An Investment for the Future: Restoring Dane County’s Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Over one hundred years ago, the Acker family converted 160 acres of wetlands and prairies into a dairy farm. In 2019, Dane County purchased the property for an unprecedented $10 million—the largest land purchase for conservation purposes in the county’s history. Restoration of the farmland to its original ecosystems is currently underway, an effort that will advance flood mitigation efforts and improve water quality, among other benefits.

The former farm site will merge with the adjacent 550 acre Pheasant Branch Conservancy, a large natural area in northern Middleton. Dane County is partnering with the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, the Clean Lakes Alliance, and other community organizations to demolish structures on the property, encourage significant wetland revitalization and stormwater management, and cultivate prairies on former croplands.

Earlier this year, the Middleton Fire Department utilized some of the structures on the Acker farm site for training exercises. With their aid and the efforts of staff at the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department, all building demolition is now complete. Middleton-based Speedway Sand and Gravel will remove the rest of the concrete as part of a $429,800 contract. The concrete will be reused on-site to construct a parking lot.

Speedway Sand and Gravel is also in charge of wetland restoration, which is expected to be finished by the end of this year. The Acker farm site contains the headwaters for a stream that flows into Pheasant Branch Creek, which is connected to Lake Mendota. The restored wetlands will trap sediments and store stormwater runoff to prevent a deluge into the creek. To achieve this, “The contractor will be constructing infiltration basins where the water will gather,” said Land & Water Resources Director Laura Hicklin. “Sediment will collect there, rather than washing into the stream.”

While the wetland restoration is nearing completion, it will not be fully functional until the prairie restoration is finished in 2024. Prairie restoration will span four years and occur one quadrant at a time, starting with the farmland’s southeast quadrant in 2021. The prairie will also filter and store water; prairie grasses have deep roots which will increase soil infiltration rates.

The Clean Lakes Alliance pledged $100,000 to purchase 'platinum' prairie seeds and the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy launched the “Seed the Need” initiative to match that donation. Platinum prairies are more diverse in flora and—as a result—fauna. Platinum prairies also have increased capacity for carbon sequestration; the prairies will remove one metric ton of carbon per year upon completion. A diverse prairie is more resilient against invasive species, incurring lower maintenance costs in the long run. The platinum prairie will also add to the county’s seed collection and be a source of premium seeds for future projects. To donate, please visit https://pheasantbranch.org/seed-info/.

“Restoring this prairie and wetland will result in up to five million fewer gallons of water rushing into the creek and Lake Mendota. So it’s very important, as far as flood prevention and mitigation,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. In addition to reducing the risk of flooding, these measures prevent phosphorus and other nutrients from entering the lakes, which will curtail algae blooms. The county estimates the restoration projects will keep 550 pounds of phosphorus and other nutrients out of the lakes per year, improving water quality. The prairies and wetlands will also provide a habitat for wildlife, including migrating birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

The historic purchase and critical restoration efforts underscore Dane County’s commitment to flood mitigation, clean water, and wildlife preservation. “This is a very important opportunity,” Parisi said. “And I guarantee that, 10 years from now, no one is going to look at that piece of land and wish that it would’ve been developed. I think current and future generations will thank us for making this investment.”

[Source: Dane County LWRD, The Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Wisconsin State Journal, and Waunakee Tribune]

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