White pine are native to the Badger state, but they are not native to the sand prairie in Blue River or anywhere along the lower Wisconsin River. That’s why a group of nine volunteers are removing the pines on the western edge of the Blue River Sand Barrens State Natural Area. The pines have slowly been encroaching onto the prairie from the adjacent pine plantation.
We met on February 27, a sunny and mild Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to noon to clear as much pine and other invasive trees as we could. Brian McGraw, the project’s volunteer coordinator and a retired lawyer from the town of Eagle, had two large burn piles crackling and two volunteers downing trees with chain saws. They rest of us purposefully carried downed brush to the burn piles. After we finished clearing the area, four of us spread by hand little bluestem and June grass seed in the freshly cleared area. According to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Volunteer Coordinator Jared Urban, the bluestem was harvested from the Blue River Sand Barrens using a mechanical seed stripper while the June grass came from Woodman Lake Sand Prairie State Natural Area. The grasses should germinate this year and the area could be burned in the fall explained Urban.
One common method we avoided was to treat the stumps with chemicals to prevent new growth. According to Urban, unlike other trees, white pine will not sprout from a stump if they’e been cut low enough to the ground. They are killed instantly. This made for easier work.
The Blue River Sand Barrens State Natural Area comprises 129 acres between Muscoda and Blue River off of Highway 133 in Grant County. The DNR website describes sand barrens as “herbaceous upland communities that develop on unstable or semi-stabilized alluvial sands (deposited by surface waters) along major rivers like the Mississippi and Wisconsin.” They are partly or perhaps wholly influenced by human activity, “occurring on sites historically disturbed by plowing or very heavy grazing. Unvegetated sand “blow-outs” are characteristic features.”
There is ample evidence of human activity here. Michael Nee, a retired research botanist at the workday said that he once found stones from an old well and a lilac bush when he was doing graduate research at the site in 1968.
From his field notes on August 7, 1968 he wrote: “There is what appears to be an old homestead. First noticed it by the lilacs or the mulberry. No foundation, but round ring of stones that must be the outline of the well. Trees planted in lines, silver maple, ash. Active sand blows in part. Somebody has gone racing around in them in a motorcycle. Doesn’t cause much more disturbance than wind, but does dig up the algal or moss mat that forms in the bottom. Polygonella articulata (Coast Jointweed) growing in rows in the bare desert pavement, apparently following old tracks. Surrounding area sand prairie. Too much running around with trucks etc. It is almost all crisscrossed with tracks. There is a turkey farm to the south. All the old dead turkeys are thrown into one of the owners’ personal sand blows. The fox population is high consequently. They have a lot of dens in the sand blows.”
Remnants of the old homestead and planted trees are long gone. However, there still is a poultry farm in the same place as the “turkey farm” from 50 years ago, Plus, off-road vehicle users still periodically enter the site illegally and cause disturbances. To help cut down on this problem, the DNR installed gates at the western and eastern entrances several years ago. Motor vehicle use is strictly forbidden at the site. The DNR designated the state natural area in 1969.
Today, the property was still covered in snow, but I could still see the scrub oak and little bluestem poking up. In the summer, the area looks like desert landscape with plants that can survive the harsh conditions. The DNR website states that early dune and blowout colonizers include “lichens, false heather, bearberry, and sedges while species such as three-awn grass, June grass, rough blazing-star, hoary puccoon, sand cress, and prickly pear cactus grow commonly in the barrens. Blue River Sand Barrens features one of the largest and best examples of this harsh and arid ecological community in Wisconsin.” Often, you can find turtle shells scattered on the sand as the dunes are popular nesting sites for Blanding’s and Painted turtles.
Before working on the pine tree removal, McGraw spent time cutting back vegetation from the shoreline so that turtles could better access the sandy soils to lay their eggs.
“I enjoy getting out and being with people who are like-minded and to do something good for habitat,” he said.
Since Covid-19 hit, McGraw has been coordinating monthly workdays at the property since DNR staff are restricted from working with the public until the pandemic breaks.
Volunteers will continue removing white pine with the next workday scheduled for March 13, from 9 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. For more information or to volunteer, contact Jared Urban at 608-228-4349.
Note: The pine plantation located adjacent to the natural area was planted by the DNR in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. According to Urban, it was common practice at the time to plant pine on sandy soils as a way to generate income from the property. The plantation is still owned and managed by the DNR.