Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Kratzsch Conservancy in Washington County is a treat


Scheduling a tour outdoors in early December can be risky. Cold rain had been in the forecast. But our recent string of unseasonably warm days held through the weekend and on Saturday morning, bright sun lit the colorless landscape like a torch. It turned out to be a perfect day to tour Kratzsch Conservancy, a 73-acre preserve located near Newburg in Washington County.

Our guide was wildlife biologist Ryan Wallin, Stewardship Director for the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT), which owns and manages the site.  Wallin considers himself fortunate. Not only did he recently land his current position, which enabled him to move back home to Wisconsin from a stint in distant Washington state, but he also gets to live in this beautiful place. The historic Kratzsch family farmstead has been turned into a private, live-in headquarters for the OWLT stewardship program.

We hiked the circuitous 2-mile trail system that looped through a surprising variety of undulating glacial terrains. The property contains 14 acres of wetlands, 24 acres of forests and 37 acres of grasslands. Wallin explained that the trails are being managed in a way that tries to balance the needs of wildlife with the expectations of human visitors. For example, trails are designed to circumscribe open areas because cutting a trail through the middle of a prairie would degrade it as a habitat for certain species, particularly ground-nesting birds. Trails, it turns out, also are used by carnivores as well as humans!

As recently as 2012 much of the property was still being farmed. Those sections that are currently forested were mostly wooded pastures for grazing livestock. A few mature oaks are all that remains of the historic forest. OWLT has planted hundreds of new trees, including paper birch, white oak, red oak, burr oak, sugar maple, white ash and black cherry.

The grasslands are likewise newly planted with prairie grasses, along with some trees. Wallin explained that the whole area once was forested and most will be allowed to follow a natural succession process that will gradually replace the grasses with woodlands.

We passed by a very solidly built hunting blind that overlooks one of the prairies. It is raised high enough for visibility but not so high that it can’t be accessed via a ramp. Not being a hunter myself—or disabled—it had never before occurred to me that there might be a need for an accessible blind. The ADA compliant blind was built in 2014, Wallin said, and sees moderate use.

Kratzsch Conservancy has 2,500 feet of frontage along the east/west branch of Milwaukee River and can be accessed from the water by kayak and canoe. It is strategically situated along an environmental corridor among other protected properties in order to increase connectivity and enhance wildlife habitats. 

Goldenrod gone to seed