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An Unusual Natural Area


The Shady Lane Natural Area in Ozaukee County celebrated its grand opening Saturday. We glimpse at its fern-carpeted canopy and learn about the preserve’s unusual history.It didn’t look as though we were about to enter a special natural area.

Andrew Struck met me on a path that connects a mowed park, to what he promises is a breathtaking spot. Struck heads Ozaukee County’s planning and parks department. We stroll north, past signs reading, “no motorized vehicles” and clean up after your dog.

Within moments were swallowed into a hushed, rolling landscape – ferns carpet the ground, towering trees provide the canopy. Struck says we’re in what’s called the Milwaukee River mesic woods.

“Mesic is a wetland woodland community; it’s comprised of beech, maple, some oak,” Struck says.

As magical as the surroundings appear, this is not a fairy tale story of a generous landowner preserving his land for future generations or the good of the planet.

It’s a case of a......well – I’ll let Andrew Struck tell you.

“Shady Lane kind of long .....long, complicated history,” Struck says.

Let’s try again.....

“The former owner of 62 acres failed to pay his taxes; there were many years of trying to come up with payment plans,” Struck says.

The unpaid property taxes piled up to $30,000; finally, the county foreclosed on the property. Struck says only then, did officials discover they had a toxic mess on their hands.

“There used to be a structure back here, a building, it was actually built up against that cedar tree there. There were forty plus cars that were junked, there were underground buried storage tanks with fuel and diesel and stuff like that, that were leaking,” Struck says.

Months of remediation followed; but Struck says Ozaukee debated for nearly a decade, what to do with the 62 acres....

“The county was just holding the property. Initially....oh! That’s an oven bird,” Struck says.

Struck can’t ignore the compelling call of a visiting oven bird....

“Their nest is a ground nest and it looks like an igloo and its made out of leaf litter and grasses. Sorry, I got off track, anyway,” Struck says.

Back to history – Struck says the assessed value of the parcel was $650,000, so if it were sold and developed it would add lots to the county coffers......

“ There was even some discussion about the value of logging it and using the timber that could be harvested here,” Struck says.

Struck thinks the turning point might have occurred when he invited county officials to join him for a guided tour.

“You honestly can’t appreciate it until you walk it. You don’t get the same feeling about the smell and the sight, the sense of height and the drop offs of the moraine hills until you’re here,” Struck says.

Andrew Struck searches for salamander that briefly appeared within the white oak that now "enriches" the forest floor.

We come upon a once magnificent white oak, and a startled salamander scurries across the fallen lot.

“As these begin to rot, we call them nurse logs. There’s a lot of nutrients in there; it holds in moisture, so that’s where you’re going to see future forest start,” Struck says.

We arrive at a breathtaking spot along the Milwaukee River. Struck says the master plan does not include boat launches or even benches. He perches on a fallen tree.

“These are our benches; made just like that; old logs sitting alongside the river, that’s what we intend to do,” Struck says.

Struck says the agency’s vision is to preserve Shady Lane for “passive” enjoyment. That means just enough signs and arrows to keep people on the narrow path etched through the rich landscape. Struck hopes an in-depth inventory of its inhabitants will solidify his case that the area is worthy protecting.

“We want to get a better handle on what is here. Frog, salamanders, herptiles. We heard on the way in the oven bird, the oven bird needs large continguous tracks of inland woodlands – mature woodlands. It would be really good for us to know how many, what species are using the forest. It gives us more information about the quality also how to go about management,” Struck says.

For now, he encourages people to drink in the splendor – but stay on the trail.

The 62-acre parcel features nearly one mile of trails and more than 1,500 feet of Milwaukee River shoreline.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.