Interview Article

When Chuck Bauer and Chuck Beckwith bought their land in Green County 30 years ago, they made a restoration plan that any idealistic young nature-lovers could have been expected to make in the 1970s: they did nothing.

“It seemed to us that all trees are good, all plants are good, and all you have to do is leave it alone and nature would take care of itself,” says Bauer. In the warmly-lit basement office of their co-owned business, The Soap Opera on Madison’s State Street, Bauer chuckles at the naivete of their earliest years as prairie landowners. He describes the journey toward good land stewardship—a long journey, he admits, and one that came with its fair share of obstacles.

“When we moved out there 30 years ago I was just thunderstruck by the beauty of the farmland,” Bauer says, surrounded by several of his own paintings depicting Driftless Area landscapes in vivid color.

Bauer and Beckwith had purchased 82 acres in Green County, a little piece of prairie-lovers’ paradise just across the Dane County line and a few miles west of New Glarus. Lacking good advice, they simply let the land go.

“We very smugly stopped everything,” Bauer recalls. “No renting, no plowing, no planting. It was this wonderful feeling of satisfaction—‘Now the land is saved!’ But we didn’t realize that some minimal management each year from the beginning would have saved us tremendous amounts of labor.”

The condition in which they had found their land gave them what would have been “the perfect start” for a responsible restoration, says Bauer. Acres of uplands, once prairie, had been in row crops and hayfields for generations and were ready to be planted in natives. The second-growth oak savannas dotting the property had been lightly grazed, keeping the underbrush and potentially undesirable species to a minimum.

Though the missed opportunity was unfortunate, it wouldn’t quite compare to what they would do next. In fact, the very first move they made toward active restoration turned out to be a bad one. To prevent soil erosion in a ridge-top area, they planted crown vetch—five acres of it.

“I was acting on “expert” advice, and I was too dumb to ask if it was a native, which of course it wasn’t,” Bauer remembers.

For years they mostly ignored the vetch—“It had pretty flowers,” Bauer observes—but it was only a matter of time before they had to take serious notice. About ten years ago, the vetch began to spread alarmingly, and by that time it had already amassed decades’ worth of seed bank. “When it began exploding into the woods and everywhere, we had our first wakeup call,” says Bauer.

That’s when they truly began what Bauer calls “the chess game with nature.” Working with Mike Anderson of Biologic,, they started the long and arduous process of eradicating the vetch. Fully engaged in this battle, their eyes opened to the full possibilities of larger-scale restoration their land had to offer. They began using controlled burning as a prairie management tool, and seeded the newly burned areas in carefully selected natives—orange butterfly weed, pale purple coneflower, prairie clover, silphium.

From focusing exclusively on their prairie remnants, it was a short step to including woodland restoration as well. “It dawned on us that the woodlands were really impassable with brush as they had not been 30 years ago,” Bauer says. “We always kept paths open, but gradually your eyes open to the world around you, and we realized that along with planting the prairie we could also restore these adjacent savannas.”

They’re lucky enough not to be plagued by too much buckthorn or honeysuckle, and the burning keeps the brambles and prickly ash somewhat at bay. But because the oaks filter out much of the sunlight that allows prairie restoration to happen relatively quickly, Bauer admits that their woodland restoration efforts are more tedious, and slower to reveal the fruits of their labors.

“It’s going to take a lot of years of burning, and a lot of annual management,” says Bauer. “Someone said there’s no substitute for just throwing seed in there, and we do that, but without a lot of light, everything is glacial.”

Through the years, they have learned—sometimes the hard way—how not to get discouraged when the struggle with the invasives seems neverending. Bauer offers some key points of advice to landowners engaged in their own restoration battles:

Stay ahead of new invasive species, like garlic mustard and Japanese hedge parsley. “If you see a plant you don’t recognize, find out what it is, because next year it might be 2,000 plants you don’t recognize.”

Start early and ask around. “Thirty years later, we’re still playing catch-up from our own ignorance and some bad advice, and we’re paying a price that could have been avoided.”

Above all, Bauer says, practice seeing your land in the context of the whole ecosystem.

“Don’t give up, because you’re really an important part of the long-range fate of biodiversity for all of us,” says Bauer. “Sacrifices will be appreciated later.”

Come and see the Rare Earth Farm this summer! Sunday, July 8, 2007 5-7 pm: tour guided by Chuck Bauer and restoration guru Mike Anderson, sponsored by The Prairie Enthusiasts. For information on the Web, visit and click the link to the invitation. Also, Chuck Bauer’s paintings featuring Driftless Area landscapes may be viewed online
Andrea Ward Graduate Student School of Journalism
University of Wisconsin-Madison 29 Mar 2007