By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 29, 2024 at 9:31 AM

Content created in partnership with Milwaukee County Parks Wehr Nature Center.

Milwaukee County Parks’ Whitnall Park feels huge, with Boerner Botanical Gardens, a beer garden, a golf course and lots of open spaces for picnics and other activities.

But did you realize that the Wehr Nature Center – which turns 50 this year – occupies more than a third of the park’s 626.6 acres?

Jeff Veglahn
Land Manager Jeff Veglahn in the oak savanna at Wehr Nature Center.

Two hundred and twenty acres is a lot of ground to tend and, believe it or not, Wehr’s Land Manager Jeff Veglahn does it all by himself – well, sort of – and all while more than 100,000 annual visitors are on site.

“Paid staff, I'm the only one for 220 acres,” he says. “But we have so many volunteers. That's really how we get the work done.”

Veglahn, who is from La Crosse, studied ecology in college and began working in land management. After 12 years at the Urban Ecology Center, working most of that time managing Three Bridges Park in the Menomonee Valley, he arrived at Wehr in May 2023.

“I got some tidbits on the state of the park prior to starting,” Veglahn recalls. “I had a relationship with natural areas team, and I talked to them prior to starting and kind of got some points. But then when I got here I was like, ‘whoa, this place is big’ (laughs). Three Bridges Park is 24 acres.

“Coming here was really exciting, because this is really my first time working on land that wasn't brownfield or industrial land. This land was farms, which is vastly different. It makes it easier because the soil is really rich. The first month I was pulling up buckthorn and instead of more buckthorn coming up, it was native plants coming up. I'm like, ‘wow, this is awesome’.”

But managing 220 acres of woodland, oak savanna and other habitats isn’t always so easy ... it’s not exactly magic. Instead, it requires numerous strategies, Veglahn says.

The March prescribed burn in the oak savanna. (PHOTO: Casey Aicher/Milwaukee County Parks)

One of those strategies is prescribed burns, the most recent of which took place in March in two spots: the oak savanna and the so-called “beach prairie” down near Mallard Lake in a spot that was originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as a beach with sand shipped in.

The goal of a burn is to mimic nature’s own cycles, which help rid an environment of invasive species and cut down on overgrowth of brush that creates fuel that can lead to much more destructive uncontrolled fires.

The prescribed burns are typically done roughly every three to five years, Veglahn says.

“You want to encourage invertebrates to stay there, like migratory bugs and migratory birds and all the good things that use plants as a host plant,” Veglahn explains. “You want to make sure that they come there and they have generations to reproduce and have a healthy population. If you burn every year, eventually they would just learn this isn't a suitable spot and go somewhere else.

“And you do a rotation. You do a section, so then when you are doing a burn, the things that are typically in the burned area have a safe place to go just adjacent.”

There is a long process to set up a burn that requires an extremely detailed plan on the area to be burned, the method to be used, weather considerations, contingencies in case of an emergency and countless other subjects to ensure safety.

This video offers a good explanation:

“I was involved with the burn process at Three Bridges Park,” Veglahn says. “The only thing different here is this is a little bit more rural. It's still urban, having the condos right here, having College Avenue. They're close, but they're not stone’s throw away. Three Bridges Park is right in the middle of the city and right in the middle of the industrial area.”

The March burns this year went without a hitch, Veglahn says, and just a few weeks later, it’s amazing to see that the burned areas are already so green again that you can hardly tell there was fire moving through recently. Dark soil and a few charred twigs are the only sign.

Less than a month
The site less than a month after the burn.
After the burnX

In the restored oak savanna north of the Wehr Nature Center building, the burn is an especially important maintenance effort.

“An oak savanna is pretty rare, especially in southeastern Wisconsin and especially in urban areas, just because the overpopulation of deer really affects oak,” says Veglahn. “What we're trying to do is restore that plant community here and start encouraging some of the new regrowth of oaks to come in.

“Fire is a really beneficial tool for that because burr oaks especially are adapted to go through burns. So when a fire comes through, a lot of times you'll see a new growth of little saplings. Other trees that might compete with oak typically die off, and then what you have left are your oaks.”

Veglahn says the plan is to plant 50 oak trees – about a thumb’s thickness and four feet tall – in the savanna this year, too, to help nudge that process forward. They will be protected from hungry deer to help ensure they will survive.

“There's so many deer," he says. “If you think back 30 years ago (when the savanna project was getting underway), all these condos weren't here and the apartments weren't here, and there wasn't all this development. So the deer that were here had a larger space to roam. But now with everything closing in around them, there's such a heavy deer population in Whitnall Park that it's putting a lot of pressure on our native plants.”

As you might imagine, the work at Wehr Nature Center is never done and the tasks can feel endless on a 220-acre nature preserve, and I ask Veglahn to tell me a bit more about some of that work.

mossy logX

There’s a lot of erosion due to stormwater runoff, Veglahn says, which damages natural areas, wreaks havoc on trails and the boardwalk, and is slowly filling up Mallard Lake, which will likely require dredging at some point.

When it was built in the 1930s, the lake had an average depth of 17 feet. Now, says Veglahn, there are areas that are less than four inches deep because of all the runoff sediment over the years.

“That's a big, big issue that we're dealing with,” he says. “We’re doing a patchwork (of things) because the issue is so big, and since it's not our property and it's coming from other places, there's different municipalities (involved). So we're doing what we can.

“We're doing berms, we're putting down fastings, which are cut sticks, essentially like shrubs, that you stake into the ground.”

Then there are the invasive species, which is a problem in parks and natural areas everywhere.

“One of the areas that I wanted to really take hold of when I got here was this wooded area right here (between the building and the oak savanna),” he says, noting that most of his work is off-trail. “This is what we call our maple woods.

“A lot of that was pretty heavily managed by staff and volunteers before I got here. I've been doing a lot of work, especially on the far west side, right next to the condos, that's not really visible. It's not as accessible. I've been taking out a lot of the buckthorn and a lot of the invasive shrubs that just naturally come in.

“Most of the job that I'm doing is just doing (removing) invasives, because from 2018 to when I got here, there wasn't a full-time land manager. So there's this gap when there was not a designated person just caring for the land.”

While there was removal of invasive species going on during that time, it wasn’t anyone’s full-time job to oversee the work, so it proceeded in a less than regular and organized manner, says Veglahn.

“Some of the staff were taking on land management, but they were doing it on top of other job responsibilities,” he says. “They're naturalists, so they have a good idea of what these plant communities should do and have a really good understanding of invasive management, but they had limited capacity to give their full attention to land restoration.

“I'm doing a backlog of all this space that wasn't managed intensively.”

Of course, there is a lot of trail management and maintenance to attend to also, but, fortunately, dedicated volunteers take care of much of that work.

Every Tuesday for more than 30 years, a group of volunteers called the Wheel and Chip Society arrives to work on the trails, clearing trees, fixing the boardwalk, laying woodchips, etc.

boardwalk at ephemeral pondX

“They are pretty much the most self-led group, and they know what they're doing and they take all of the trails on and they maintain them,” Veglahn says. “That group literally lays a mile-plus of wood chips every year. They're clearing paths, they're cutting back overgrown stuff, they're building the boardwalks. That's really the core group that's taking care of the accessibility aspect.

“On Wednesdays we have a volunteer group that helps me doing land management work. So they're out doing buckthorn removal and doing invasives and all the other things (necessary).”

Veglahn says that it’s common for 20 people show up to help out on these days from 9 until 11 a.m. There are lots of retirees, lots of college students. If you’re willing and able, one of those volunteers could be you.

“We have volunteers that do monitoring out in the park,” Vehlahn adds. “They're monitoring the birds and they're monitoring which plants are in bloom and the wildlife that they're seeing. We have volunteers that are trail ambassadors that are helping people navigate the trails, answering questions, picking up garbage, which is super important.

“When you have that many people that are committed to coming every single week, you can plan so many bigger projects because you know that you're going to have the workforce to come out and get things done. I could not do it without them. Wehr Nature Center wouldn't be what it is without the volunteers.”

Since many of the volunteers have been coming out to help for decades, they also are part of the institutional memory and knowledge of Wehr Nature Center, and they get a lot of questions from visitors.

But so does Veglahn, of course, who it typically out and about doing his work while the center is open to the public.

“My job is very public facing and I'm doing my work during the business day 8 to 5,” he says. “So people are constantly coming up to me. They're asking me what's going on, what am I doing, what are my plans, why am I doing that? Just simple things like that.

“If they didn't care, they wouldn't ask. And a lot of people out there have strong opinions. A lot of people don't see the bigger picture and they see maybe something that they care about. So a lot of times it's talking to people and educating people about, ‘yeah, you're not wrong with your concerns that you're bringing up, but you have to think about the bigger picture and how it fits into the overall management and really all about our capacity.’

In many ways, in addition to being land manager at Wehr, Veglahn is also an on-site, publicly accessible educator.

“I'm teaching people about native plants and I'm teaching people about invasive plants,” he says. “Honestly, I consider myself an introvert, but I'm actually really good at talking to people. I enjoy that community aspect of people who care about the land enough to ask questions.”

You can meet Jeff Veglahn and other Wehr staff members, as well as many volunteers and former staff members, at the Wehr Nature Center’s 50th Anniversary Community Celebration, Saturday, June 15, from 1 to 4 p.m.

The event is free and open to everyone.

Celebration details can be found here and you can RSVP here.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.