wingra Woods in the UW-Madison Arboretum. Note the shrub and trees moving into the fen. The West Lowland Forest (Secret Pond project site) is in the background. The large tree above the horizon is near the Secret Pond site. Nakoma Road is out of view to the far left in the photo. Photo by Steve Glass.

“No record was made of later mowing, and apparently mowing was discontinued at least by the early 1970’s because of concern over ruts made by heavy machinery when the peaty soil was soft.”

“Jim Zimmerman led groups of students and other volunteers on brush-cutting forays in the fen intermittently in the 1970’s and 80’s; by then the fen buckthorn was the most dominant species.  The fen was burned in 1980, 1984, 1987, and 1988.  In 1989, a major effort to control woody invasion in the fen was initiated by cutting and judicious use of herbicide was initiated.  It is expected that this will continue through the winter of 1991-92”

General Description of Present Vegetation

“Trees and shrubs, especially buckthorn, form a dense wide border around the marsh and along the drainageways; they also appear in scattered patches elsewhere.  These in turn are bordered by stands of reed canary grass and/or nettles.  Cattail, bulrush (Scirpus validus), giant reed  (Phragmites communis) and several species of sedges (including tussock formers such as Carex stricta) are found in various combinations in the wettest areas.

“Areas with somewhat shallower water support tussock sedges, bluejoint grass (Calamagrostis canadensis), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), marsh violet (Viola cucullata) and wild iris (Iris virginica var shrevei).  More disturbed and/or drier areas have sedges such as C. hysticicina and C. vulpinoidea, which are tolerant or some disturbance, and many large composites.”

“In the fen, some of the area recently cleared (1990’s) of shrubs has developed a groundlayer of tall meadowrue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), willow herb (Epilobiium sp.), marsh milkweed ( Aesclepias incarnata) and several composites, but there are patches containing mostly buckthorn seedlings (now shrubs and trees). Approximately 60 white ladyslipper plants were observed in 1990 following the massive shrub removal and stump treatment (with Garlon 4, 25%); non flowered that year, but in 1991 most of those had flowers.  At the north end of the fen, where the shrub invasion had been more recent, several plants with multiple flowering shoots were observed.”

West Lowland Forest Vegetation History and Past Management

The West Lowland Forest is roughly the area along the Manitou Stream storm water channel and the Secret Pond storm water detention pond.  Again, we quote from the Arboretum’s biological master plan (Kline, 1992, pages 40-42)

Historically, “there were no large plantings in the west lowland forest, but a few silver maple, river birch, swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) and basswood (Tilia americana) were planted on the west side of the Monroe Street pond berm (Marian Dunn Pond or Pond #5) to extend the forest up to the water’s edge.

“In both forests much of the area has been disturbed in the past because of road construction, dredging to make ponds, and erosion from urban storm water.  Before the Monroe Street pond was constructed in 1983  (and dredged and rebuilt in  2004)  to capture the storm sewer water entering the Arboretum at that point, the water had cut a deep trench in the woods, depositing the dredged soil in the woods and marsh downstream.”

“There has been no management to control exotics woody invaders in either of these two forests.”

General Description of Present Vegetation

“The forests show signs of disturbance.  Most of the trees are small; there are extensive infestations of exotic shrubs; the ground layer lacks diversity and contains many weedy species.”

The Arboretum's West Lowland Forest as it appeared in June of 2011. Looking west toward Lake Wingra with the Secret Pond storm water channel out of view on the right. Photo by Steve Glass

“Beside the planted tree species (some of which occur naturally as well), the canopy includes box elder (Acer negundo), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), black willow (Salix nigra), cottonwood (Populus deltoides),  bigtooth aspen (P. grandidentata) and black walnut (Juglans nigra).  Distribution is very patchy.  Troublesome species include black locust (Robinia psedoacacia). European alder (Alnus glutinosa) which was planted by mistake instead of the native alder, honeysuckle and buckthorn.  The latter three shrubs are abundant in most of the woods, but a few native shrubs including red osier dogwood (Cornus stolinifera), gray dogwood (C. racemosa), ninebark (Physocarpus o pulifolius) and nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) are found where the infestation if not as severe.”

The Arboretum’s restoration master plan is now under review and revision and it taking on the challenge of developing restoration targets for such novel ecosystems as the one pictured above.  The expected completion date is June of 2012.


Kline, V.M. 1992 Long-range management plan for Arboretum ecological communities  UW-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI.

1 Response to Watershed Management History

  1. Pingback: Novel Ecosystems and Restoration Targets | WingraSprings

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