Practice awareness, persistence, patience and gain knowledge for ecological restoration

Ray Mueller
It takes awareness, education, persistence, and patience to carry out ecological restoration.

OSHKOSH -- “One plant, one yard, child, neighbor, friend, job at a time” is how David Cordray hopes steps will be be taken to restore the treasures of nature which have been lost during previous generations in Wisconsin and beyond.

Cordray was the keynote speaker for the 23rd annual Toward Harmony with Nature conference sponsored by the Fox Valley area chapter of Wild Ones. His presentation was titled “The Value of Ecological Restoration.”

An engineer who was involved with ventures as technical as the satellites used for long-term weather forecasting, Cordray, an Indiana native, stepped aside from a career in that field in 2008. Since then, he and his wife Debra have spent much of their time restoring 100 owned acres near Belleville in Dane County to the native prairie and oak savanna it was before European settlement in the 1830s.

To those who question if it's still possible to carry out ecological restoration, Cordray prescribed awareness, education, persistence, and patience. “A seed of knowledge may not share its first bloom until a decade later,” he mused.

The dead badger

On his own property, Cordray described “a twisted cruel irony” of finding a dead badger. Based on the claw marks on its head, he suspects that it might have been killed by a rival badger.

Although it involved a death, Cordray views that irony as a successful example of the prairie restoration that he undertook. He considers the badger, which is seldom seen today, “an icon of the vast native prairie” of which only remnants and a few restorations remain today.

Wisconsin residents can see an oak savanna at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

To a question on whether the badger, which has been the state's official animal since 1957 and is a widely used symbol, is protected against hunting or trapping in the state, Cordray said he didn't know. (An online search does not provide an answer to that question either but the badger is not mentioned on the state's list of threatened or endangered species.)

Ecological restoration

As a concept, ecological restoration begins with an awareness and commitment to interact positively with the native environment, Cordray stated. Members of what's become an endangered ecosystem are a source of food supply, a biological diversity, an outdoor recreation vehicle, and “a connection of the human and natural worlds,” he indicated.

The values which they provide for humans include physical health and well-being, a cultural identity, and spiritual health, Cordray remarked. Too often, he fears that the capitalist system and economics prevail in the public view.

Referring to what he sees as excess attention to lawn care, Cordray said “we need more than green on the landscape. We need a link to the native plant world. We need to address that ignorance and to nurture an awareness of ecology.”

Cordray called for enhancing lawns with a variety of native plants that are readily available. Under the current prevalent practices which he believes are pushed by “peer pressure,” lawns do not provide food for any species, have no ecological or aesthetic value, and waste a lot of fuel during frequent cuttings, he stressed.

Personal experiences

In his own neighborhood, Cordray faces disbelief when he collects seeds from the native plants that he has restored on his property. Most other people in the area consider those plants to be weeds, he laments.

It's only when he points out how much he could sell those seeds for that he gets a different response, Cordray observed. In recalling one such exchange, he was asked “how much per acre?” the volume or value of the seed production would be.

In addition to agricultural land, Cordray said his neighborhood includes a subdivision that was carved from woodlots and some abandoned farms. Among the practices he faults are the introduction of such non-native plants such as multi-flora rose, garlic mustard, buckthorn, honeysuckle, and crown vetch that have emerged as invasive species.

Based on his engineering experience, Cordray is keenly aware of “the importance of every part of the system,” including ecology. This means there's a link between air, soil, water, plants, birds, fish, other animals, and humans, he stated.

Using historical documents

In a practice that he widely recommends for becoming a good land steward by preserving its natural traits and also adding value, Cordray advises reading the original land surveyor notes for the locality (from 1832 in his case). He also referred to letters from 1847 in which an early settler described “the beauty of the natural landscape.”

To address such diverse goals as supporting pollinator insects, groundwater recharge, invasive species, and outdated municipal ordinances, “seek like-minded people” but “be tolerant” and don't expect instant results, Cordray advised. He suggested working with conservation groups and reaching people through blogs.

What's needed is “to build an industry” that includes landowners, land trusts, nurseries, seed suppliers, and contractors in order to set the stage for ecological restoration, Cordray stated. “We need to restore large units.”

In recalling how he was fascinated with crayfish, frogs, praying mantis, and even tomato hornworms as a child and how he visited many natural sites after college, including a nearly fatal incident while climbing near Mt. Denali in Alaska, Cordray said young people today need mentoring on the topic and deserve the support of like-minded organizations.

Handling tensions

Cordray acknowledged that tensions sometimes arise between strong advocates of plants, insects, and burners of prairie sites. He said everyone needs to recognize that “we need the land and the land needs us.”

The overall stance of the public on preservation and enhancement of the native landscape “defines us as a people,” Cordray remarked. What's needed is to realize that “people and nature are one,” he concluded.

Cordray is the owner of Environmental Returns LLC, which provides a variety of services. He can be contacted by phone at 608-225-4467 or through the consulting firm's website.