by David Schmidtke, BTC Basic Skills Instructor
In the early 70’s, Blackhawk Technical College purchased a large parcel of agricultural property halfway between Janesville and Beloit, Wisconsin to develop a new consolidated campus. The property was mixed with some level cropland, some hilly wooded areas, and a valley with a ridge along the southeast boundary which had been pastured. The pastured area had never been cultivated and still had most of the native prairie vegetation.
In 1984, Rob Baller became aware of it. He used the prairie patch for a college thesis. He also worked with the prairie from 1984 through 1993 using it to teach classes and, with the help of volunteers, to burn a couple portions and to cut back brush. During this time period, he did an inventory and listed 71 different prairie plants. After Rob left in 1993, the Prairie was pretty much ignored for another 10 years. In 2004, Chris Wellington, Dean of BTC’s Monroe Campus and Nancy Lightfield, Dean of BTC’s Center for Transportation Studies started creating interest in the prairie again. They received permission from Dr. Larson, BTC’s President, to go ahead and work to restore it. They presented a session about the prairie at a faculty in-service in April of 2005. They also contacted Rob Baller who assisted with the history and background of the prairie and actively helped get the restoration in progress.
By this time, the prairie consisted of a large patch on the east, a strip on the west, and a few open patches in between. Brush, mainly invasive European ornamental shrubs such as honeysuckle and buckthorn, had taken over the edges and in places had filled in. It was difficult to walk through. In September of 2006, Instructors Kent Marsden and David Schmidtke started marking areas to open up, areas to create brush piles for burning in the winter, and marking out a valley walking trail.
On October 7, 2005, about 25 people participated in the first work day to start cutting the encroaching brush. Instructors, administrative & clerical staff, students, and volunteers from a local prairie enthusiast club helped. Equipment was provided by the Ben Meadows company. Four large brush piles were created to be burned during the winter. A second work day on October 28 created a fifth brush pile. In February and March of 2006, the piles were burned.
Late in March 2006, volunteers met for a training session on prairie burns. On Saturday, April 8, 2006, Rob Baller brought equipment and led the burn. About a dozen people assisted with rakes and backpack fire extinguishers. The burn went well and a few weeks later, new growth was emerging. By the summer, numerous other prairie flowers were visible. In November of 2006, 2 more work days were held. Additional brush was cut and burned.
Currently, the best prairie plants are on the sandy ridge along BTC’s southern boundary. The valley which had been mostly prairie plants has been completely taken over by invasive plants. The project opened up and connected the existing patches of prairie and made openings down into the valley where brush piles are burned. In order to make the area more useful for the district’s students, staff, and residents, a walking path is being constructed through the bottom of the valley which will have views of the prairie. This will also help keep the prairie from being trampled by visitors.
The process will take many years and, in some respects, will never be completed. The prairie will always need to be assisted by periodic burns and control of invasive plants. However, all the individuals who have been working on the project feel the results already justify the effort.