Adaptive Restoration: Going Back to Go Forward

Photo by Adaptive Restoration LLC

Centuries of land development have made life easier for some select megafauna, namely humans. We needed food and other resources, so, according to data from the Wisconsin DATCP, we turned 14.3 million acres of Wisconsin’s almost 35 million acres into farmland. Then there’s questions concerning where we’re going to live and how we’re going to get around, so residential areas and roads were developed. It’s progress, they say, and I guess that’s okay, but what if we want to adjust? That’s where land management and restoration come in.

Land development has been great for us, but it’s been detrimental for a lot of native species. This might be an extreme example, but only a couple hundred years ago moose were fairly common throughout the northern half of Wisconsin; now there’s only 20 to less than 50 at any given time in the northernmost regions. Adaptive Restoration in Dane County isn’t aiming to bring moose to Madison, but they’re playing a big role in restoring land and in the locating and management of existing natural areas.

“There was an opportunity and a need for high-quality, science-based land stewardship and restoration here in southern Wisconsin,” says Adaptive Restoration co-founder Mike Healy. “In this region, you have an intersection of areas with high restoration potential, like remnant prairies and savannas, which are both globally rare, and people who want to do restoration.”

Photograph provided by Adaptive Restoration LLC

Doing things right when it comes to land management and restoration is almost more important than doing them in the first place because it’s fairly easy to unintentionally cause more harm. “Some of it is just due to lack of awareness,” says Mike. “Oh, it’s green; it must be good.” This is why it’s so important Adaptive Restoration keeps highly qualified staff on hand, including two foresters, one with a master’s in forestry; at least two restoration ecologists with, at minimum, a master’s degree in either restoration, lake, field, or relevant ecology research; and a field crew, some professionally trained in restoration, most with degrees from University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point or UW–Madison, and some with experience fighting wildfires or operating heavy machinery.

“It’s a nice breadth of experience of being able to do the thinking and writing aspect of restoration planning, where you need to communicate ideas and do public outreach and stakeholder meetings, and then the actual on-the-ground know-how of conducting a timber harvest or doing a prescribed burn safely and having that experience of being able to put a fire out if you need to or knowing how to run and maintain machinery needed for planting a prairie.”

Other services include ecological consulting and land stewardship, restorative forestry, developing seed mixes, invasive species management, botanical survey, and outreach and education. Mike says, “Basically, if you had an open field that was maybe in corn for years and years and you wanted to add the diversity and to have a little more wildlife benefit—go from maybe 1 species of plant to 100—we’d be the people you call.”

Photograph provided by Adaptive Restoration LLC

Aside from running their business efficiently, to achieve as large an impact as possible and some degree of ecological coherency, Adaptive Restoration has worked with private individuals, nonprofit organizations, for-profit groups, and state and local governments. “We’ve done quite a bit of work in the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in the City of Middleton. We did a fairly large savanna restoration at Monona Woodland Park near Aldo Leopold Nature Center. And those are really rewarding projects because we’re working with volunteers and community groups to get the restoration done. We might come in to do some of the heavy lifting in terms of harvesting non-savanna species with our team of draft horses or bringing in machinery to do prairie planting.”

There’s been a lot of focus on prairie restoration in Mike’s line of work. According to the Wisconsin DNR, we’re down to less than 0.1 percent of the original 10 million acres of prairie and savanna native to Wisconsin. Part of helping prairies make any sort of comeback involves not just planting new prairies, but improving the remaining few. “Those are called remnants. That’s one thing where when we’re helping someone with a property search, we’re just doing a consult to share with them what they have. We have an eye for finding these little pockets of prairie that may seem like just a little patch of grass when really it’s this highly biodiverse remnant of the 10 million acres we used to have.”

Photograph provided by Adaptive Restoration LLC

Another area of environmental concern that’s been making headlines is managing and restoring our waterways. Over the last year or so, Adaptive Restoration has been working with an engineering firm to do stream restoration and dam removal in the Driftless Area west of Madison. “Our role there is designing the seed mixes and then actually doing the plantings and working with engineers to do the grading and draw down the water levels in the impoundment that was created by the dam.”

In essence, these restoration efforts are undoing what we did to “improve” what Mother Nature had done. What we’re learning is that Mother Nature is far better at restorations than we are. Mike says, “You see examples of that where people are building in wetlands, and then there’s a flood. And they’re surprised their building got flooded out.” He recalls when Costco in Middleton, once nicknamed Peatsville, flooded in August 2018. This is where the planning aspect of Adaptive Restoration’s work becomes vital. “Taking the watershed approach and looking at where your project is within that watershed and where the water’s going and where it makes sense to build is important.”

Mike founded Adaptive Restoration with his wife, Anna, a certified arborist and forester for the City of Fitchburg. Since 2006, they’ve worked together to restore, improve, and manage thousands of acres of Wisconsin woodland, prairie, and wetlands. COVID-19 has shown us that we seem to have a deficit in these spaces due to how crowded state and county parks and trails have become. “I want to have increased connectivity between those spaces either via trails or corridors of protected land, public or private.” When things function as a whole, the importance of maintaining the entire structure becomes less abstract, inspiring more people to do their part in keeping Wisconsin’s distinct ecosystems around for generations to come.

Kyle Jacobson is a writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson