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Woodland Kiosk Wil-o-Way entrance

‘Welcome All to the Forest’

2:06 pm  |  Topics: Places


By Tom Gaertner

The Forest Exploration Center woodland is officially open! Everyone is invited to join us as we celebrate accessible and meaningful recreation and educational opportunities. 

Trillium
Trillium in bloom. Photo © Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center

The Forest Exploration Center (FEC) is a non-profit partner of the Wisconsin DNR Division of Forestry, which manages and maintains this state-owned forest. This unique partnership is founded upon the first parcel on the County Grounds to be protected with conservancy status.  Our shared goals are to ensure the conservation of this unique woodland environment and provide opportunities in recreation, education and stewardship. The property deed reflects language which testifies to the FEC’s stated mission of sustainable forestry and educational outreach.

Stewards help bring awareness to improved trail access
Stewards help bring awareness to improved trail access. Photo © Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center

Home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, this 66-acre urban woodland on the historic Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa is bounded by Swan Boulevard to the south, Underwood Parkway to the north, Wil-O-Way Underwood to the west, and the MMSD detention basins to the east. Primary access is by means of a new entrance road and parking lot north of the roundabout at Swan Boulevard and Discovery Parkway.

Tree planting along Swan Boulevard
Tree planting along Swan Boulevard. Photo © Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center

In 2017 forest restoration efforts were undertaken on the acreage bordering Swan Boulevard. Invasive species, along with dead and dying trees, were removed. These were replaced with 3,110 trees that were planted by hand (2,800 hardwoods and 310 conifers). The diverse mix of species has begun to restore this section of the forest, which was previously severely disturbed by invasive buckthorn. This will provide an improved habitat for wildlife, enrich the existing forest, and provide educational opportunities.

Mayapple in bloom
Mayapple in bloom. Photo © Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center

The FEC held a ‘soft opening’ in late June. COVID-19 interrupted previous plans for a more elaborate community gathering. We remain committed to reconvening at some point in the future to formally dedicate this green gem in our urban community. Meanwhile, this forest can be enjoyed right now!

Main trailhead and welcome kiosk
Main trailhead and welcome kiosk. Photo © Eddee Daniel

This spring, non-accessible and eroding social footpaths have been improved with a sustainable crushed granite trail that meets ADA accessibility guidelines. In order to ensure that people of all abilities now have access to the forest trail access data is available at each trailhead kiosk.  The trail is designed and built specifically for wheelchair, foot traffic and stroller only; offering a one-mile loop of exploration and discovery under the shaded woodland canopy. This improved trail, however, is not engineered for bicycle traffic and the ‘rustic’ trails are sensitive as well. For the safety of our all our users the FEC asks bicyclists to dismount and lock your bicycles in the new bike racks located at the east (parking lot) and west (Wil-O-Way) trailheads.

Jack in the Pulpit
Jack in the Pulpit. Photo © Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center

In an effort to slow the spread of invasive species and restore valuable wildlife habitat and forest understory, the FEC has closed fifteen other entry points to the property.  Many of the remaining social trails will be rehabilitated to reduce forest fragmentation and lessen habitat disturbance for plants and animals alike. Please help us in our restoration efforts by using only marked trails.

Killdeer taking advantage of open areas in reforestation site for ground nesting
Killdeer taking advantage of open areas in reforestation site for ground nesting. Photo © Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center

Your dogs are most welcome to enjoy the forest with you and property regulations require that your pet be on a lead at all times. Please be sure to pick-up after your canine companion.

Interpretive station on the self-guided nature trail
Interpretive station on the self-guided nature trail. Photo © Eddee Daniel.

There are interactive interpretive stations along the one-mile loop trail that currently explain birds of the forest and forest ecology. Topics, themes, and audio/visual self-guided tours will rotate at periodic intervals. More interpretive elements are in the works that will be installed before long. We also plan to develop and install a Story-Walk and community-curated interpretive experience on one of the rustic trail spurs. We would like these self-guided nature experiences to offer our visitors a sense of stewardship and a reason to return often to enjoy the ever-changing seasons.

Flying squirrel in one of several monitored nesting boxes
Flying squirrel in one of several monitored nesting boxes.
Photo © Eddee Daniel.

A word about the wildlife. This forest is home to Milwaukee County’s remnant colony of flying squirrels. It is also home to known coyote dens and owl nests. 158 species of birds have been documented along with the many reptiles, amphibians, and mammals that call this wild place home. The FEC asks that you be respectful of wildlife, observe at a safe distance, and keep dogs on a lead and under your control at all times—for their own safety and the safety of the critters that make this forest home.

Long-eared owl.
Long-eared owl. Photo © Eddee Daniel.

We also invite you to document your discoveries on our iNaturalist Project page. Your plant and animal photos and observations matter. Help us document the species richness of this beautiful woodland. Future interpretive elements and projects will feature the diversity of spring wildflowers, the resident coyotes and the impacts of whitetail deer on the herbivory, so stay tuned and visit frequently.

Oak sapling in the reforested area
Oak sapling in the reforested area. Photo © Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center

If you have questions, wish to contribute financially, sponsor an experience or commit time as a volunteer steward please visit our website or send an email to info@forestexplorationcenter.org. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram as well: @TheForestExplorationCenter.

Accessible Entrance with bike racks at Wil-o-way Underwood
Accessible Entrance with bike racks at Wil-o-way Underwood. Photo © Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center

The Forest Exploration Center is a green gem in our urban environment. We welcome everyone to get outdoors and enjoy the woodland experience year-round.

Deep in the forest
Deep in the forest. Photo © Eddee Daniel.

Tom Gaertner is the volunteer president of the Forest Exploration Center. All images courtesy of the FEC, except as noted. The featured image at the top is by Julie Hein | Forest Exploration Center. Julie Hein is the Director of Interpretive Development and Educational Outreach for the Forest Exploration Center. Eddee Daniel is on the boards of Preserve Our Parks and Friends of County Grounds Park.