Natural Areas Get A Hand
Wisconsin State Journal
April 12, 2007
By Terry Morgan
Chain saws. Herbicides. A forestry mower. They may sound like the ingredients of Al Gore's worst nightmare, but these are tools used by a Wisconsin business to rehabilitate woodlands, prairies and savannas.
Driftless Land Stewardship, "a full-service natural areas management firm," began 10 years ago as a hobby, said Jesse Bennett, who owns the business with his wife, Jaye Maxfield. Today, the couple are in charge of 10 full-time employees, a small fleet of trucks and equipment, and a growing herd of goats.
"Goats are the opposite of cattle; they love brush and ignore grass," said Bennett. With an appetite for Canada thistle and multiflora rose, the goats promise to be effective weed managers on land that is too steep or rugged for machinery. The plan is to contain the goats with solar-powered electric fences.
DLS is based in Bagley, south of Prairie du Chien, in Grant County. The company's work territory extends to the Madison area.
Located in a new office near Wyalusing State Park, DLS does about 40 percent of its business in Wisconsin, 30 percent across the river in Iowa, and smaller amounts in Minnesota and Illinois. Customers are often referred to DLS by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state natural resources departments.
Bennett and Maxfield said they like to be innovative when it comes to solving natural area management problems, and the goats are one aspect of that philosophy.
With invasive non-native plants being a major threat to natural areas, DLS crews are frequently dispatched to do battle with weed species. The tricky part is to eliminate the invaders without harming the natives.
Bennett said each species has an optimal period for control. Last December, for example, found a DLS crew spraying garlic mustard at Monona Woodland Park. Bennett said that garlic mustard stays green and photosynthesizes through the winter, making it susceptible to herbicides while native plants are dormant. Another window occurs in May when garlic mustard can be controlled by burning.
A new invader that concerns Bennett is Japanese hedge parsley, an aggressive ornamental plant that seems to be moving into woodlands from the Madison area.
A large ongoing project involves DLS personnel clearing old fence rows and controlling invasive species in the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area between Dodgeville and Madison. Maxfield said fence-row removal makes the land more open and inviting to grassland birds.
A forestry mower, described by Bennett as "a cross between a bulldozer and a big skid steer," is used by DLS crews to clear unwanted brush and small to medium trees.
While a significant amount of their work takes place on state- owned land, the owners of DLS also work with private landowners.
"Public land is usually thought of as the only place for nature preserves," said Maxfield. "But there is so much private land out there with so much potential, and private landowners don't have as many resources."
Bennett said DLS helps private landowner clients sign up for cost-sharing programs, such as Partners for Fish and Wildlife (administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and the Landowners Incentive Program (administered by the state Department of Natural Resources). These programs will pay for 50 to 80 percent of the cost of projects to preserve or improve natural areas on private land.
Diversity is the key to keeping the staff busy working outdoors year-round. Winter is prime for tree and brush removal on savannas and bluff- top prairies. Spring and fall are the best burning times, and summers are good for trout- stream work.
The business has grown, with annual sales of $642 in 1998, $22,664 in 2002 and $424,266 in 2006, according to Maxfield.
"We are probably the biggest fire-for-hire provider in the Midwest," Bennett said, noting that DLS burned about 1,200 acres last year and could do more this year, weather permitting.
"We are not out to take over the world with our business," said Bennett, adding that he and his wife are comfortable with the size of their staff and their 150-mile work radius.
However, they are considering adding a restoration entomologist. When restoring natural areas, such as prairies, Bennett said they are not content to simply put in the showier plants. "We are working on creating entire functioning systems, and that includes insects and animals."
The advice from DLS to woodland owners might be a little different from that of traditional foresters who seek "to turn trees into money, not to increase biodiversity," said Bennett. "We could do a commercial timber harvest to finance some of the project but then stop there and end up with a restored savanna."