Heavy Equipment Leaves Light Footprint on Conservation Projects

Wacker Neuson equipment both constructs and conserves the natural habitat at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

With the help of Wacker Neuson’s EZ38, 3.8-ton excavator, the conservation team was able to dig through the roots and heavy clay, refill the trench and pack down the material.
With the help of Wacker Neuson’s EZ38, 3.8-ton excavator, the conservation team was able to dig through the roots and heavy clay, refill the trench and pack down the material.

Schlitz Audubon Nature Center located just north of Milwaukee, WI, is dedicated to conservation and sustainability. When repairs or construction projects are needed, the staff is faced with unique challenges to preserve the natural state of the property. The repair of a pond dike and the construction of a wheel chair accessible trail are two recent projects that required special attention.

Dike repair – how to keep the muskrats out and water in

The song “Muskrat Love” quickly came to mind when Schlitz Audubon Nature Center was faced with a dike repair project. The 185-acre site is used extensively for environmental education programs and offers year-round trails for hiking and cross country skiing. Throughout the property there is a series of lakes and ponds that are home to turtles, tadpoles, frogs, and minnows and also provide a natural habitat for muskrats.

The nature center’s most popular area is Mystery Lake and its smaller connected pond, Mystery Pond. When Mystery Pond was originally constructed in the late 1980s, newly excavated material was placed along the pond’s edge on top of the natural vegetation to build up a dike. Over the years, the dike has been compromised by roots, vegetation, but mostly by the muskrats. The medium-sized semiaquatic rodents burrowed their way through the dike creating four-inch trenches, causing the water to seep out and resulting in water levels dropping up to 18 inches.

According to Marc White, director of conservation at Schlitz Audubon, it is important to maintain the pond’s water levels. “The earthen dike was designed to impound spring rain and melt water within the lake and pond system, providing a water level about 18 inches higher than the average summer elevation of the ground water in the area,” he explained. “This is vital to maintain the hydrologic connection between the smaller pond and lake. The importance of this connection is to support fish spawning and to protect smaller fish and tadpoles.”

Jason Festerling, facilities manager at Schlitz Audubon, was challenged to find a way to rebuild the dike while maintaining the natural landscape of the area.  The best way was to use an excavator to dig out the heavy, wet clay and refill it with the same material. With the help of a Wacker Neuson EZ38, 3.8-ton excavator, Festerling was able to dig through the roots and heavy clay, refill the trench and pack down the material.

“The excavator was a huge time saver for this project. It provided the right amount of power needed to cut through the clay and roots,” he said. As the cold weather and heavy rains set in, Festerling also appreciated the features of the EZ38. “The cab was very comfortable and I appreciated the heat, but even more helpful was the excellent visibility. I was working in a narrow area with the pond on one side and wetlands tight on the other so the ability to see the entire work site was important,” he added.

The final step to prevent the muskrats from continuing to burrow into the dike will be to place mesh fencing around the perimeter of pond.

Path Construction Creates New Challenges

With 185 acres of natural habitat for birds and wildlife for humans to enjoy, Schlitz Audubon is challenged with maintaining an ecologically sound environment, while keeping it accessible for many different visitors and students. As part of this mission, the nature center constructed a 1,000 foot handicap accessible path leading to the Mystery Lake area from two directions.  The first 700 feet of the trail, which meets all requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was completed during the summer months and winds through the dense woods.

The six-foot wide pathway, commonly referred to as the “ADA Trail”, has a #2 stone base and is topped with three inches of crusher fines (traffic bond). Wacker Neuson’s WP1550AW vibratory plate was used to compact the crusher fines on the trail. The WP1550AW, with its fast forward speed and maneuverability was an excellent way to provide a solid foundation allowing for wheel chair access across the natural trail.

Once the Mystery Pond dike repair was complete, the remaining 300 feet of the ADA trail was completed with the help of Wacker Neuson’s ST35 compact track loader. With the Wisconsin winter weather quickly changing, Wacker Neuson’s ST35 allowed the facilities and land management crew to load, haul and spread the crusher fines quickly before the snow started to fall.

Drew Shuster, seasonal land steward, found the ST35 easy to operate using the ISO pilot controls. “We were under a tight deadline to complete the trail before a pending snowstorm and with the ST35, we were able to get the crusher fines spread,” he said. “The controls were smooth and that made it easy to grade the material before the volunteers raked it out.  I had the best part of the job, driving the ST35 in the heated cab,” Shuster added.

Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is host to over 145,000 annual visitors and 27,000 children that attend a variety of natural science programs. Maintaining its reputation of environmental education for people of all ages is vitally important. With the help of Wacker Neuson equipment, the facility was able to expand its accessibility for all while maintaining the natural landscape, benefiting humans and wildlife.