Tichora nearing return to natural state

FROM LEFT, Green Lake Sanitary District President Jerry Specht discusses progress made removing European buckthorn with Mark Worley and Tom Kloosterboer, who have both donated their time and effort to the project. Joe Schulz photo

by Joe Schulz

Once a tribal gathering place that later served for decades as a campground, the Tichora Conservancy is now being restored to what it was in the 1800s.

Located along the south shore in Green Lake’s Dickinson Bay, the scenic 44-acre area is open for the public to explore.

Along with seeing shallow caves, sandstone cliffs and monumental trees, hikers are likely to spot volunteers working to tear down the remains of the Camp Grow campgrounds and remove invasive species.

The only wheeled vehicles allowed on the property are bicycles, which only can be used along a designated path.

When the restoration is finished, there will be no buildings on the property and its vegetation will resemble the area’s flora during the 1830s. The land will be a cross between a prairie and forest, with 2,000 feet of undeveloped shoreline.

The property, which has a rich history, operated as a Boy Scout camp in the 1920s called “Camp Tichora.”

The word “Tichora” comes from the Ho-Chunk Native American tribe, with Tira meaning “lake” and cho meaning “green.”

From 1959 to 2017 the land served as Camp Grow, a religious church camp that provided youngsters with a place to learn about nature and build friendships.

The estate became available when the American Baptist Church of Metro Chicago floated the idea of selling the property in 2017, and the Green Lake Conservancy and Green Lake Sanitary District mounted a fund-raising campaign in response.

By June 2018, more than 600 donors contributed approximately $2 million toward the purchase.

In addition, the Wisconsin DNR awarded the Green Lake Conservancy $1.7 million from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship grant.

The Green Lake Conservancy bought the property and shortly afterward deeded the land to the Green Lake Sanitary District.

“The DNR, they prefer to have a municipality hold [the] title, not a non-profit or a non-governmental organization,” Green Lake Conservancy Vice President of Conservation Thomas Eddy said. “One of the main reasons for that is that the municipality is going to be there no matter what. Non-profits can work and be viable, but they can potentially fail.”

Because the property is a land trust, the conservancy is responsible for conservation easement, meaning it conducts annual inspections to ensure the property is being restored to its natural state to meet the terms of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship.

The restoration aims to benefit the community by giving the public access to undeveloped shoreline — 800 feet bordering Green Lake and 1,200 feet surrounding Spring Lake.

“In the case of Green Lake, much of the shoreline has been developed and there’s not a lot of unfragmented shoreline,” Eddy said. “This will be probably the largest length of the shoreline that is not developed. And we did want to avoid that because once it’s a developed, people put homes on the lake; it’s not accessible to the public.”

Eddy noted preserving the land benefits lake health by helping to reduce phosphorous runoff.

“A pound of phosphorus put in the lake can fuel the production of anywhere between 300 to 500 pounds of aquatic plant life,” he said. “You get these algae blooms … and these blooms for many species; they’re so concentrated, they give off neuro toxins that affect vertebrate animals, fishes, amphibians and dogs that get in the water.”

Restoring and preserving natural habitats also increases biodiversity, which in turn helps to attract pollinators.

“I hope most people realize that pollinators are having a tough go of it right now, not just in Wisconsin, but around the world,” Eddy said. “Providing habitat for pollinators that we depend upon is important because they provide a valuable ecosystem service.”

Geographer Robert Finley’s maps of Wisconsin have served as a blueprint in the restoration efforts, outlining the vegetation that covered the area pre-settlement.

“Back then [in 1830] one would have witnessed scattered, open groves of randomly sprouted copses of young bur and black and white oak trees,” Eddy wrote in the 2019 Green Lake Magazine.

The restoration doesn’t have a solid deadline, but the area is expected to transform over the next two years as buildings come out and invasive species such as garlic mustard and European buckthorn are removed.

One of the major hurdles facing the project is disassembling the remains of Camp Grow. The sanitary district has allowed local organizations to go through the structures to identify things that can be reused.

“Moving a structure or tearing it down is just monumental; it’s not simple,” Green Lake Sanitary District President Jerry Specht said. “When people would come through, they would say, ‘I want that building.’ Then low and behold when it comes to it, whether it’s tearing it down, salvaging it or moving it are monumental tasks.”

In June, after local nonprofits, churches, schools and other organizations had gone through the property, Habitat for Humanity combed through the area.

At the time, Specht thought the property already had been stripped out, but Habitat didn’t agree, finding things others had passed over.

“Habitat comes in here with two different men,” Specht said. “One, Ben is the resale man; the other one, Gary is [on] the construction end. When they build a new home, they have two separate sets of eyes.”

Habitat, with the help of local volunteers, went through the main lodge and was able to salvage most exterior windows, 26 interior doors with frames, the pine lumber off the cathedral ceiling, office furniture, the kitchen counter, toilets and bathtubs.

ABOVE, Fond du Lac Habitat for Humanity Store Manager Ben Ruedinger, left, and volunteer Charlie Vine descend in a lift with the last piece of wood from the ceiling of the main lodge. Joe Schulz photos

Specht noted structures are demolished when everything that can be reused has been salvaged; the Wisconsin Reclamation Project was able to salvage windows, trusses, interior wood and more from the Boat House before it was demolished.

The Wisconsin Reclamation Project works to tear down the boat house. submitted photo

Specht expects to have all the buildings out by fall. After the structures are removed, volunteers will take herbicide to the grass in order to restore the area to its original prairie landscape.

“It’ll be interesting; you’re going to see a total transformation in this area over the next 12 months,” he said.

Eddy added the Tichora Conservancy aims to preserve natural capital for future generations.

“The natural world provides scientific value and the aesthetic value,” Eddy said. “Who would deny that looking at a sundown on Green Lake is beautiful? I think water is inspirational and it’s good for the spirit. And the natural world provides really valuable services for human beings.”