Town of Dunn award highlights UW role in local land ethic

April 29th 2016
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It's suitable that a talk with two of Wisconsin's most prominent wetland biologists should occur in a wetland located just south of Madison. On a raised path through Waubesa Wetland, Joy Zedler, who will receive the Town of Dunn's Stewardship Award on April 30, is talking along with Cal DeWitt, who won the inaugural award in 1991.

DeWitt, an emeritus professor at UW-Madison's Nelson Institute, spent decades studying and advocating for a wetland that is literally in his own backyard. Zedler, a UW-Madison professor of botany who lives nearby, has performed extensive wetland research in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

As we walk, the conversation stretches back 10,000 years, to the time when this area was a bay of nearby Lake Waubesa. The talk lurches forward to the 1970s, when DeWitt and his wife, Ruth, bought their house overlooking the marsh, and the new professor shifted focus from desert ecology to wetlands.

DeWitt used the backyard wetland as a natural laboratory for a course called Field Investigations in Wetland Ecology, which he taught for about 30 years. At each final session, he invited neighbors to hear what his students had learned.

The result was unexpected, but welcome, DeWitt says. "This mobilized my neighbors to delight in these wetlands and what we were discovering, and they began to propose donations of land and money."

As cranes continue their unmistakable bugling in the background, Zedler, the Aldo Leopold Chair of Restoration Ecology at UW-Madison, stresses that wetlands have an outsized value for flood control and water purification. "Acre for acre, the environmental benefits - what we sometimes call ecosystem services - are extraordinarily important for human society and nature alike."

But, Zedler adds, wetlands cannot be fully protected by a line on a map. "Cal created all this wisdom about how the system works from a historical perspective, and my research takes off from there."

Story by David Tenenbaum, University Communications