Land Care Report: Monitoring and Restoring Noe Woods

Noe Woods with wild geranium in bloom

Noe Woods with wild geranium in bloom

Entering the Arboretum on McCaffrey Drive from Seminole Highway, visitors are greeted by a high canopy of large oaks and other tree species and then enveloped in the forty-acre Noe Woods. Over the last three years Arboretum field staff have focused considerable effort on maintaining and enhancing the roadside section of Noe Woods.

At the time of European settlement, the area that is now Noe Woods was like much of southern Wisconsin—a savanna of rich grass and wildflower diversity with scattered oaks. Settlement took a toll on the oak savanna, however, and subsequent human activities such as fire suppression and logging contributed to the savanna ultimately growing into the closed-canopy woodland we see today.

The change to a closed-canopy forest was essentially complete by 1956, when UW–Madison botanist Grant Cottam started a long-term study to monitor changes in the composition, abundance, and size of tree species. Regular monitoring of Cottam’s plots has continued to this day within a plot approximately fifteen acres in size, providing valuable information about the dynamics of woodland change over time. Results have shown oaks are decreasing in abundance, and species that grow well in shade but are unable to tolerate fire, such as maple and cherry, are increasing (2019 Arboretum research fellow Jared Beck has been studying forest spatial patterns, with Noe Woods as one of his sites).

Over the years, the long-term monitoring project in Noe Woods specified that the typical management activities we might implement in an oak system, such as prescribed fire and removal of excess maple and cherry trees, were prohibited because they would interfere with the natural transition of the old oak savanna. Removal of exotic woody species, like buckthorn and oriental bittersweet, was permitted but conducted with limited success.

However, the section of Noe Woods alongside McCaffrey Drive falls outside the boundaries of the fifteen-acre long-term monitoring project, so Arboretum staff have had flexibility to manage the area. For years, Ken Zuba, long-time research gardener for Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, took care of the roadside edges along Noe Woods, cutting back invasive shrubs, removing hazardous trees, and cleaning up fallen trees to maintain the attractiveness of this highly visible area. When he retired in 2016, Arboretum field staff wanted to carry on his work. They began their own roadside “beautification” project, maintaining the work Ken had already done on the south side of the road and also cutting invasive shrubs from a little hill on the north side of the road.

Twinleaf, a Wisconsin species of special concern, growing in the recently cleared roadside area of Noe Woods
Twinleaf, a Wisconsin species of special concern, growing in the recently cleared roadside area of Noe Woods

Over the last year, this beautification project has expanded into a larger restoration effort, especially on the south side of the road. If you have come in from Seminole Highway recently, you may have noticed a lot of buckthorn, honeysuckle, and oriental bittersweet have been removed, giving native shrubs such as hazelnut and elderberry more light and space. Clearing trees such as maple, cherry, and box elder have done the same for the oaks in that area. Work has extended about 150 feet from the roadside up the slope into the woods, leaving a more open woodland structure. We hope the increased light reaching the ground will provide better growing conditions for native woodland plants like wild geranium and bloodroot and will also help the next generation of oaks become established. The field staff has rightfully taken great pride in the good work they’ve done so far, and it has become even more meaningful for them now following Ken’s passing last year.

The long-term monitoring of Noe Woods started by Cottam in the 1950s could soon come to a close, as its purpose has likely run its course. The verdict is in: the oak savanna is gone, and we are losing the oak woodland to species such as cherry and maple. This could provide an opportunity to restore the woodland where the monitoring project has taken place, applying what we are learning from the recent roadside restoration along McCaffrey Drive and, hopefully, eventually reintroducing prescribed fire. In its place, perhaps a new long-term project can begin—monitoring the long-term restoration of an oak savanna rather than its demise.

—Michael Hansen, land care manager