Updated: Nov 20, 2020
By Jonathan Piel – Volunteer President, Friends of County Grounds Park
In urban Wauwatosa there is still an old growth forest, filled with oaks – several of them over 200 years old. Dozens of acres were preserved through most of the 1800s by a geography that was challenging to farm due to topography and artesian springs. In 1880 this was further preserved by a mental health hospital, designating these woods as a sanctuary for patients. In the 1980s, although the hospital had been closed, buckthorn was intentionally planted when it was considered a desirable, fast-growing ornamental plant. It was a well-intentioned attempt to better define the paths and reduce social trails. Over the subsequent decades, buckthorn spread over the oak woods, and choked out almost all new growth. The historic oak forest stopped – old trees getting older, but no advancement of new healthy oak trees. This is an interesting parallel to COVID in 2020 – where so much has stopped, and there is little room for new investments in a healthy community.
The oak forest is a place known as Sanctuary Woods, contained within County Grounds Park, just north of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center on Watertown Plank Road in Wauwatosa. In 2019, Hoppe Tree Service agreed to work with Local Boy Scout Troop 68 (Eagle project), Friends of County Grounds Park, The Park People of Milwaukee – Weed Out® Program, and the Milwaukee County Parks Department to help remove the buckthorn. In September 2020, Hoppe donated the time of their trained professionals and board-certified master arborist Freddy Hoppe, and brought in special equipment to remove a full acre of buckthorn.
It could have been easy enough for any entity to cite COVID and cancel the event - the buckthorn had been there 40 years… What's one more year? But kept outdoors, with a limited number of volunteers, and always masks – made this project more unique in 2020. Helping that day included County Supervisor Shawn Rolland, whose 6th district includes Sanctuary Woods. Additionally helping was Chris Drosner, Executive Editor of Milwaukee Magazine who has also enjoyed these unique woods for many years. Like every volunteer, they came ready to work, took the safety briefing, grabbed tools, and helped clear an acre of buckthorn that day.
Milwaukee County Parks manages over 15,000 acres of parkland. County Grounds Park has been challenging for them to provide any arborist / management services since the park was established nearly 15 years ago. In 2020 they have suffered from further budget and staffing cuts, at a time that county parks are being used more than ever. Further the Friends of County Grounds Park is a brand new entity in the past year. It has been exceptionally challenging to start any community new volunteer group in 2020. Similarly, Boy Scout Troops have had to cancel or drastically reduce community service projects – making it more challenging for Scouts to earn community service hours that are core to their rank advancement.
Hoppe Tree Service maintained their commitment to this project the entire year despite the COVID changes. The expert crew brought their special skills and equipment that day to help restore the cycle of new growth for the oak forest. What they may not have expected was to also help restore the community engagement in this space. Hoppe re-empowered youth, our parks department, our elected leaders, our media, and service organizations to still find a way to productively come together in a time when invasive COVID is starving out good news. Our sincere thanks to Hoppe Tree Service for making a difference in our park and our county. You’ve again made these historic woods a sanctuary of restoration in our community.