Prior to European settlement, the great Sauk Prairie once covered 14,000 acres that stretched between Prairie du Sac and the Baraboo Hills. Today, just three small parcels of that once great prairie remain. I saw one of those parcels on Wednesday, October 14, while on a tour of the 7,324 acre Badger Lands led by Charlie Luthin, Executive Director of the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance.
The property is jointly owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR’s Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area, 3,385 acres), the Ho-Chunk Nation (1,553 acres), the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center (2,105 acres) and the Bluffview Sanitary District (163 acres). The Department of Transportation also owns the rail corridor around the Great Sauk Trail. Only the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area is open to the public.
That tiny prairie was one of many discoveries I learned about while traversing the narrow roads that wind through the expansive property. If you go, be sure to take a map, because the roads are not named and it’s easy to get lost. You can find maps at the front entrance or at the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance (Alliance) office on Water Street.
The Badger Lands were once home to Badger Ordance Works or Badger Army Ammunition Plant, the largest munitions factory in the world. At its peak, there were 1,400 buildings on the property and thousands of employees. The plant operated through WW II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and was decommissioned by the military in the 1990s. In 2000, the Badger Reuse Committee was formed to decide its future use. Collectively, the group of 21 stakeholders agreed that conservation and recreation was the best use of the land. The final product was called the “Badger Reuse Plan.” To promote this idea, the group commissioned a painting by renowned artist Victor Bahktin called “Sauk Prairie Remembered.” The painted inspired the community to see the vision for a “green future” at Badger.
The Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area opened to the public in 2014 is now used for hunting, hiking, bird watching, horseback riding and a few other uses.
For example, while we were there, a military helicopter flew over. Luthin said that the military runs training missions to the property about 8-10 hours per week.
“Our organization is fighting this.”
He explained that there could be issues if the helicopter crashed on the property and there was a fire.
The 2016 DNR master plan also allows for motorcycle use on 50 percent of the state-owned land for 6 days during the summer months. Luthin’s organization is suing the Department of Natural Resources over this because the Badger Reuse Plan, a document that the DNR signed off on, called for low impact, silent sports only.
The master plan also created a 600-acre “special use” area that could include a variety of uses such as the motorcycling, car shows, boy scout jamborees and dog trialing.
“We oppose all of these uses because they are not compatible with the restoration of grasslands for bird populations and for other silent sports activities like bird watching and hiking,” said Luthin.
“What would you do if you came here and motorcycles were roaring down the trails? You wouldn’t be happy.”
They want to go back to the original intention of the 2001 Badger Reuse Plan. Since the lawsuit is still pending, all of these uses are on hold.
The Prairie Remnant
The hillside prairie remnant is a tiny parcel of about 5 acres (It’s #21 on the map). Luthin said that this small prairie survived because it was too steep to plow, though it was heavily grazed. The remnant was discovered in 1993 by the Nature Conservancy when they surveyed the property. In 1999, the Alliance held their first work party to clear brush and begin the restoration process. The Alliance has been working on it ever since, clearing brush and restoring native plants to the parcel.
Luthin said that this prairie is 6000-7000 years old and contains little blue stem, big blue stem, Indian grass and asters, all from the original prairie.
“These plants have deep roots and were able to survive grazing,” Luthin said.
An oak savannah sits adjacent to the prairie and is also being restored by the Alliance.
The other two prairie remnants include the Moely (MAY-lee) Prairie and the Schluckebier (SCHLOOK-a-beer) Prairie. Both are managed by the Prairie Enthusiasts.
The Moely Prairie is a 23.5 acre parcel located in the Westwynde neighborhood off of Hwy PF in Prairie du Sac. It is the largest remnant of the Sauk Prairie. It is known for its Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) plants whose wispy seed heads in late May and early June evoke a layer of smoke or fog. Also present in significant numbers are Eastern Prickly Pear.
The Schlukebier Sand Prairie is a small dry-mesic prairie in the Otter Creek watershed and is situated on part of an old Wisconsin River Terrace. It is located 1.5 miles west of the intersection of highway 12 and county PF. It is home to the federally threatened prairie bush clover and the state-endangered red-tailed leafhopper.
The DNR and the Ho-Chunk are committed to restoring prairie to expand habitat for grassland birds and for recreational uses.
Here are some of the other stops that we made on the tour:
• Apple Trees: Luthin pointed out an old apple tree at the hillside prairie. Prior to building the ammunition plant, the Sauk Prairie was home to about 80 prosperous farms. All of them likely had apple orchards and many of those aging trees still remain. To preserve the apple varieties and to build connections to the landowners who sacrificed their land to make way for the plant, the Alliance started the Badger Apple Corp Project. Alliance volunteers surveyed the remaining trees and started a nursery where they are grafting the old varieties of apples on to generic apple stock in an effort to retain the old apple varieties. The Alliance produced a documentary about the project, Of Connection and Renewal: The Historic Apple Trees of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant.
• Great Sauk Trail: The Great Sauk Trail is an asphalt bike trail that begins in Sauk City and winds its way through the Badger Lands. The total trail is 10.5 miles. The Alliance just received a grant to restore the prairie adjacent to the trail.
• Bluebird Boxes: There are 65 bluebird boxes that volunteers check weekly during the summer months. Two volunteers for this project drove past us while we were on our tour.
• Cemeteries: The Thoelke Cemetery (#17 on the map) contains gravestones from 1859-1934. It is one of two cemeteries on the property where early pioneers and farmers are buried. It is a vivid reminder of the people that once lived on this land.
• First People and the Ho-Chunk: Luthin said that it is important not to overlook the native people that once lived on the land. According to the brochure published by the Alliance, native people have been living and hunting at the Badger Lands for 12,000 years. There is evidence of these first people at the Raddatz Rockshelter at Natural Bridge State Park, a few miles to the south. Starting around 1000 years ago, the mound builders lived in the area. Effigy mounds can be found at Devils Lake State Park and throughout southern Wisconsin. The Sauk tribe also made this landscape home during the 1700s after being forced here from their ancestral lands further east. The mound builders are ancestors to the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago). The Ho-Chunk ceded their land to the U.S. government in 1837. In 2014, the federal government returned 1,500 acres of land at Badger to the Ho-Chunk. The Ho-Chunk are working to restore the land back to prairie.
• Geology of the Land: The last stop of the tour (#5 on the map) provided the most dramatic view of the property. We stood on the terminal moraine of the last glacier, looking at the outwash plain that is now being restored to prairie by the DNR and the Ho-Chunk. You could almost imagine bison roaming here, just as in the Bahktin painting. This was the site of the great Sauk Prairie that we now have just three small remnants. The Baraboo Range is in the distance to the north and the driftless area is visible to the east. Luthin explained that in time, visitors will be able to see Blue Mounds and Ferry Bluff from this spot when pine trees are removed. It is a powerful spot to view the prairie under restoration and the various geologic formations of Sauk County.
If you go
The Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area is open to the public from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. year round. If you are interested in a tour of Badger Lands, check with the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance. They can be reached at SaukPrairieConservation@gmail.com or 608-358-7120. They welcome membership and volunteers to help with their vision of restoring Badger Lands back to prairie. Also check out their award winning video on Youtube: Restoring the Sauk Prairie, A Story of Hope and Healing.
Author’s Note: The Badger Lands are a little north of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, but the great Sauk Prairie was within the riverway corridor, so that why I included it on this blog.