Director’s Note, December 2020

Photo of Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director

Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

“These are hard times.” We hear this often. It is certainly true that COVID-19 continues to be a significant problem in the United States, and Wisconsin continues to be one of the hardest-hit states. The pandemic puts lives at risk; has upended K–12 education in many locations; limits our ability to gather with colleagues, friends, and family; and is causing severe financial stress for individuals and organizations.

But in this season of giving thanks and celebrating hope, I’d like to share some accomplishments of Arb staff and supporters in the time of, in spite of, and sometimes because of COVID. These are just a few examples of how our team and many partners have pulled together over the past several months.

Some projects were in progress before the pandemic hit, and we were able to keep them going. As a step toward improving the environmental sustainability of our buildings to reflect the ecosystem services provided by Arboretum land, we installed new solar photovoltaic panels on the Visitor Center roof. With amazing financial and technical support—from Friends of the Arboretum, anonymous Arb donors, Solar Good, the UW–Madison Office of Sustainability Green Fund, and UW–Madison Facilities, Planning, and Management (FP&M)—we worked with SunPeak, a Madison solar developer, to bring this multiyear project to fruition. The panels became fully operation in November, and you can see the solar production real-time online.

The Curtis Pond rehabilitation project has been even longer in the making, with planning beginning over a decade ago. This stormwater pond was constructed in 1970 to increase the quality and decrease the flow rate of stormwater traveling through the Arboretum to Lake Wingra. But sediment build-up over the years was decreasing its effectiveness. Access paths were created, the pond was dredged, a broken concrete flume was replaced with an underground pipe to convey water from under the Beltline, a new clay liner was added to the pond, and land affected by the project was restored. An added bonus of this project is a new trail south of the pond. In addition to Arb staff, the project planning team included Strand Associates, UW–Madison FP&M, the State of Wisconsin, and David Liebl, emeritus, UW–Madison College of Engineering. The project contractor was Integrity Grading and Excavation, Inc., and Field and Stream carried out the land restoration.

While the Visitor Center closed in mid-March and remains closed, the grounds never closed to the public. Arb grounds, including the trails and garden areas, experienced record numbers of visitors. Arboretum Drive closed to vehicle traffic for over a month to safely accommodate crowds of walkers, runners, and bikers when the weather warmed in spring. There were strong feelings, both positive and negative, about the road closure, and we spend a great deal of time communicating about it.

We received many kind messages from people who were grateful that the grounds provided respite and connections to nature. But the activity required vigilance and new kinds of attention. With fewer staff and stewards on the grounds, and visitors bringing more disposable items (masks, disinfecting wipes, and even latex gloves), we dealt with new kinds of litter. We have also communicated with unusually high numbers of dog walkers, tree climbers, and off-trail hikers about why these activities aren’t permitted at the Arboretum. Through all of this, staff and volunteer stewards continued to work to make everyone’s experience at the Arb as pleasant and safe as possible. And our land care team continued managing Arboretum land, both in Madison and at outlying properties. If you’ve visited recently, we hope you’ve noticed the results of work clearing invasive species, conducting prescribed burns, and maintaining trails and lawns.

Much of what we do involves in-person interactions with each other and the public. We needed to cancel programs that had been months in the planning, including our popular Earth Focus Day Camp, Sunday hikes, some Winter Enrichment talks, the Native Gardening Conference, and many other workshops and programs. But there has been a silver lining to the heartbreak of canceling programs that we love providing as much as the public loves attending. We’ve learned how to put on crackerjack virtual webinars, from summer citizen science trainings to a fall lecture series. In some cases, events were attended by over 200 people—more than could have squeezed into our Visitor Center auditorium for on-site programs. We’ve also created videos that share our stories of working with the land. These skills will serve us well in the future. And we have tiptoed into some in-person programming, with a naturalist-hosted observation station behind the Visitor Center on weekend days this autumn, volunteer insect monitoring, and tours with UW–Madison classes.

Throughout the past nine months, Arboretum supporters have been there for Arb staff and the land we steward. We are reminded over and over again how important this resource is to our community, and we cannot thank you enough for all that you have done to ensure that we can continue to achieve our mission. We are grateful for your ongoing financial support as we forge new ways to conserve Arboretum land, advance the science that informs conservation here and throughout the world, and foster the land ethic—even in hard times.

—Karen Oberhauser, Arboretum director