The Badger land has an especially rich history, intertwined with its plant, animal and human residents, and with world events.
When Euro-American settlers first steered their breaking plows over the Sauk prairie in the 1840s, they brought an end to a 6,000 year old grassland ecosystem. At its center was tall grass prairie and lowland meadows surrounded by a band of savanna where “openings” (groves) of open-grown oak trees grew scattered midst the grassland. The savanna was bounded by the oak woodland of the ancient Baraboo Range to the north, younger sandstone bluffs to the west and the tree-lined banks of the Wisconsin River on the east and south. The experience of standing in the center of a tall grass prairie is often compared to being afloat at sea, with waves of wind-blown grass. Pioneer Wm Canfield described the Sauk prairie as having “myriads of flowers of every shape, shade and color, and the luxuriant grasses… a handsome picture set in beautiful frame”.
The grassland had evolved as the climate dried and warmed after the retreat of the Wisconsin ice sheet that began about 14,000 years ago. As its southwestward advance met with an equal rate of melting, its front wavered for many centuries, depositing a band of stone, gravel and soil into a terminal moraine. The moraine crosses the Badger property roughly from north to south. Run-off westward from the moraine created the deep, sandy and gravelly outwash plain which was later covered with windblown silt. Prairie eventually developed on it, which after thousands of years produced the fertile and deep soils favored by farmers and the builders of the powder plant. Savanna grew on the rolling, gravelly moraine, and denser oak woodland formed on the cool, thin-soiled quartzite of the South Range. All of these land covers relied on periodic fire, which was set by lightning and probably more frequently by the Native Americans who inhabited and managed this landscape for millennia.
A century of farming replaced almost all the prairie and savanna vegetation with non-native small grains, row crops, grassy hay and pasture. Some oaks remained in pastures and fencelines, and were joined by non-savanna species planted at farmsteads. Badger Ordnance changed it again on the land it claimed in 1942. Farming paused for initial construction in 1942, but resumed on much of the property in 1943 as some areas unneeded for production were cultivated and others were pastured, along with most of the land that provided essential buffer between potentially explosive buildings. Grazing deterred woody growth and rank vegetation that would pose fire and access hazards, and also generated income. Beginning in the 1960s, the Army and WDNR made “conservation” plantings of conifers and hedges of shrubs, including nonnative invasives.
By the time the plant closed in 1998, the surrounding agricultural landscape had changed considerably, as it had throughout the Midwest. Most grassy cover like hay, pasture and small grains had been replaced by rowcrops and dense, frequently chopped alfalfa. Insects and weeds had been decimated by pesticides. Most hedges had been eliminated, and uncultivated spaces had been supplanted by woods or homes. These changes led to the demise of prairie and savanna wildlife populations, many of which had adjusted fairly well to early, grass-dominated and comparatively weedy agriculture. But not so at Badger, thanks to the extensive pasture, and the Army’s restoration of a few sites to native prairie, with the help of DNR and local conservationists. Although the powder plant removed the early farm community from within its fence, it preserved much of its wildlife.
As biologists gained full access to the site after its closure, the plant became known as one of the best grassland bird conservation sites in the state, and was granted Important Bird Area status. As deconstruction ensued, grazing ceased and invasive shrubs and trees began to cover the land. Badger’s rare grassland birds began to be supplanted by common species that were not in need of conservation effort. Then with the removal of the plant’s 1400+ buildings, extensive above- and below-ground infrastructure, and areas of contaminated soils, the site was transferred to new owners. The Ho-Chunk Nation reintroduced fire as a management tool over large expanses, and started replacing more of the European pasture grasses and weeds with native prairie plantings. The weeds that thrived on the disturbed soil of mitigated sites succeeded to more permanent grasses and wildflowers. Both the Nation and DNR cut and treated invasive woody growth, doing their best to keep up with ongoing invasion. Croplands, pasture and invasive-filled woodlots characterize the lands of the Dairy Forage Research Center, which has managed about a third of the area since before the plant was decommissioned, and experimental control of invasives with cutting, herbicides and goats has begun. Grassland wildlife is returning.
The only remnant of the original Sauk prairie is on the 5-acre Hillside Prairie, on DNR land near the south end of Badger, maintained primarily by the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance. Almost all of the woody growth, including the tall cottonwood trees, that grow today at Badger, originated during or after 1942. However, the old bur and white oaks scattered across the landscape harken back to the early farm era or the pre-European savanna, as far back as 1775. Here and there, if you know what to look for, you will find remnants of the old farmsteads and the ammunition plant, such as roads, farmstead shade trees, railroad grades, fire hydrants, buildings and foundations. You will not see the plant’s hidden legacy of contamination in the groundwater or in the sediments of Gruber’s Grove Bay, nor in the forests of the South Range that have largely recovered from the plant’s air pollution.
Indeed, the Badger Lands have entered a new and exciting phase of their history.