Pleasant Valley Conservancy
State Natural Area (No. 551)
|Pleasant Valley Conservancy is a unique TPE site in that it has extensive restored oak savannas. Controlled burns are a major management strategy. This is the early stage of a 20 acre savanna burn.|
Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area is a 140 acre natural area in western Dane County. It consists of extensive restored oak savannas, dry, mesic, and wet prairies, wetlands, and oak woods. It is in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin and is in the Hill and Valley Province. Scenic views and wildlife viewing are excellent, and a hiking trail brings one into the heart of the savanna.
Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area is owned by the Prairie Enthusiasts and by Tom and Kathie Brock. It is managed by the Empire-Sauk Chapter and the Brocks are the Stewards.
Dane County. T7N-R6E, Section 5. 140 acres.
From the intersection of Highways 78 and Counties KP and F in the Village of Black Earth, go west and south on County F for 4 miles to Pleasant Valley Road, which enters from the left. Continue on Pleasant Valley Road about 3/4 mile to a small parking lot by aplanted prairie on the left hand side. Park facing the prairie.
A regularly scheduled field trip is held on Labor Day (the first Monday in September), under the joint auspices of the Prairie Enthusiasts and the Madison Audubon Society. Please call Tom or Kathie Brock at 608-238-5050 for details or confirmation.
Special arrangements can be made for field trips by school or university classes, or other special groups. Call Tom or Kathie at 608-238-5050.
Various volunteer activities are carried out throughout the year. To be placed on a special email list for Pleasant Valley Conservancy, send an email to this link or call Tom Brock at 608-238-5050.
Description and Significance
The site contains a nearly complete range of southern Wisconsin natural community types including oak woodland, oak savanna, dry and wet prairie, sedge meadow, shrub-carr, open marsh, and spring complex.
The steep south-facing ridge supports several prairie remnants, which are now thriving after intensive management begun in 1995. Plant species include big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, side-oats grama, wood betony, bird’s-foot violet, purple prairie clover, violet wood sorrel, and the uncommon prairie turnip (Pediomelum esculentum).
The oak savannas, primarily on the ridge top, contain numerous large, open-grown bur and white oaks with many being over 150 years old. The savanna supports numerous grass, sedge, and forb species including the state-endangered purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), which re-appeared after restoration and prescribed burning began. Other plants include silky rye, bottlebrush grass, ear-leaved brome, leadplant, large-flowered yellow false foxglove, Canada milk-vetch, Illinois tick-trefoil, alum-root, shooting star, and spiderwort. Other rare plants present are the state-threatened giant yellow hyssop (Agastache nepetoides), and special concern upland boneset (Eupatorium sessilifolium).
The cooler north-facing slope is predominantly oak woodland with red oak, basswood, hackberry, butternut, yellowbud hickory, and red maple. The woodland contains a good variety of spring ephemerals such as bloodroot, Jacob’s-ladder, large-flowered bellwort, yellow lady’s-slipper orchid, large white trillium, and dutchman’s breeches.
The savanna and oak woodland support a diversity of bird species which include the red-headed woodpecker, a declining bird species of conservation concern. Other birds include blue-gray gnatcatcher, eastern wood pewee, tufted titmouse, eastern bluebird, yellow-throated vireo, scarlet tanager, black-billed cuckoo, and yellow-billed cuckoo.
Also present is the spring-fed Pleasant Valley Creek, which flows through the wetland and into East Blue Mounds Creek.
Pleasant Valley Conservancy is owned in part by The Prairie Enthusiasts and by Tom and Kathie Brock with management support from the Savanna Oak Foundation, Inc.. It was designated a State Natural Area in 2007.
Land Use History and Vegetation
Pleasant Valley Conservancy consists of a long narrow ridge that runs almost due east/west, with steep hillsides facing both north and south. The north-facing slope is cool and moist and the vegetation is primarily oak woods. The south-facing slope receives the full brunt of the sun and is hot and dry. Its vegetation consists of oak savanna and prairie. Pleasant Valley Conservancy is part of the unique "Driftless Area" of southwestern Wisconsin, an area that the glaciers never reached. Surveyors notes and plant surveys tell us that the dominant vegetation before settlement was oak savanna, with areas of prairie along the edges of the streams and on the steepest south-facing slopes. The spring-fed Pleasant Valley Creek flows through the property, feeding into Blue Mounds Creek. Along the creek valley is an area of marsh and wet prairie.
The property was owned by the Lockwood Family for many years and was in general agricultural use from the 1880s through the 1950s. However, only about 15 acres of the property was ever in cropland (now planted to prairie). The rest was pasture, woodland, or wetland. After the early 1960s the property was in absentee ownership until Kathie and Tom Brock purchased it in 1980.
An air photo by the Soil Conservation Service, done in 1937, shows that the south-facing slope was predominantly prairie and oak savanna. The Wisconsin Land Cover map for the Town of Vermont, done around the same time, provides a similar picture. Most of the south-facing slope was probably pastured, but very slightly. Subsequent air photos show that after the 1950s, the south slope gradually deteriorated, losing its open character.
At the time restoration began in 1995, there was a small native "goat" prairie at the west end of the hill. The remaining parts of the south slope had small amounts of remnant prairie vegetation which were virtually overgrown with planted red pines, native red cedars, and invasive trees and shrubs such as black walnut, buckthorn, and honeysuckle. These woody plants were cut and removed from the south slope during the winter of 1997-98. Controlled burns were begun In the spring of 1998 and were extremely successful, leading to a resurgence of original prairie. Continued burns since then have returned the whole south slope to prairie.
At the time restoration began, the upper slope and the ridge top had many large open-grown oaks (mostly bur but some whites), but they were overun with invasive trees and shrubs. During the 1999-2003 period, most of this invasive woody vegetation was removed, and controlled burns were introduced, which were quite effective. Remnant herbaceous vegetation growing in a highly suppressed form was released. Continued burning at yearly intervals have encouraged further savanna vegetation. Careful monitoring and control of invasive shrubs has kept the savannas open.
The south-facing slope in the summer of 2002, after clearing and five years of controlled burns. Little bluestem, Indian grass, side oats, tall boneset, rosin weed, yellow coneflower, and lots of other prairie species are thriving.
Bur oak savanna on the ridge top. Grasses are primarily cool-season native grasses: bottle brush, silky and riverbank rye, and woodland brome. Patches of Pennsylvania sedge are scattered throughout. Forbs include tick trefoil, tinker's weed, elm-leaf goldenrod, and many other species.
Although the wetland had been tiled, it was abandoned to agriculture in the 1950s and the tiles gradually broke. Today, the wetland is of high quality and is fairly large for the Driftless Area. Many springs arise in the wetland and contribute water to a small creek that flows through the east end. Also, Pleasant Valley Creek is on the Conservancy and flows through the west end of the wetland. This cold-water spring-fed creek supports many wetland forbs and sedges. Reed canary grass, a common bane of wetlands, is present in only low amounts.
The wetland looking southwest. Extensive sedge meadows and cattail marshes are present. Although Pleasant Valley Conservancy only owns about 30 acres of this wetland, the total area is over 140 acres. East Blue Mounds Creek, a class II trout stream, drains the area. Sandhill Cranes nest here every year, and many other birds that prefer this sort of habitat make use of the area.
The Prairie Enthusiasts owns outright 37 acres of Pleasant Valley Conservancy and owns a permanent conservation easement on the remaining land. The 37 acre parcel had been owned by the Savanna Oak Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit foundation established by Tom and Kathie Brock. Savanna Oak donated this parcel gratis to The Prairie Enthusiasts in 2006.
The conservation easement on the remaining land was donated gratis to the Prairie Enthusiasts by Tom and Kathie Brock in 2006.
The Conservancy was dedicated as a State Natural Area in 2007.
Thus, the whole Conservancy is permanently protected.
Some of the management activities of Pleasant Valley Conservancy have been supported by grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (controlled burns of the wetland), Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (oak savanna restoration), and Landowner Incentive Program of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Areas. The Conservation Reserve Program of the U.S.D.A. has also permitted us to plant prairie on our four CRP fields.
However, most of the restoration work at Pleasant Valley Conservancy has been supported by Tom and Kathie Brock through their Savanna Oak Foundation, Inc.
Management activities include the following (click on the link to see the details):
- Controlled burns
- Seed collection and planting
- On-going brush control
- Weed control
- Plant species monitoring
About 90 acres are burned every year at Pleasant Valley Conservancy, generally in the spring, but occasionally in the fall. Areas burned include the south-facing slope, various savannas, planted prairies, the north-facing oak woodland, and wetland. Burns are carried out by Savanna Oak Foundation employees, a hired contractor, and volunteers from the Prairie Enthusiasts. Due to the complexity of the property, the extensive burn program, and the need for prompt action when burn weather is suitable, it is necessary to use these various sources of personnel.
Details of burns can be found at the Pleasant Valley Conservancy web
Controlled burns at Pleasant Valley
Typical oak savanna burn at Pleasant Valley Conservancy. Note that the fire hugs the ground. The predominant fuel is oak leaves.
Seed collection and planting
Although many native species were present at Pleasant Valley Conservancy when restoration work began, there were significant gaps. The goal was to re-establish species that "would" have been present presettlement. Recommended species can be found in various sources. Most of these lists are based on careful vegetation analyses of undisturbed remnants, especially those of John T. Curtis (Vegetation of Wisconsin) or are based on observations of earlier restoration studies.
Species lists exist for dry, dry-mesic, mesic, wet-mesic, and wet prairie habitats, as well as wetlands, savannas, and wooded areas.
Restoration ecologists generally attempt to use seed sources that are
close to the site to be restored. Opinions differ on how close is close
enough, but the closer the better. However, some species are not available
from nearby sites, and must be obtained from more distant sources. "Desirability"
of seed sources can be ranked in the following order:
From the site itself>>From a source a few miles away>>From the same county>>From a nearby county>>From southwestern Wisconsin>>From the Midwest. Anything further away than this would not be considered acceptable. For most people, anything farther away than southwestern Wisconsin would be unacceptable.
Species vary considerably on when they grow, flower, and set seed. Seed
collecting dates for a wide variety of prairie and savanna plants have
been assembled and can be found at the Pleasant Valley Conservancy web
Seed collecting dates
Planting protocols are given at the Pleasant Valley Conservancy web site:
Prairie planting protocols
Phenology (dates of flowering and seed set)
Map of the Pleasant Valley Conservancy (Download a PDF version)