STORIES BY JIM KNEISZEL Journal Times
photos by Jim Slosiarek
At top, Larry Nannemann, an adult leader for Boy Scout Troop 324 in Waterford, walks along a track that leads to the back country of Wadewitz Nature Center.
At left, Shayla Wells, 3, gets a free ride from her dad, Dan Wells, as the two explore the nature centers trails
ROCHESTER Youre probably not going to see environmental activists tying themselves to a tree trunk in the name of woodland preservation in this part of Racine County.
Though suburban sprawl is attacking the gentle Kettle Moraine slopes and marshes at a record pace, some of Rochesters finest natural territory will never feel the tickle of a chain saw or the scrape of a back hoe.
At the W.R. Wadewitz Nature Center, prairie plants and a hardwood forest thrive in close quarters with the strangest of corporate bedfellows: industry and mining interests.
Locked up in perpetuity for the enjoyment of Racine County residents, the rustic 180-acre woodland and prairie preserve is surrounded by gravel pits to the west and north and the Waterford Industrial Park to the east.
A shiny new water tower is visible and the gravel trucks can be heard through the leafless trees in winter. But a stroll into Wadewitz still takes visitors as deep into the wilderness as they can expect to go anywhere in southeastern Wisconsin.
The parks interior a safe zone of dwindling early prairie habitat and acres of land never plowed for agricultural purposes can only be reached on foot. Racine Countys gatekeeper at Wadewitz, naturalist John Bielefeld, guards and nurtures the undisturbed property as if it were his own flesh and blood.
As he walked through the nature center on a recent chilly day, Bielefeld paused to listen for the gravel trucks lumbering across nearby pits. Then he smiled with satisfaction, knowing that the gravel companies have been unsuccessful in attempts to get at the profits buried beneath the Wadewitz terrain.
Developers wont get their hands on the property either. Bielefeld has reviewed a dozen major housing developments in the area for the county as newcomers move in from metropolitan Milwaukee. The Wadewitz property helps bring a natural balance to that growth.
You need places to serve people, not just recreation parks, but you need wildlands for recreation outlets that urban parks dont provide, he said.
Thats what W.R. Wadewitz Foundation members were thinking in 1982 when they purchased the former Boy Scout reservation, Camp Ka Ha Gon, and donated it to Racine County as an educational nature center, according to Paul Lyle, former trustee of the foundation named for the late Western Publishing Co. vice president.
The terms for the foundations donation were explicit. The property must be left in a rustic state and accessible only by foot. It should be open to anyone for hiking and cross-country skiing, and must continue to allow scouts and other youth organizations to use it for year-round camping. The cost of upkeep at Wadewitz is absorbed through the county parks and recreation budget.
It could have fallen into the wrong hands, Lyle said, recalling how the foundation rescued the property from development when the Boy Scouts deemed it no longer necessary as a camp.
It was never farmed except for a relatively small open space. We dont want it to be stampeded with a big circus tent, he said of its limited use requirements. Its got to be a great asset to the county as the years go by. Its one little corner that will be preserved as is.
The low-impact nature of Wadewitz is unique among Racine County parks. Group parties, baseball diamonds and picnic areas could threaten the ecosystem being preserved, said Tom Statz, county park planning and program director. Thats why he prefers not to open wilderness camping opportunities to the general public.
Our feeling is its somewhat delicate, he said. We dont want to abuse it by getting too many large groups out there at any time. That could do some environmental damage.
Scout troops in Racine County continue to use the nature center when they need a rustic experience but dont want to travel several hours to northern Wisconsin, said Frank Risler, a Boy Scout troop leader and planning manager for the Racine County Department of Planning and Development.
Winter camping and practice for high adventure hiking are two of the typical pursuits for scouts at Wadewitz. They earn winter camping badges by sleeping outdoors at several lean-to huts built into the hills. Scouts also work on Eagle Scout projects, including creating habitat for song birds and snakes, he said.
Also at the center are an unheated barn and an attached complex including a cabin, kitchen and Bielefelds office. Nonprofit organizations can use the facilities for a nominal charge, usually about $30 per weekend. Group camping in several remote sites costs only a few dollars a night.
The park gates are open all day for free public use of the 3.5 miles of trails. Visitors hike the paths throughout the year; the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing when theres enough snow. Reservations and park information are available by calling 886-8457.
Its an excellent place to get away when youre not really away, Risler said. There is so much development out there that you need to preserve as much of the natural open spaces as you can.
Risler applauded Bielefelds efforts to cover 50 open acres at Wadewitz with prairie plantings that were stripped away for farming a century ago. Scouts have been helping Bielefeld over the years replant prairie grasses and wildflowers native to Racine County.
Bielefeld is plodding along on a 20- to 30-year prairie restoration plan, adding a few more patches of native plants every spring. Hes in a race against the development clock as he takes seeds from rare prairie plants at fast-disappearing, undisturbed roadsides and railroad crossings.
The naturalist eventually sees Wadewitz as the sole repository of Racine County native plants, with holdings of up to 100 species. They in turn can be used to build the stock of native plantings in other wild areas controlled by the county.
According to Bielefeld, the countys 175,000 acres of prairie plantings in 1836 has been reduced to 10 acres found in tiny patches from Cliffside Park to a railroad crossing at Kansasville. Among the varieties Bielefeld has successfully transplanted to Wadewitz viewed along a 15-stop, self-guided trail tour are yellow blossom prairie dock, violet New England aster and eight-foot tall bluestem.
Were not just losing wildlife habitat, but also rare plants and other ecological elements, Bielefeld said. We need to show people the resources weve lost and demonstrate what the land used to look like.
The nature center has such a low profile in the community that neighbors in the nearby villages of Rochester and Waterford often dont know the winding gravel road at the rear of the Waterford Industrial Park leads to a public park, Bielefeld noted. They also dont realize the county has a naturalist and that he hosts several free nature hikes during the year.
Racine County Executive Jean Jacobson said more people should take advantage of the environmental learning experiences available at Wadewitz. Jacobson, who lives a few miles from the nature center, said she has taken advantage of several of Bielefelds talks.
We laid down in the park and listened to the frogs to determine which type of frogs they were. It was one of the more fascinating evenings weve ever spent, she said. This is the stuff our children need to be taught. They need to appreciate this. Theres not enough attention given to the basics of our environment. This is where the parks department can really be an asset.