Just a short walk up Union Street from the main Ripon College campus, west of the Willmore Center, lies the 130-acre Ceresco Prairie Conservancy, an ambitious town-gown project of sustainability that is restoring this tract of land to its native prairie, oak savannah and wetlands habitat.
Since the first restoration seeds were planted in the spring of 1996, hundreds of passionate students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends have shared in the tradition of reseeding the prairie, battling invasive species and enjoying the serenity and beauty the conservancy offers.
Each season is special: the wildflowers of spring; the verdant lushness of summer; the stark, white beauty of February; and the oranges and reds of autumn, when George “Skip” Wittler, professor of biology and director of the conservancy project, leads volunteers to the conservancy to collect seeds for the next season’s planting.
“There’s a spiritual aspect to the prairie,” Wittler says. “It’s more than just plants and animals — it’s humans, too.”
When combined with the protected 30 acres of South Woods, the entire area serves is a distinct place of study and recreation that includes public hiking and mountain bike trails as well as the Patricia Kegel ’56 Environmental Classroom, donated by Paul Kegel ’57, who also was an ardent conservancy volunteer.
At one time, 6,000 acres of prairie and oak savanna ecosystems stretched throughout what is now Fond du Lac County — home to Ripon College. That had fallen to just six acres, a dangerous detriment to the local environment.
With the conservancy on the College campus, faculty, students and friends continue season by season to restore this section of prairie ecosystem in what has become the College’s largest outdoor classroom.
“The gain of more than 100 acres of restored prairie is significant and provides a major area for student/faculty research in prairie use and land restoration, and the study of prairie structure and dynamics,” says Professor of Biology Emeritus Bill Brooks. “Prairie and oak savanna ecosystems have fallen to 0.01 percent of their former acreage in Wisconsin.”
The conservancy is a partnership between the Department of Natural Resources and Ripon College, and part of the DNR’s Glacial Habitat Restoration Program. Students in Ripon’s botany, ecology and animal biology courses make use of the conservancy, as do students doing research projects on various plants and animals. Their studies have added valuable insight into the mechanics of Ripon’s delicate ecosystems.
“The conservancy provides a lot of students with senior research projects, just in keeping track of the animal and plant species year by year,” says Melissa Pischke ’98, who discovered through her research that the conservancy’s balsam poplar trees were from one clone. “It’s an exciting area for research, especially for chemistry and biology majors.”
The “Biology 500″ senior thesis course demands much of the hard-nosed research. “The conservancy provides an amazing classroom where Ripon students can participate in the restoration of an endangered ecosystem,” says Sara Tiner ’98, who conducted her senior research project on prairie forbs. “Ripon students are at an advantage because of the research and learning opportunities made possible by the prairie — for both the College and community, the prairie offers a chance to relax, bird watch or catch a glimpse of our wildlife.”
In an area that supports wildlife such as deer, fox, pheasant, sand hill cranes, turkey, river otters, rabbits and numerous species of birds, Brooks and Wittler believe that encouraging the growth of the conservancy’s native plants will, in turn, encourage other animals to inhabit the area.
“The non-native prairie species don’t provide the necessary cover for animals in the winter,” Wittler says. “Native warm-season grasses stay upright even under heavy snow, providing needed shelter.”
Each fall, biology professors lead teams of volunteers in removing European buckthorn, an invasive plant whose main order of business, according to Brooks, is “strangling the oak trees.” Each year, conservancy volunteers join the professors in combating the buckthorn’s gnarled branches, first by sawing the plants down and then by applying short-lived herbicide to the stumps.
“For Ripon to have the resource of the Ceresco Prairie Conservancy in its own backyard is wonderful almost beyond belief,” says Professor of Biology Bob Wallace. “It is a teaching bonanza for the biology department, as well as a place for recreation and peaceful solitude and contemplation.”