2011 Leopold Restoration Award Wiinners


Three outstanding couples earn John Nolen awards

The Leopold Restoration Awards program marks its first decade celebrating the achievements of three couples—all receiving the John Nolen Award for Excellence in Ecological Restoration Practices.

David Cordray and Debra Noell have dramatically increased the biological diversity on their 100-acre property in southwestern Dane County, and today this site provides outstanding habitat for some of the state’s most rapidly decreasing grassland and savanna bird species and at least 20 at-risk animal species.

Phill and Joan Pines have acquired property along the Wisconsin River in Columbia County over a 30-year period. For decades, they have been dedicated to restoring their prairies, forests and wetlands and sharing them with a wide audience.

John and Dorothy Priske, owners of Fountain Prairie Farm near Fall River, have transformed their property, building waterways to protect against runoff, and transitioning a significant portion of the farm back to its native wetland and prairie.

In addition to receiving awards in the same category, our winners have other common traits: – They were all surprised and humbled by the award. – They believe they didn’t do anything that special and that there are others more deserving. – They are all quick to credit several people and organizations that helped them with their projects.

Speaking on behalf of all the judges, Darcy Kind believes they are deserving:
“We were thrilled to receive exceptional nominations that show the spirit of some of the state’s most recognized restoration ecologists remains strong in men and women working on the landscape today and that these folks are incorporating community, ecology, agriculture and long-term sustainability into their work. It is an honor to be a part of the judges panel that gets to learn more about these people.”

Join us on October 13 as we celebrate the achievements of these outstanding couples who share our landcare philosophy, and learn more about our winners on the following pages. (Download an invitation/registration form for the event.)

Property owners combined hard work and determination to restore native species and heal their land

David Cordray and Debra Noell’s house in southwestern Dane County is perfectly situated on their land, offering stunning views of the restored property. They enjoy sitting on their deck, appreciating the natural beauty that surrounds them and savoring the fruits of their hard work that began shortly after they purchased the property in 2001, while they were still living in Indiana.

Their 100 acres lies at the edge of a transition area between the state’s southwest savanna and western coulees and ridges. It is a biologically diverse site with great vistas, steep ridges, large oak trees, rock outcroppings and abundant wildlife.

They loved what they saw, and assumed the forested slopes on their new property would be full of ephemerals the following spring.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. A spring visit yielded no ephemerals. In the summer, they did find a small plant with yellow flowers that they later identified as a fringed puccoon, and learned that it grew on prairies.

Wanting to learn more about prairies, the couple visited the Arboretum’s Curtis Prairie, and at the Visitor Center they picked up a brochure on buckthorn. They soon discovered their woods were full of it. David and Debra dug in—they bought a chainsaw and a brushsaw, and ecological restoration began in earnest. They girdled hundreds of trees and cleared buckthorn during vacations to the property. They continued to learn more about savannas and prairies, and they found small areas of natives on subsequent visits to their property.

In 2004, they moved to Wisconsin, joined The Prairie Enthusiasts, and enthusiastically continued to restore the degraded land on their property. David and Debra’s restoration efforts have been aided by incentive and cost share dollars from the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wisconsin DNR’s Landowner Incentive Program.

In 2008, David’s increasing passion for ecological restoration led him to leave his job as an engineer to join an ecological restoration company. This change made it possible for him to spend more time working on his own property and speed up the restoration process.

He has worked tirelessly, restoring a large area of oak savanna and linking it to existing grasslands on the property—resulting in an impressive section of grassland and savanna that provide outstanding habitat for some of the state’s most rapidly decreasing grassland and savanna bird species.

No small feat, but the couple have trouble figuring out why they were selected for this honor. “We were stunned, honored and humbled when we heard the news that we won the award,” David and Debra confess.

Darcy Kind, private lands biologist with the Wisconsin DNR who nominated the couple for the award, cites their humbleness. She notes that while Debra has a full-time career to provide financial support for their projects, David works as a restoration consultant and still has time and dedication to work from dawn to dusk on his own property.

Perhaps David and Debra’s own words best sum up their experience: “Today, our property bears little resemblance to what it was in 2001. We have changed our land, but the process of doing it has changed us. Having the knowledge that we, with the support of others, were the catalyst that enabled the diversity to return to our land is a powerful motivator.”

This couple faced enormous challenges, but were unwavering in their efforts to restore native habitats

Phill and Joan Pines’ 2,500 acres of riparian lowlands in Columbia county border five miles of the Wisconsin River, and provide habitat for countless rare and endangered animals, birds and plants.

For decades, the couple has been acquiring the land and restoring the property while sharing it with a wide audience. Fallow fields have become diverse prairies; local conservation groups, an environmental charter school and countless other conservation and restoration groups have witnessed the results of their restoration efforts and the beauty of this land.

“I have worked with landowners statewide on habitat restoration projects; overwhelmingly, landowners want to change the land to meet their personal desires,” says Wetland Ecosystem Restorationist Jeff Nania. “Phill and Joan were different. They took responsibility for meeting the land’s needs.”

The challenges of restoration are not for the faint of heart, Nania adds. In 1992, Phill and Joan’s substantial resolve was tested when they sought to restore a stream back to its historic course, reestablishing the stream and floodplain forest that it ran through.

Opposition from upstream neighbors met this idea. Phill and Joan maintained the project provided an additional outlet for water, effectively increasing drainage for upstream landowners while restoring the stream corridor. After a prolonged battle, Phill and Joan received a permit. The stream and adjoining wetlands came to life as the water reclaimed the land.

That stream restoration was the “easy” one. A wetland restoration, which is currently underway, involves several hundred acres of fallow cropland, formerly wetland. The Pines sought to restore the land by raising the water level to what existed prior to the drainage efforts.

Initially permitted, they started restoration with gratifying results—the first phase of the project became a migratory stopover for thousands of birds. Shortly after completion of the first phase, further restoration was halted due to legal challenges. It took eight years of litigation to resolve the issue.

“I have learned that it can be a long and sometimes contentious process to complete projects that are friendly to the environment; however, when the projects are complete and they are successful, all the effort and costs are worth it,” says Phill Pines.

During this same period, the Important Bird Area (IBA) program started in Wisconsin. “A comprehensive bird survey was conducted across the proposed IBA, including Phill and Joan’s property,” the late Nina Leopold Bradley (daughter of Aldo Leopold), who nominated the couple for the award, reported.

“Their hundreds of acres of upland prairie restorations represent critical grassland bird habitat for species underserved by the other conservation properties.” With Phill and Joan’s land included, and contributing significantly, the Leopold-Pine Island IBA was dedicated in 2008.

Perhaps Nina Leopold Bradley said it best: “Phill and Joan’s personal achievement in conservation reached the highest mark; they made themselves, their land and those around them better.”

The Pines, in turn, are equally appreciative of the environmental advisors who have helped them. “I especially want to thank The Aldo Leopold Foundation and my close friend Jeff Nania,” Phill adds. “I am gratified to be chosen a recipient of the John Nolen Award. I am even more gratified to have been nominated for this award by Nina, one of the greatest people I have ever known.”

Innovative couple transform a traditional farm into a successful, sustainable, wildlife-enhancing enterprise

Listening to John and Dorothy Priske describe their transition from mainstream farmers to environmental stewards, one is impressed by the couple’s energy and enthusiasm for the sustainable lifestyle they have embraced. They are always looking for more effective, earth-friendly practices and technologies while finding innovative ways to run a profitable operation.

Fountain Prairie Farm is unlike others in the Fall River area. A wind turbine produces electricity for their entire operation—and delivers surplus electricity which is sold to the power company.

The Priskes have built waterways to protect against runoff, and transitioned a significant portion of the farmland back to its native wetland and prairie. They have planted oak and hazelnut stands on the land margins and planted most of the remaining acreage in a lush and diverse blanket of grasses and forbs that provide shelter and food for native and endangered birds, animals and insect pollinators.

Scottish Highland cattle graze in one of several paddocks, part of a rotational grazing plan based on the common-sense concept that grass has roots, cows have legs. This is management intensive rotational grazing—a system where animals are kept in smaller paddocks and rotated regularly, before the land becomes degraded.

The cattle are mowing the grass and doing the harvesting, feeding and fertilizing themselves. It’s a holistic system, with resources remaining on the farm. They sell their meat at the Dane County Farmers Market and to upscale restaurants. They have also restored their farm house to its original 1899 splendor and operate it as a bed and breakfast.

“People know and understand that … when they buy meat from John and Dorothy, that they are also buying into the land and the land ethic that they have created on the farm,” says Wisconsin DNR Public Lands Wildlife Management Specialist Alan Crossley, who nominated the Priskes for the award.

“When people visit the bed and breakfast, they see the commitment to that land ethic. Their eagerness to share what they are doing, the reverence with which they speak about their love of the land is inspiring.”

The Priskes welcome students, researchers, neighbors and anyone interested in talking about farming and the environment to visit their land. They give back tirelessly to the community by serving on community boards, volunteering at events and donating products to special events.

“The Priskes are always trying new things and adding more texture and diversity to their working landscape, believing as they do that the best use for a piece of land is not always to provide a crop; some land is more important for wildlife. Sometimes it’s both,” says Crossley.

“For instance, they have found that forage-based management of some lands leads to more bobolink and meadowlark habitat compared to the prairie. To increase the survival rate of the birdlife on the farm, the Priskes often leave a paddock unused during the nesting season.”

The Priskes, however, see all this as just doing the right thing… nothing out of the ordinary, which explains their reaction to receiving the award.

“It’s a great honor to receive this award,” they said. “Leopold and his writings have long been an inspiration for us, in particular his essay ‘The Farmer as a Conservationist.’ Knowing that others see and appreciate what we have done on our farm is difficult to put into words; receiving this award was a humbling experience for us.”

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.