Richard Henderson’s career has been dedicated to protecting and restoring Wisconsin’s native heritage


Walking about the hard-earned oak savanna and other landscapes around his home in Verona, one marvels at the leadership roles assumed by the soft-spoken, unpretentious Rich Henderson.

He has been president of The Prairie Enthusiasts, a 1,000-member group of volunteers specializing in prairie and oak savanna restoration, and an originator of the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area, which includes more than 50,000 acres of grasslands in Dane and Iowa counties. Henderson also has served as the leader and motivator of several projects for The Nature Conservancy, namely the prairie preserves known as Spring Green, Schluckebier, and Black Earth Rettenmund, where he organized, led and participated in countless workdays.

“Rich has dedicated his life to Wisconsin’s prairies and oak woodlands and has been able to convince others of the importance of protecting Wisconsin’s prairie heritage,” says Steve Richter, director of conservation and land management for The Nature Conservancy. Henderson’s enthusiasm and ever-growing expertise in ecological restoration has likewise earned him the praise of his employer, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“Rich is the expert on prairie plants and invertebrates and has provided many records to the Department on rare species, in addition to providing management advice to protect them. His publications are widely used; he is frequently contacted for specific advice. He also researched the history of bison in Wisconsin; this information has proved very useful in helping understand management of prairie and savanna communities,” says Signe Holtz, director of the DNR’s Bureau of Endangered Resources.

In the mid ‘80s, Henderson organized and coordinated some of the Conservancy’s first prescribed burns. Since then, he has garnered a solid reputation in the field of prescribed burns and can predict at what time of the year and under precisely what conditions a burn will be most beneficial to encourage or discourage specific landscapes and plants.

Landowners and volunteer leaders know that when Rich Henderson is in charge, the burn will be executed properly and safely. Both as a volunteer and an employee of the DNR, Henderson’s field work has shown the value of understanding the fine points of how plants, animals, weather and other environmental factors affect one another and how humans can help—and hurt—natural processes.

Henderson adds another dimension to his restoration advice, some of which flows from his more than 30-year effort to establish the splendid oak savanna near his home: “You have to be very patient. This is a long-term project.”

Judges’ Note: This nomination is considered worthy on all criteria. Henderson is clearly a major contributor to restoration as a professional, volunteer, leader and teacher in many informal settings. He is acknowledged as a prairie expert by professionals, volunteers, and amateurs alike. It was noted that his knowledge of the ecological attributes of individual species as well as plant communities is very reminiscent of the depth of ecological understanding of plant species exhibited by Henry Greene.

Written by Jacky Kelley; photo by Bill Arthur.

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.