For most of us, it's all too easy to take the Arboretum for granted. It seems it's always been there, and always will be there -- a great natural resource, a place to bicycle, run, walk or hike on miles of paved road and trails through woods and prairies, as well as to enjoy the wonderful Longnecker Gardens. Not to mention skiing and snowshoeing in winter
But the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum has not always been there. The seeming permanence of its mature natural communities is illusory. Back in the early 1930s, this was all farmland and pasture that had fallen into disuse. What we see today is the result of a painstaking and pioneering effort.
Though they may not have anticipated it at the time, the University of Wisconsin's Arboretum committee's foresight resulted in the Arboretum's ongoing status as a pioneer in the restoration and management of ecological communities. In focusing on the re-establishment of historic landscapes, particularly those that predated large-scale human settlement, they introduced a whole new concept in ecology: ecological restoration -- the process of returning an ecosystem or piece of landscape to a previous, usually more natural, condition.The Arboretum does not automatically maintain itself. It takes a lot to maintain natural ecological communities within the confines of a major urban environment. As a result of population and environmental pressures, the Arboretum is facing major challenges. For example, the Arboretum is part of the Lake Wingra watershed, every year there's more runoff ending up in an already overstressed environment. The heavy rains this year caused extensive erosion and closed some trails (rainwater from the paved parking lots on Odana Road, several miles to the west, eventually ends up in the Arboretum). Don't miss the major article by Ron Seely in The Wisconsin State Journal about the challenges facing the Arboretum and the decisions that will have to be made if we want to maintain this marvelous environment and pass it on to our children in a healthy state.
Madison was a fast-growing city in the 1920's. Fortunately, some leading citizens recognized the need to preserve open space for Madison's residents. Most of the Arboretum's current holdings came from purchases these civic leaders made during the Great Depression. In addition to inexpensive land, the Depression brought a ready supply of hands to work it. Between 1935 and 1941, crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps were stationed at the Arboretum and provided most of the labor needed to begin establishing ecological communities within the Arboretum.
Efforts to restore or create historic ecological communities have continued over the years, with the result that the Arboretum's collection of restored ecosystems is not only the oldest but also the most extensive such collection.