Local couple, school district team up for nature opportunities
April 7, 2021
One couple’s love for the land combined with the local school district’s desire for high-quality learning options is creating a beautiful partnership. The Sunny Peace Prairie will provide tranquil nature experiences and educational adventures for students and the general public.
“We had the land and are getting up in age with no children, so we wanted to make it into something useful for the kids,” said Norm Aulabaugh.
Aulabaugh and his wife, Carol, donated 75 acres located at 2604 S. Coon Island Road to the Parkview School District to be restored as prairie grassland and hardwoods preserve. The property is about 1.5 miles from Orfordville and has a conservation easement held by Groundswell Conservancy in Madison to ensure it will remain a prairie conservation preserve forever.
“We are gently nudging nature back to what the property might have looked like many years ago,” Aulabaugh said.
The Aulabaughs have owned the property for about 20 years. It was about to become a gravel pit when they purchased it. There are 10 acres of woods and 65 acres of cropland. Of the 65 acres of cropland, 42 acres are now planted in a prairie cover.
The restoration process began two years ago and is expected to be completed sometime in 2022. This process involves removing undesirable trees and shrubs from the wooded acreage and planting much of the cropland in prairie grass and wildflower cover. Some acreage may remain in agricultural production.
“The generosity of Norm and Carol Aulabaugh extends beyond the land donation as they also donated a sizable endowment to fund and maintain the Sunny Peace Prairie,” said Steve Lutzke, Parkview School District superintendent.
Lutzke said the district will likely use the property to aid in the learning of subjects such as soil, plant and animal studies, agriculture education, art and photography. Students can exercise there as well with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking.
“The Sunny Peace Prairie will provide Parkview teachers with a high-quality learning platform to engage students in hands-on learning,” he said.
The long-term vision for the property is a conservation preserve that will be open to the public. It will include self-guided nature trails, a small building for maintenance equipment, a parking area, an education pavilion, a restroom facility and an information kiosk for the public’s use. There will be benches along the pathways for quiet nature contemplation as well as an earthen peace dove mound much like the one at the Veterans Highground Memorial Park in Neillsville, Wisconsin.
Aulabaugh said a lot of work goes into creating a work of art in nature. Weeds have to be managed and every few years, a controlled burn is done to keep brush down. The property was used as agricultural production land for several years so fertilizers and herbicides were applied regularly. In the beginning of the restoration process, Parkview students took soil samples to learn about the needs of the soil. They will continue to document changes to the soil over time.
“We’ve been doing some bird counts on the property and expect the types of birds present to change as the landscape changes,” he said.
He said he also hopes to see snakes. They don’t thrive in crop fields because of the use of equipment but he has put snake boards out in hopes of finding reptiles that seek shelter under the boards. These are four-foot-by-four-foot sheets of plywood on the ground that are flipped periodically to find snakes.
“We are hoping to see these things over a period of time,” he said. “School kids can get involved in this too.”