Thursday, September 29, 2011

Exploring an Urban Forest

A new forestry center could add to the critical mass that has the potential to make the Milwaukee County Grounds one of Southeastern Wisconsin’s premier parklands.

High overhead branches toss wildly about, auguring another storm. The forest is still damp from yesterday’s deluge and dark from thickly overcast skies. But despite the moaning and twisting in the canopy, down here at ground level it is calm. The foliage rustles softly all around. The forest feels protective. 

I make my way through a particularly dense patch of undergrowth, most of which is invasive buckthorn. I understand the need for management.

Farther along the trail the forest opens up, clear of most undergrowth. Last year’s leaves carpet the earth. A few bright yellow and red maple leaves, which turn early, accent the brown and contrast with the still intensely green woodland. 

I reach the now dry depression that in spring was one of the few remaining vernal ponds, a vital habitat for many species. I understand the need for preservation.

Trails interlace the forest, winding among the giant hardwoods and brushy thickets. People come here to calm their minds, uplift their spirits, experience the mystery of nature. I step off the trail into wilder woodland and come upon a clearing where someone – some group by the size of it – has built a makeshift shelter. My mental tally of youthful shelters, tree houses, and forts now numbers four. I am reminded of my own childhood. How many more hideouts are hidden in the recesses of our local forest?

I understand the need for nearby nature that stimulates the imagination of people young and old.
Theodore Roosevelt, president and tireless advocate for nature, said, “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as helpless.” A new forestry education center, planned for this woodland on the Milwaukee County Grounds, would bring together children and trees. What a great concept!

The Forest Exploration Center’s plans for facilities and programming are ambitious. Eventually, a 60,000 sq. ft. indoor structure will be the heart of an educational complex that may include outdoor classrooms, a canopy walk/tower, and a working sawmill. 

The “science-based” programming will emphasize cultural and economic aspects of forest management, according to board member Tom Gaertner, who owns a tree farm in Door County.

I welcome sustainable forest management. Clearing the buckthorn and other invasive species, thinning the box elders and other weedy trees would not only improve the aesthetic experience of the woodland, but also would increase biodiversity. At the same time, the perennial explorer in me hopes that enough of its wildness remains that the alluring mystery isn’t lost.

As a long-time educator – and advocate for urban wilderness – the idea of bringing school groups as well as the general public into contact with our remarkable forest is very appealing. I never tire of applauding the Urban Ecology Center, which has created a nationally recognized model for environmental education and stewardship. The new center’s board rightly identifies the need for educational opportunities that connect children with nature. They would be well advised to develop a cooperative relationship with the Urban Ecology Center.

Cooperation also should be the watchword amongst the several entities with similar interests that fortuitously share the County Grounds. With effective and visionary planning and collaboration the new Forest Exploration Center, along with the new County Park, the Monarch Trail at Innovation Park, and MMSD’s flood detention basins together can fulfill the enormous potential to make the Milwaukee County Grounds unparalleled urban parkland.

After all, it’s important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees!

A hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt, another president, George Bush, said this:
“Trees can reduce the heat of a summer's day, quiet a highway's noise, feed the hungry, provide shelter from the wind and warmth in the winter. …Forests are the sanctuaries not only of wildlife, but also of the human spirit. And every tree is a compact between generations.”
Click here for an aerial view of the forest and surroundings. 

Click here for an aerial view of the forest and surroundings.


  1. Eddee--One of your best posts...really top notch photos. I share you hope that the center won't overdo 'controlled' experiences. Sometimes you just need to wander in the woods.

  2. Eddee: Really enjoyed this post on the urban forest. I believe your suggestion that the new center cooperate with the Urban Ecology Center is a very good one.

    --Dennis Grzezinski