KNAPP — Wood smoke drifted in the air while an 8-foot-high bonfire crackled as branches and logs were added.
Chainsaws buzzed. Trees fell. Beyond the first bonfire, three or four more were being started, each fed by teams of volunteers dragging branches in the snow.
This deforestation was being done in the name of conservation and water quality. The trees being cut were 99 percent box elders bordering Wilson Creek, a small trout stream.
The plan is to replace box elders with native grasses, which have deep roots that prevent erosion.
Wilson Creek carries so much phosphorus and sediment that it is on the federal list of impaired waters. The creek flows into Lake Menomin at Menomonie, adding more nutrients to that famously green lake.
A major part of the funding for the work comes from a federal farm bill program for clean water. But this is also a trout habitat project. Wilson Creek has wild brook trout, although not many in this section.
The project covers about 2,000 feet of stream between Highway O and 770th Ave., just east of Knapp in Dunn County.
Trees and trout
Box elders are a native species related to maples. I’m told if you are willing to boil enough of their sap you can get maple syrup, but in flood plains they are very aggressive, shading out other trees.
Box elders have shallow root systems and when they tip over they uproot soil that finds its way into the creek.
As box elders tumble into the creek they divert the current to the far bank, causing additional box elders to topple in a sort of domino effect, said Nate Anderson, state Department of Natural Resources trout habitat specialist in western Wisconsin. The end result of the toppling box elders is a wide, shallow creek with a bottom of shifting sand and sediment, leaving few places for trout to live and spawn.
This project is trying to reverse this trend by replacing the box elders with deep-rooted native grasses bordering the creek.
“Right now it’s extremely wide and shallow. What we want to do is narrow the creek up and get it back to its original depth,” Anderson said.
Trees are cut to leave about 3 feet of stump — higher than you would cut if you were harvesting trees for timber. However, the 3-foot stump makes it easier for the DNR to come in later with an excavator and pull up the roots, Anderson said. If they don’t get the roots, the trees will re-sprout.
Anderson said when volunteers cut trees, it saves the DNR time and money. In addition, those volunteer hours can be used for a match for some grants.
The tree cutters are also leaving 10-foot logs from some of the straighter box elders. Some of those logs may be used in trout habitat structures in the creek, Anderson said, and others may go to the Dunn County Fish and Game Club to be used in fish cribs. Some logs will be used as firewood by area residents.
I have helped twice on this project along with a few other volunteers from Eau Claire and Menomonie, but there were more Minnesota folks than Wisconsin folks there.
The project is being coordinated by the Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which is comprised of Wisconsin residents living west of Baldwin as well as a number of Minnesota residents who fish in Wisconsin.
They went to work efficiently, cutting dead trees first and collecting wood for the base of the bonfires. They tossed green boughs and logs on top of the blaze. The fire was ignited with a roll of toilet paper soaked in diesel fuel.
If a bonfire sputtered with too much green wood, volunteers gave it a blast of air with a leaf blower, one of those gas-powered devices normally used for blowing leaves off of urban driveways.
The group has been at it every Saturday all winter. Sometimes a few of them come over on Wednesday mornings.
On New Year’s Day, when most folks were in their warm homes watching parades and football games, a volunteer crew was cutting trees on Wilson Creek. By the time they quit in early afternoon, it had warmed up to 5 degrees below zero.
Despite that chill, the group stayed warm, said Randy Arnold of Minnetonka, Minn., its leader.
“As soon as you get one fire going, and people are working, then pretty soon people are down to their shirt sleeves,” he said.
Labor of love
With broad shoulders and long hair, Arnold would not look out of place at a Grateful Dead concert, except that he usually has a chainsaw in his hands. He owns 20 of the machines, although he doesn’t bring them all to the work days.
The placement of the bonfires is important, he explained. You want enough dead wood nearby to get a fire going, but you want the fire centrally located so that people don’t have to drag logs and branches more than 30 or 40 feet.
“I’m a fan of more fires and less dragging,” he said.
The first time I worked on the project, I suggested we leave the piles of branches for rabbit habitat, but Arnold said that wouldn’t work at this location. The goal is to have a cleared surface where the DNR can plant native grasses, he said.
The drive to Knapp from Minnetonka, which is on the western side of the Twin Cities, takes about an hour and 20 minutes, he said.
But the work he does at the creek is a labor of love, he said.
“I enjoy getting out there and working. It’s not drudgery to me,” he said. “We’ve got eager volunteers. For the most part, they enjoy it too.”
And it is rewarding to see the finished product, he said. This would be a gravel-bottom creek with grass banks arising from the former box elder jungle.
The volunteers concluded their day by roasting hotdogs over the embers of one of their bonfires.
The hotdogs had box elder wood flavor.
As of mid-January, the group had logged more than 500 hours of volunteer work, but the Kiap-TU-Wish crew hopes to move on to a second project before the winter ends. Group members plan to start work on a section of the Trimbelle River in Pierce County, which is closer to where their members live.
“There’s a thousand box elders there that need to come down,” he said.
So little time, so many box elders.
The work being done this winter on Wilson Creek is part of a larger clean water project, the Wilson and Annis Creek Watershed Partnership, explains Chris Gaetzke, Conservation Planner for the Dunn County Environmental Services Department.
“We’ve got farmers involved, rural landowners and nonprofit agencies, state and federal agencies involved,” he said. “We’re getting people to know each other.”
Volunteers monitor water quality and UW-Stout students are also involved in the effort, Gaetzke said.
The estimated cost of the 2,000-foot section of the Wilson Creek project is $160,000.
The major funding source is a federal grant through the farm bill, but funding sources also include state trout stamp dollars and smaller grants.
So far, the watershed partnership has lined up eight streambank easements totaling about 14,000 feet of stream, with two more easements in the works. The partnership is also encouraging conservation measures on the uplands to reduce runoff into Wilson and Annis creeks.
Knight was a Leader-Telegram ourdoors reporter and is a freelance writer in Eau Claire.