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RACINE — As Racine County prepares to spend $2.25 million to transform Pritchard Park into an outdoor youth sports complex, it has asked the Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network to help it return the park’s natural areas to a more native habitat.

In a step toward that effort, members of the nonprofit and more than a dozen volunteers were on hand on Sunday beating back two invasive species that continue to crowd out native forest plants in the park.

Gathered in the woods next to the veterans’ memorial, the crews worked for about four hours straight to remove stands of buckthorn and garlic mustard.

By 11 a.m. those volunteers had already amassed giant piles of the woody buckthorn, which resembles a small tree or shrub. Nearby, other helpers were busy bagging up handfuls of the green, leafy garlic mustard.

“It has kind of gone crazy,” said Root-Pike WIN’s executive director Dave Giordano of the buckthorn. “Ninety percent of the green you see (in the woods) is buckthorn. There is probably a good four of five acres of buckthorn here.”

Healthy habitats

At 79 acres, Pritchard Park, 2800 Ohio St., lies in the Root-Pike watershed and is one of five watersheds in the Root-Pike basin that Root-Pike WIN works to protect, restore and sustain.

Removing invasive plant species at Pritchard Park is just one of the ways Root-Pike WIN is hoping to help make the park a better place for both the local water system and native species that should call the area home.

The nonprofit is also working in collaboration with the county to restore the area around the park’s retention pond into a more native habitat.

“It needs a lot of help. If you go down there you will see it is lined with rocks,” Giordano said. “You don’t want to line your retention ponds with rocks. It brings in more geese, and it doesn’t create a good habitat.”

Giordano said removing invasive species will also help to return the park to better health, and create more biodiversity. And it will help the local watershed by making sure native plants that are better for water quality have a chance to proliferate.

“The plants that used to be here have very deep roots and those root structures process pollutants and they hold in the soil,” he said. “Sediment is one of the big polluters to the Root River; so is phosphorous and nitrogen. (Native) root systems break down those pollutants.”

Melissa Warner of Weed Out! Racine, who spent Saturday with a large group of volunteers removing garlic mustard from Colonial Park and Sunday lending at hand with efforts at Pritchard Park, said she sees habitat restoration efforts as being a social justice issue.

“We know Racine has a lower median income and a higher unemployment rate. For a lot of people here (Colonial Park) is nature,” Warner said. “I got to take a trip down the Grand Canyon and I have been to Yellowstone, but at lot of our residents aren’t going to get to do that.”

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