GCSAA members oversee Wisconsin trail cleanup

Two members helped Ice Age Trail Alliance volunteers tidy up a portion of a 1,200-mile footpath.


Ice Age Trail before cleanup
The stretch of the Ice Age Trail that runs between the O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility and University Ridge Golf Course in Madison, Wis., before cleanup efforts to clear underbrush. Photos by Ed Spoon

In theory, volunteers with the Ice Age Trail Alliance have a legal right to the easements upon which the 1,200-mile footpath meanders through Wisconsin, including the 2-mile stretch that connects the O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility and University Ridge Golf Course in Madison, Wis.

So, theoretically, when workers with the Dane County Chapter of the IATA noticed the forests surrounding that stretch had become blighted with unsightly underbrush, they had every right to descend, chain saws ablaze, to clean out the invasives that threatened not only the aesthetics of the trail but also the health and welfare of the natives that grew there.

“We could clear within the trail easement without working with them,” IATA volunteer Ed Spoon says, “but I couldn’t imagine doing it without their cooperation. The easement gives us certain legal rights, but we’re not wanting to throw our weight around. We want to work cooperatively with them.”

In that spirit, Spoon wrangled up 43 individual volunteers who collectively worked 576 hours over seven individual workdays last winter to spruce up that particular stretch of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Spoon was particularly grateful for the oversight of Bruce Schweiger, superintendent of the Noer facility and 10-year GCSAA Educator member, and Phil Davidson, GCSAA Class A superintendent at University Ridge GC and 13-year association member.

“From my standpoint leading the volunteers, the cooperation from Bruce and Phil was just tremendous,” Spoon says. “They made my work a lot more fun — and easier. Instead of them just giving us permission, they were coming up with ideas to make things easier.”

Toiling through the occasionally brutal Wisconsin winter, the all-volunteer force amassed 14 brush piles, the largest of which measured roughly 35 feet by 35 feet by 8 feet, which they disposed of, eventually, through burning.

“It’s fun to look back on now,” says Spoon, a trained chain sawyer, “and say, ‘It sure looks a lot better now than when we started.’”

Ice Age Trail after cleanup
The trail after cleanup efforts.

A crow could fly from the trail’s western terminus in St. Croix Falls to the eastern terminus in Sturgeon Bay in 260 miles, but the trail follows a serpentine route across the state, crossing 30 counties and traversing various types of land: privately owned, city and state parks, county and national forests. One of only 11 National Scenic Trails — joining, among others, the Appalachian National (2,190 miles), Pacific Crest (2,650 miles), Continental Divide (3,100 miles) and Natchez Trace (65 miles) national scenic trails — the Ice Age Trail traces the southern edge of the glacier that covered much of North America some 15,000 years ago.

Though the trail is not yet complete, the IATA says more than 2.3 million people hike, snowshoe and backpack the trail yearly.

Spoon says the section by the Noer and University Ridge GC — which June 5-11 will host the PGA Tour Champions American Family Insurance Championship — last had any significant underbrush work done roughly 15 years ago. In the intervening decade and a half, invasives, primarily European buckthorn and honeysuckle, have grown unabated.

“They’re a curse,” Spoon says. “Aesthetics are a big part of it. When people walk on the Ice Age Trail, we want them to have a good experience. Walking through honeysuckle and European buckthorn is just terrible. And they’re terrible for the forest, so we’ve started to fight back.”

Forty-two miles of the IAT run through Dane County, but the stretch from the Noer through University Ridge GC stretches just 1.9 miles. The volunteers chose to work in winter to facilitate use of chain saws. Also, the course is closed then, and when it came time to burn, it allowed burning with snow cover.

“It’s very labor-intensive,” Spoon says. “It’s mostly done with hand tools. The big reason for that is, if you come in with all kinds of machinery, the trail looks like it’s had all kinds of machinery on it. The philosophy of the Ice Age Trail is to lay lightly on the land, to look like it just grew there. You can’t do that if you’re running Bobcats and backhoes through there.”

Volunteers built three “rabbitats” — purpose-built brush piles left behind for wildlife habitat — and piled the rest. When it came time to seek a burn permit from the Madison Fire Department, Schweiger took the lead, filling out the application and even paying the fee.

“That saved a lot of legwork for me,” Spoon said. “Hopefully, thanks to him, that will lead to continuing this effort for several years. This project is going to take several years to work from the eastern edge to the western edge of the property. And you can’t just go through and clean the invasives and say, ‘Looks good. We’re done.’ Invasives have a lot of seeds in the soil, so you have to go back and stay with it.

“I’m very happy with the amount we got done. As happy as I am with the work on the ground, equally gratifying is the relationship this fosters with Bruce and Phil. Wherever the trail is, we’re focused on good relations with the landowners. It’s really important to get along with our neighbors and honor their wishes and keep them happy. Working with Bruce and Phil has really been good, and I think things will get even better as we get into the next couple of years.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.