Volunteer army: Students help restore ammunition site

September 24, 2012

At the site of the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant just outside of Baraboo, student volunteers from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies are working overtime. Arms production ended in 1975, and for the past 15 years, the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance has been working to restore the land around the sprawling facility. Student help is critical to these efforts.

Marya Johnston-McIntosh leads volunteers
Nelson Institute student Marya Johnston-McIntosh
(center) instructs prairie monitoring volunteers. 

“The Alliance has a wonderful history of connecting UW-Madison students to our work,” says coordinator Heidi Royal. “Volunteers, by far, are the heart of our programs.”

The Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance formed in the late 90s after the U.S. Army decommissioned the Badger Army Ammunition Plant and began to transfer the property to local, state and federal entities. The group advocates the conservation and restoration of the prairie on the site as part of the larger Badger Reuse Plan advanced by Sauk County.

The site’s proximity to the university – about 33 miles northwest of Madison – and the organization’s emphasis on community engagement and service learning provide limitless opportunities for students to take part.

When built in 1942 to manufacture propellants for ammunition in World War II, the facility was the largest ammunition plant in the world.  More than 1,400 buildings, 130 miles of roads and 26 miles of railway, intermixed with pasture, cropland, ponds, wetlands and wooded areas, spanned its 7,500 acres.

Today the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army share ownership of the land. Together with the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance and the community, they envision combining prairie and savanna restoration with research and education, historical preservation, sustainable agriculture and recreation.

Marya Johnston-McIntosh, a master’s student in the Nelson Institute Environment and Resources program, began volunteering at Badger early in her graduate studies and later developed her thesis project around the work.

UW-Madison environmental studies students clear brush at Sauk Prairie
UW-Madison students assist with prairie restoration
as part of a class led by Johnston-McIntosh.

“It really drew me as this complicated scenario for conservation, but with such great potential,” Johnston-McIntosh said. “And as I started to volunteer, I realized they went about their restoration in a really systematic and wonderful way.”

But she concluded that the project could benefit from some assessment tools.

“As is common with ecological restoration projects, we proceeded in a way that was a prescription – a plan – without stopping to see if the plan was working,” she explains.

For her master’s thesis, Johnston-McIntosh developed a citizen monitoring program to help track and manage invasive plant species in the prairie as well as provide alternate ways for volunteers to contribute.  Her project allows volunteers to act like scientists for a day, collecting data and taking notes based on a specific protocol. The data, gathered annually, will provide insight into the presence and abundance of invasive plant species over time – a critical component in measuring the success of the prairie restoration, she says.

This fall, Johnston-McIntosh is also teaching an undergraduate environmental studies capstone course that will bring students to Badger to complete individual projects.

“The [environmental
studies] students have
a broad base of understanding
from which to approach both
the history of the Sauk Prairie
and its future as a multiple
land use model.”

“The class is using Badger as a case study to show that conservation can be so complex and there can be all these different facets,” she explains. “As opposed to just conserving or restoring a piece of land, you’re interpreting history and engaging with the community to see what they need or want on the landscape.”

According to Heidi Royal, this interdisciplinary perspective that Nelson Institute students bring to the organization’s work is of great value.

“The [environmental studies] students have a broad base of understanding from which to approach both the history of the Sauk Prairie and its future as a multiple land use model,” she says.

Jessie Conaway, a doctoral candidate in Environment and Resources, has served as volunteer coordinator for the Alliance since early 2012. She advises a number of UW-Madison volunteers, including Johnston-McIntosh, on research and service learning initiatives.

“We have some really good pioneers in the UW students who are doing work at Badger,” she says.

Jessie Conaway holds a goat during work with the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance
Nelson Ph.D. candidate and Sauk Prairie Conservation
volunteer outreach assistant Jessie Conaway

Conaway is especially interested in the relationships volunteers create with the landscape through long-term restoration projects and citizen science, and how participation in such activities can enrich the volunteer experience and restoration efforts.

For Conaway, Johnston-McIntosh and other partners with the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance, educating community members about the landscape’s extensive history and the groups that have called it home is a priority.

Native Americans first inhabited the land in its natural state of tall grass prairies and savannas. After European settlement, however, the area was transformed into farmland. Then, with the construction of the ammunition facility and an influx of thousands of plant workers, farm families had to relocate.

“Monitoring implies a long-term relationship with a landscape,” Conaway explains. “Keeping that big historical picture in mind, we’re moving forward to look to the next chapter in the narrative and say, as a community, ‘What do we want to remember about this? What do we want to have as our vision as we move forward in taking care of and participating in this landscape?’”

Amanda Lucas is a senior majoring in journalism and environmental studies. All photos courtesy the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance.