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"Hidden Gems”: Nelson Professor Seeks International Recognition for Local Wetlands

April 13, 2018

Wetlands hold a special place in Joy Zedler’s heart, especially the Waubesa Wetlands, where she has lived alongside of for the past 14 years. She’s been studying wetlands like those since returning to Wisconsin in 1998 and recently compiled her own experience into a book highlighting the major significance of the Waubesa Wetlands and why they need international recognition.

Zedler is the Aldo Leopold Professor Emerita of Restoration Ecology and Professor of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While active at the university, she mentored and trained MS and PhD students, authored numerous research papers, helped shape Wisconsin wetlands restoration for the UW Arboretum and, most recently, published “Waubesa Wetlands: A New Look at an Old Gem.” Now she’s taking the role as an advocate for environmental preservation by gaining international recognition for the Waubesa Wetlands.

Personal Connections
As one of the nation’s foremost experts in coastal wetland ecology, Zedler’s relationship with wetlands is one of scientist and subject, but she’s developed a personal connection with them as well.

While paddling through the waters of the Waubesa Wetlands with her husband, Zedler was charmed by the landscape. As they continued up the stream, her curiosity eventually led them to what would become their current home in the Town of Dunn.

“We wanted to know where the stream originated but we couldn't paddle any further. We returned to our car and drove around the wetlands until we saw a driveway with a for-sale sign,” Zedler said. “When we saw the nearby spring, we knew it was the place for us.”

Calvin B. DeWitt, a longtime resident of the Town of Dunn and UW-Madison Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies, had also suggested that the Zedlers live there, given their interest in wetlands. That would be the start of a lifelong friendship that would eventually result in the new book she’s published, with photography and stories from DeWitt, and their shared mission to preserve the wetlands in their own backyards.

For DeWitt, he sees the Waubesa Wetlands as part of his home. He loves showcasing the wonders of the wetlands to students, local residents and visitors alike. For over 30 years he’s taught a graduate field course titled “Field Investigations in Wetland Ecology” there, which operated as a sort of natural laboratory in his own backyard for students to do field projects. At the end of the course, he’d also invite neighbors over to hear his students deliver presentations on what they’ve learned from the local ecosystem.

“One of the things that gives it great strength is tremendous community involvement here. There is a shared sense of stewardship by all of the residents,” DeWitt noted. “It’s really right at the heart of the maintenance of this place as a vibrant and beautiful wetland gem.”

Both DeWitt and Zedler are ardent communicators about wetland science, especially in the Town of Dunn where people are very involved in community decision making. Their mutual interests and passion for the Waubesa Wetlands led them to take action towards permanent protection. To achieve that goal, Zedler set out to file paperwork for the Waubesa Wetlands to become a Ramsar site.

International Recognition, Local Importance
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat is an intergovernmental treaty signed in 1971, in which 18 nations agreed to promote the “conservation and wise use of all wetlands” in their local and international policies. Since then, nearly 90 percent, 169 of 193 Member States, of the United Nations governing bodies, including the United States, have signed on to the agreement.

There are more than 2,000 wetlands recognized by the convention, but only 38 of them are located in the United States. Zedler is hoping to change that by nominating Waubesa Wetlands.

In order to qualify for Ramsar site designation, the nominated wetland must meet at least one of nine special criteria to ensure the wetland is a unique habitat that hosts a diversity of birds, fish and other rare animal species, which Zedler says is true of the Waubesa Wetlands. Achieving Ramsar site certification accepting responsibility for maintaining the “ecological character” of the site and implementing management strategies to help keep the Waubesa Wetlands in a clean and healthy condition for future generations.

Wetlands are some of the most productive landscapes, providing vital ecosystem services such as flood protection, clean freshwater supply and habitat for countless plant and animal species that depend on it for survival. Many of these wetlands are located in areas of the Midwest, particularly in states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, which boast millions of acres of wetlands. While about 15 percent of Wisconsin’s area is currently wetlands habitat, it has lost nearly half of the wetlands it had in the 1780s.

“Wisconsin wetlands are already diminished by about half their historical area, and much of what remains is disturbed,” Zedler said. “People need to see the big picture. Gems like Waubesa Wetlands are the best of the best that remains.”

Zedler said the idea to apply for the Ramsar designation came after a politician said they doubted the Waubesa Wetlands could have any impact on global nitrogen cycling, the circulation of nitrogen throughout an ecosystem. She took that as a challenge and filed the papers in 2017. Since then, she’s been working with DeWitt to achieve the international recognition for the wetlands of her home.

Ways of Knowing an Inner Land Ethic
Beyond Ramsar certification, Zedler advocates for a more intimate relationship with the nature around us, which she thinks gets to the heart of the issue. In what Native Americans calls a “culture of reciprocity,” Zedler asks others to consider not only what benefits we receive from the Earth, but also what we can give back to it.

Zedler said many people see a dichotomy of two philosophies of knowledge: traditional and scientific ways of knowing. These traditional ways of knowledge date back to the Native American tradition of experiential learning from the natural world and passing that knowledge on over generations. Whereas, the Western scientific method is more heavily focused on experimentation, empirical data and statistical comparison. Though seemingly oppositional, she thinks these different approaches have complimentary roles.

Ultimately, changing the way in which humans view the landscape is a shared goal, Zedler said. She said encouraging citizens to learn the science behind the wetlands is an important step to take, and even more important, asking people to engage in the “culture of reciprocity” that sustains the well-being of both the land and the people.

“Indeed, we’ll need more than science to carry out the ideas presented in [the book],” Zedler said. “We’ll need an ethic that is based on both science and deep commitment. We’ll need to look inward.”

The book is available in print and online as a digital e-book. The Town of Dunn provides free downloads on their website. Copies of the print version are available at the Dunn Town Hall, 4156 County Road B, McFarland, Wis.