Parks volunteer raises concerns about threatened plant
TOWN OF MAGNOLIA Kevin Kawula treaded carefully through the grass at Magnolia Bluff County Park earlier this month with his eyes to the ground. He searched for small native plants with long flower-bearing stalks, just beginning to bloom in the upper bluff area.
For several years, Kawula has carefully counted the kitten tails or besseya bullii at the Magnolia Township park to keep track of their fragile populations. He knows the understated perennials will never be as colorful as some of the more showy spring flowers, but the fact that the state-threatened plant is in the park at all is a small miracle.
Native to all of the Upper Midwest, kitten tails have declined dramatically because of habitat loss. At Magnolia Bluff, Kawula counted 533 plants a week ago. He regularly invites botanists and prairie-plant lovers like himself to see the rare member of the snapdragon family blooming under old oak trees.
"All these fabulous plants grow here naturally," he said. "It's a big deal. That's why I'm making a fuss."
A volunteer who has helped restore the park, Kawula objects to part of a trail-improvement plan on the bluff, scheduled this summer.
The Rock County Parks Department wants to redo an existing path with crushed limestone to make it accessible to people with disabilities. The path leads from the upper parking lot to the western overlook along the southern bluff trail. Then, the U-shaped trail returns along the northern bluff trail.
Kawula said he and park volunteers from two conservation groups do not object to the southern bluff trail but do object to the northern bluff section. Kawula estimates about 10 percent of the kitten tails could be affected by changes along the return trail.
"The plants use the space as part of their breeding habitat," he said. "To me, it's impossible to put the trail in without hurting them. My 20 years of experience in natural area land restoration says that it is impossible not to disturb or destroy native plants or older oak trees within a trail corridor if you are removing soil and plants and replacing them with crushed stone."
By law, no threatened plants can be destroyed.
Rock County Parks Director Lori Williams said the county is deciding how best to protect the kitten tails and still make the trail more accessible to more people.
"We're not going to put the path where it endangers the plants," she said. "We're the stewards of the property. We are going to flag out the route and a decision will be made on the final location. The goal is to make the view from the bluff more accessible."
Part of the parkówhich contains a narrow ridge top, at least one state-threatened plant and a small dry prairie remnantóbecame a state natural area in 2011. State natural areas protect outstanding examples of Wisconsin's native landscape and geological formations.
The designation came cooperatively with Rock County and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. A sign in the natural area explains the importance of the designation and informs visitors about the state-threatened kitten tails.
Williams said the county is working closely with the DNR.
"We will determine soon if the path will directly impact any threatened plants," said Matt Zine, a conservation biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources' State Natural Areas program. "We are trying to figure out how many plants are in the trail, if we can remove soil and put crushed gravel in there without impacting them, or if we can move the plants that may be in the trail."
He called the situation a complicated issue.
"The park has been used by the public for a long time," he said. "On one side of the issue, you might wish that no one would use the property to protect the plants. But it is public land, and a lot of people use the park. Typically, in natural areas, we don't do a lot of trail building, unless the site has a lot of activity already. Maybe you have to build a trail to focus the activity."
To date, he called management at the park, including mowing, a compromise to reduce impact on the kitten tails.
Magnolia Bluff became a county park in the 1960s.
"It was a county park long before it was a state natural area," Williams said. "We're trying to serve a lot of purposes for a lot of people. In this case, we are trying to make the trail accessible to as many people as possible."
The concept of a handicapped-accessible trail grew out of an assessment of the entire parks system, Williams said. The county plans on redoing parts of the trail system throughout Magnolia Bluff park to stop trails from eroding and to allow for drainage.
She said the county spent a year writing a master plan for the park with the help of a consultant, and the county board approved the plan last year.
Kawula and volunteers from The Rock County Conservationists and The Prairie Bluff Chapter of the Prairie Enthusiasts have cleared buckthorn, honeysuckle and sumac in the park and burned areas to bring back native grasses and wildflowers. On a recent afternoon, bird's-foot and prairie violets, fringed puccoon and a profusion of pink to violet wood sorrel flourished on the side of a bluff where invasive brush had been cleared.
"Once we started working in this park, we saw the native plants come back right away," Kawula said. "As long as the plants are here, we'll be here to help them."
All the parties involved want what is best for the site, Zine said.
"It would be easier if it were just a park or just a state natural area," he added. "But the park has rare plants, and it also is heavily used. We are confident we can work together to find a compromise."
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.