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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Lakeshore Nature Preserve employees urge shift from private to public funding

Employees highlighted over-reliance on private funding and miniscule staffing numbers impeding maintenance and development of the preserve.

Employees at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve are receiving minimal funding and staffing despite requests to University of Wisconsin-Madison administration for increases, something they say is hindering a vital part of the campus ecosystem. 

Despite the 300-acre preserve falling on university grounds, private donations amounting to about $140,000 annually fund the majority of basic upkeep, including repainting and maintaining gates, controlling invasive species, developing planning documents and emptying pit toilets.

“To the untrained eye, it may seem like a really lush, thriving place, but the current state of the land in many places is pretty degraded, lacking in diversity and has lost those disturbance regimes that maintain diversity,” Adam Gundlach, Fields Project Manager for the preserve, told The Daily Cardinal.  

Historically, the preserve had an annual budget for supplies and services of about $12,000, according to a letter Lakeshore Nature Preserve Committee members sent to the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability. 

But private funds currently support more than 35% percent of the preserve’s annual budget, according to its donation website, while UW-Madison’s operating budget supports the preserve’s administrative expenses.

More staff needed for upkeep, employees say

There are only three staff members and two student assistants who maintain the entire preserve, along with volunteers. Soleil Bieniek, a student natural area assistant, said that makes maintaining the grounds — let alone making forward progress — a struggle.

She believes the preserve would benefit from greater staffing. 

“It's harder to get more things done in a shorter amount of time, because there's only a handful of us on the land at a given time,” Bieniek said.

Maintenance is important for a preserve used by thousands of pedestrians, area residents, researchers and workers, employees said. 

“Many of us consider the preserve the largest outdoor laboratory on campus,” said Laura Wyatt, the preserve’s interim director. She also cited the preserve as an essential place for relaxation and respite from busy university life. 

“It's a really nice break from just like the hectic environment of campus,” said Emilia Deino, vice president of the UW Audubon Society. “[The preserve] has a vast number of different habitats like wetlands, marshes and forest gardens that attract a lot of different bird species, so it's really valuable to us.”

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Deino was surprised to learn about the preserve’s low staffing. 

“That’s it? The hell,” Deino said. She estimated that there would be at least fifteen staff, three times the actual number. 

As a result, staff members are affected by the concentrated workload. 

“I started with my head in the weeds, and unfortunately, it's still very much in the weeds,” Gundlach joked. 

Administrative barriers to funding

Last spring, the Lakeshore Nature Preserve was moved from Facilities and Planning Management to the Office of Sustainability, which gave the opportunity to request more funds.

The Lakeshore Nature Preserve Committee sent a letter to Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, College of Letters and Sciences Dean Eric Wilcots and Office of Sustainability Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Robert Cramer requesting that “management and maintenance of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve not rely on outside donations.” 

Lakeshore employees said they would prefer “gifts and donations be used, as they are elsewhere on campus, to enhance and supplement institutional support.”

The committee has not received a response yet. Robert Beattie, UW-Madison Community Environmental Scholars Program co-director and committee chair, believes this is because the Office of Sustainability’s overall budget has not been approved yet. 

Beattie also shared that there was some pushback by an upper level provost in the Office of Sustainability, who was surprised by the request given there had been no prior communication and the preserve is a new addition to the Office of Sustainability.

“Moving into the Office of Sustainability also makes a huge amount of sense because it fits with a conception of sustainability on campus and lets us stick with the educational mission,” Beattie said.

But in interfacing with the university, Wyatt said that her efforts for increased funding have needed to be “political.”

“Number one [thing] we’ve learned —  be nice to administrators,” Wyatt said. “It’s like the university has to be nice to the state Legislature to get what they need. Everybody needs to be nice.”

Maintenance, development requires further funding 

Without increased support, making meaningful improvements to the site has been difficult.

“I’ve been here 14 years, and I’ve had a vision of what the site could be in my head for those 14 years,” Gundlach said. “I have really only been able to scratch the surface as far as moving the land management forward.”

Staff members said greater funding would allow staff to further connect with the land’s Ho-Chunk history and include it in land management practices.

“We have this big push to reconnect with all of our indigenous tribes and, you know, be respectful of that history,” Gundlach said. “What better way to do that than to try to manage the land in a way that is in line with that?”

Beattie asked people to recognize the labor behind spaces like the Lakeshore Path or Picnic Point. 

“Take a step back and think: How do we have this cool thing?” Beattie said. “What does it take to keep it working? It's a good opportunity to recognize we're not separate from that natural landscape, but we have to engage ourselves in it and participate in it in order to keep it whole.”

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Mary Bosch

Mary Bosch is the photo editor for The Daily Cardinal and a first year journalism student. She has covered multiple stories about university sustainability efforts, and has written for state and city news. Follow her on twitter: @Mary_Bosch6



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