An Oak Opening

If you walk the trail, from west to east, past Kishwauketoe’s open prairie on your right and the Viewing Tower on your left, and ascend upwards toward the mature oak and hickory woodland, you’ll notice what may appear to be a stark transition from prairie to woods; but what you’re really seeing, if you slow down and REALLY look hard, is a remnant of what is called, in Midwest ecological terminology, an “Oak Opening”.

You see, white, burr, and black oaks are able to withstand intense ground fires, the kind prevalent around here before statehood. This trait is responsible for the establishment of savannas and oak openings. Prior to European settlement — which brought on the suppression of naturally occurring frequent fires and the fragmentation of large, intact dynamic ecosystems — prairies, savannas, and oak openings were a common landscape feature of Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. Oak savannas and oak openings once comprised nearly 5.5 million acres of the Midwest — now only 500 acres exist in Wisconsin, less than 0.01% of the original 5.5 million acres. It is now considered one of the most threatened plant communities in the world.

We have our own little remnant here at Kishwauketoe, and we’re trying to let it reestablish itself. We’re doing this by removing the smaller, fire intolerant, faster growing cherry and maple trees that would have historically been “held-back” by naturally occurring fires that swept up the side of the hill from the lowland prairie and stopped as it reached the top of the hill. If you look carefully, you’ll see that there are still some huge, low-slung, horizontal branches reaching out towards the prairie — this is an indication that there was a more open canopy at one time, with very little underbrush.

You will see some scars where other large branches once reached out from low areas around the trunk — victims of a period when understory brush and trees “smothered-out” these branches — too much time passed prior to Kishwauketoe taking over, so we could save them by clearing the understory. But we do have a nice bit of remnant, and with the help of grants from area Clubs and Dedicated Individuals, we’ve been actively recreating and restoring the sweep from prairie to savanna to oak opening to hardwoods.

In a few more years, as the native grasses we planted establish themselves, and as we finish the removal of the remaining underbrush, we’ll be able to enjoy a wondrous site. Just this past Winter we expanded on our efforts at protecting the Oak Forest Opening by removing Black Walnuts and other trees that were threatening the 150 year old Oaks —- a rare native  Wisconsin landscape. It will be beautiful!

KNC Board Member—Donald Skalla