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The Beginnings of the Forest Exploration Center: a timeline of a forest & its stewards

This guest blog shares the history of a present-day jewel in the heart of Wauwatosa - the Forest Exploration Center within the Milwaukee County Grounds. Hoppe Tree Service and the Urban Wood Lab are proud supporters of this unique community asset.

Written by Julie Hein, Director of Interpretive Development and Outreach, The Forest Exploration Center

Forests once covered our urban landscape. Today, one green gem persists, a 60-acre woodland in the heart of Milwaukee. This, one of the largest wooded tracts of oak, maple and beech to remain in the county, harbors a rich understory of wildflowers, provides an oasis for a diversity of wildlife, and is now also home to a unique woodland learning environment; the Forest Exploration Center.

1833 When we look back at original land survey notes from the area, surveyors observed many tree species that can be found in the forest today: Sugar Maple, Basswood, Red Oak, and Ironwood. These are the original land survey notes for the Forest from 1833.

1937 The forest also holds remnants of the rich cultural history of this land and the people that once lived and farmed here. Large oak “wolf trees” and relic barbed wire fence reflect a time of open lands and grazing cattle, and rows of trees planted by the old county tree nursery remain to this day. This all becomes a chapter in the history of this landscape that we continue to study and explore. Here is an aerial view of the forest 83 years ago, and a land ownership map of the forest and surrounding County Grounds Land circa 1858.

2003 Ownership of the land changed hands now and again throughout settlement times until it came under the care of Milwaukee County. Then, on December 18th, 2003, the State of Wisconsin purchased the property from the county with a deed to ensure “public recreation, conservancy, and educational uses.” The land is now preserved as critical green space, a forest for all in an urban setting to bring awareness and a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Wisconsin’s forests and what they provide in our daily lives.

2009 The Forest Exploration Center was founded. This 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable forestry, education, and accessible recreation becomes the official steward for the forest and formal partner of the Wisconsin DNR Division of Forestry.

TODAY The Forest Exploration Center’s self-guided and accessible nature trails are officially open to all. We thank Hoppe Tree Service and the Urban Wood Lab for their collaborations and expertise as we reclaimed ash trees from the forest to design and build the boardwalks and exhibit posts and with the inspection and removal of hazard trees along the trail.

Hoppe Tree Service shares in our practice of sustainable forestry as a science and an art along with our investment in connecting people to trees, forests and all the essential goods and ecological services they provide each and every day.

Together, we invite you to join us as stewards in the care of this forest, and all forests, to ensure we not only have the natural resources we need, but that we also protect what we value: wildlife, beautiful landscapes, recreation, and solitude. Let's care for forests and urban trees now to ensure their future and our own. See you on the trail!

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