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Afton man working on private project to restore 200-acre tract

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 31, 2011
— Sometimes a private project on private land ends up benefiting people in unexpected ways.

Afton resident Rodney Van Beek has been working to restore more than 200 acres of his own land into its original state: Oak savanna, prairie and wetland.


The end result will be good for water quality, help retain floodwater, provide habitat for a variety of species and will make hunters in Texas very, very happy.


Van Beek, a doctor with Mercy Health System, has been working with the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association on the wetland portion of the project. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Rock County Planning Department and the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.


Along with battling invasives such as reed canary grass and buckthorn, he’s also had to consider “wildlife mitigation” plans and “hazardous bird species,” as both could impact Rock County’s economic future.


Farm to prairie

Van Beek’s land, which is west of Afton and north of Bass Creek, is the former farm of Clifford and Marion Goke.


Although the land is in a low-lying area, it was converted to agricultural use many years ago. The Gokes farmed it for more than 60 years, Van Beek said.


Marion’s commitment to the land inspired Van Beek.


“We’ll have an area that’s close to oak savanna—it won’t quite qualify—then sedge meadows and then wetland,” Van Beek said.


He’s started work on the prairies and the oak savanna by pulling out invasives and conducting controlled burns. Both will allow the native seeds to take hold.


Last spring, Van Beek thickly seeded one of the farm fields with soybeans. This year, the plants shaded out other non-native weeds. After the soybeans are harvested, the field will be ready for a “frost planting” of prairie seed in March.


Ducks amuck

Prairie and wetland restorations are designed to be attractive to wildlife. Airports are not.


Bird strikes cause millions of dollars of damage to planes every year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. They also have caused accidents with fatal injuries.


One of the most recent bird strike crashes involved a US Airways flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 2009. The plane was forced to make a water landing in the Hudson River after take off.


The National Transportation and Safety Board determined engine failure—caused by geese being sucked into the plane’s engines.


The FAA recommends airports serving turbine-powered aircraft be at least 10,000 feet away from any land use that attracts wildlife.


Van Beek’s wetland restoration is 10,500 feet away from Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.


Ron Burdick, airport director, said there have been a couple of bird strikes at the airport with “sparrows, blackbirds and starlings.”


“We’re fortunate and haven’t had any accidents,” he said.


Still, he is concerned about any project within three miles of the airport. Along with safety concerns, such hazards can also limit the viability of the airport as an economic enhancement.


Birds and benefits

Because the wetland restoration project required changing watercourses, Van Beek had to apply for a conditional use permit from The Rock County Planning Department.


Planning staff recommended granting the permit, but it required Van Beek to sign an affidavit accepting “mitigation responsibilities” if problems arise at the airport.


Mitigation could mean allowing hunting on the land or altering the landscape to make it less attractive to migratory birds.


Peter Ziegler of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association said he doesn’t expect the project will cause problems—the “basin” of the wetland will only be about an acre in size.


When all the work is completed, the small wetland will serve as a filter to clean pollutants and sediment out of surface run-off. In addition it will provide a small measure of flood prevention for a low-lying area.


Van Beek believes other parts of his restoration project—the prairies—will have more of an impact on the bird population.


“It will improve habitat for hatching,” Van Beek said.


Many of those birds end up flying south.


“Maybe the hunters in Texas will see more birds,” he added.



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