On the Trails: Challenges and Changes in Wingra Oak Savanna Area

Stone council ring with

Council Ring at Wingra Oak Savanna

The Arboretum trails have been a space for safe gathering and respite for many visitors during the pandemic. It has been wonderful to see families and students getting outside, exploring and learning about the amazing natural landscapes at the Arboretum. We value being this type of resource for our community.

The increase in visitor use has also brought up many challenges for the ranger unit in our patrol and trail work duties. The Wingra Oak Savanna and Monroe Street area, in particular, have had a significant increase in rule-breaking activity, such as more people walking dogs there and visitors going off trail, which can cause damage in natural areas.

Dog walking is permitted only on the paved bike path and sidewalk along Monroe Street; dogs are not allowed in any of the natural areas or gardens of the Arboretum. The Arboretum does not allow pets because they can disturb wildlife, damage restoration work, and disrupt research. The rule also helps protect the comfort, health, and safety of all visitors.

"This is not a trail" sign next to a rogue trail
Rogue trail in the Monroe Street area

Another major issue in the Monroe Street area has been visitors walking off trail, which can result in rogue trails. Some of these rogue trails are caused by people taking shortcuts to other trails or paths; others are along the shoreline of the lake and springs. Rogue trails not only cause confusion when navigating the trails but they also damage sensitive vegetation. The Monroe Street area has populations of wild hyacinth (a state endangered species), and glade mallow (a species of special concern). Going off trail and using rogue trails puts these populations at risk. Rogue trails along the shoreline contribute to erosion and degradation, and going off trail can disturb the natural springs in the area.

We have also seen an increase in high-impact activities such as fires at the council ring, off-trail forts, and hammock use. We even had some people break into a storage shed. Some visitors have tampered with or removed rules signage, which only exacerbates the issues.

Green plastic fencing alongside a trail
Fencing alongside a trail to prevent off trail use.

We are taking this as an opportunity to make some improvements to the area. After discussion with several staff, the trails committee has added one of the rogue trails into our official trail system. This trail will connect two of our trails that previously only had access from the road. This also presents the opportunity to relocate one of our trailheads. This trail was incorporated because it is far enough away from the shoreline that it won’t cause erosion and it avoids areas with sensitive vegetation. Other rogue trails have been fenced off and signed to prevent further use.

We will also improve our maps and rules signage. This fall we will install new map signs at our parking lots. The new signage will better communicate rules and visitor etiquette and better identify Arboretum boundaries. We will also address the dog walking issue with a short-term increase in “no dogs” signage. We will continue to increase ranger presence in the Monroe Street area to talk with visitors about why we have these rules and to encourage safe and responsible use of the grounds.

The Monroe Street area has always been a special area to the neighborhood and the Arboretum community. The time during the pandemic has shown how much use this area receives. We ask neighbors and visitors to follow these rules to help care for the land, plant, and wildlife that they so enjoy. And we hope the improvements in the Monroe Street area will sustain interest in the area and improve recreational use.

—Stephanie Petersen, ranger