Russ Hefty produces impressive results with innovative, low-tech/low-cost techniques


As Conservation Resource Supervisor in the Madison Parks Division, Russ Hefty oversees 14 conservation parks—a total of 1600 acres. He has restored prairies, controlled exotic brush, used prescribed burns effectively, and persuaded the Dane County Regional Airport to mitigate wetland impacts caused by runway safety improvements.

His dogged efforts in altering the structure of Madison’s Cherokee Marsh and the Yahara River, however, were a major factor in his earning the Henry Greene Award for Innovative Approaches in Restoration.

He has rescued a slowly failing system and replaced it with a natural ecosystem by what might be called unnatural means, using such unlikely items as long stretches of snow fencing and discarded Christmas trees.

When faced with a vexing problem, Hefty doesn’t mind trying procedures one won’t find in a textbook.

One problem was that the sedge meadows along the Yahara River were washing away and the shorelines were eroding, bringing about floating bogs and a widening river—a situation caused mostly by dams installed at an outlet to Lake Mendota years ago.

“We’re trying to create a 20-acre emergent marsh here,” Hefty says, as he points out one of the Cherokee Marsh work areas in which members of Operation Fresh Start, SPRITE, and park volunteers and staff, helped to establish better conditions for aquatic plants. City staff often used an old barge generously lent by Dane County to work on projects downstream in deeper water.

“After we plant water vegetation and tubers, we have to protect them from muskrats, geese, turtles and especially carp in spawning season. That’s why we use wire baskets and add garden fencing,” Hefty explains.

The addition of snow fencing, he adds, buffers wave action, a problem he worries less about during a dry summer. “It’s always a matter of creating the proper topography and diversity for emergent plants to grow and prosper. Simply tossing tubers into water results in about a 99 percent loss,” he adds.

Madison Parks Development Manager Simon Widstrand says Hefty’s pragmatic, innovative and dedicated work, often using low-tech solutions, has allowed the department to restore areas within budget constraints.

And Catherine Bruner, field manager for UW-Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve, noted: “Rather than be constrained by the natural surfaces of banks and bottoms where others tried to root plants only to see them destroyed, he has changed the paradigm and gone to open water. Rather than be constrained by water, the teams can walk on ice in winter to deploy their constructions and then come back in the growing season in boats to add the plantings.”

Judges’ Note: This nomination detailed how Hefty took what was known and continuously experimented, adapted and modified techniques that have contributed in a significant way to the body of understanding about aquatic restoration methodologies under trying and changing circumstances.

Written by Jacky Kelley; photos 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.