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New Arboretum on Milwaukee River Takes Root

We talk with some of the worker bees behind the new Rotary Centennial Arboretum that opened Saturday. It stretches between North Avenue and Locust Street.

“My name is Aaron Zeleske, I’m the arboretum project director at the Urban Ecology Center and I have been working on the project for about a year and a half.”

Just a year ago, Zeleske says we would have been standing among piles of bricks. Now, an oak savannah is coming to life here - newly planted native species and Oak trees, that will one day, dominate the landscape.

“This is the main entrance of the Rotary Centennial Arboretum and there’s this 21-foot arch here made from real boulders from Mountain, Wisconsin,” Zeleske says.

A local artist submitted the design – and it won the arboretum’s competition for best iconic entrance. But Zeleske says nothing was final until engineers tested the soundness of the archway.

“They refined the design and get to this stage. You could hit it with a car and it wouldn’t hurt it,” Zeleske says.

We weave down toward the Milwaukee River – the sun beating down on us. The “remediated” meets the hushed cool of existing forest.

We happen upon a majestic willow. Zeleske says the spot is designated as an “imagi-nature-station.”

“There just spots where we’ve done a little pruning or trimming to make them more inviting and safer for kids to climb and play on.,” Zeleske says.

You won’t find the treasures on a map; they’re meant to be discovered.

“We didn’t want instructions on how to play in this space, we want people to explore,” Zeleske says.

Ken Leinbach tests the trail.

We start hearing the sound of wheel on gravel. It’s Ken Leinbach. He heads the Urban Ecology Center. It serves as lead steward of the arboretum.

Leinbach claims to be testing it gravel path – on unicycle. I ask, why planners didn’t opt for more natural path material.

“This arboretum project was designed to be the one place along the Milwaukee River that was accessible to everybody ...so someone can come down here with a stroller, a wheelchair, a walker and we can traipse hundreds of thousands of kids and actually what you’re calling “unnatural” – this gravel trail is actually protecting the surrounding environment,” Leinbach says.

Staff and volunteers have been nudging the arboretum’s budding ecosystem.

Under Kim Forbeck’s leadership, they’ve been planting nonstop for months. While in nooks and crannies, more plants than you can count are still awaiting their turn, Forbeck reckons the final numbers will add up to…....

Land steward Kim Forbeck's team erected this shade cloth tent to protect shade-loving woodland plants until they are planted

“Three thousand shrubs, 2,500 trees and about 60,000 wildflowers and grasses.”

Inside the Urban Ecology Center, a few volunteers are cooling off.

“I’m Melinda Vernon, Susan Weistropf, Barbara Mendelsohn.”

The three plan to keep planting.

“One of the fun thing, to see how the landscape changes from week to week. And now we’ve done larger plantings just recently – shrubs and today we did trees for the first time. Yes, six trees imagine that and they’re taller than we are.”

Someone who did not attend the arboretum’s splashy opening, still exerts great influence here.

Pieter Godfrey lived and worked in some old industrial buildings next door to the oak savannah is now settling in. In a 2010 interview, Godfrey shared his 20-year relationship with the area and his hopes for it.

“When I first bought the building I would go down the hill after heavy rains and I could see the human waste and toilet paper go down the river. I want to see something that’s going to promote park development and park growth because that’s what I’m interested in.”

Godfrey passed away before heavy machinery began to clean up and reshape his parcel.

Back outside, project coordinator Aaron Zeleske hopes the visionary would have approved.

“We tried to stay pretty close to Pieter’s original vision of sort of rolling hills that once you get inside of them, like we are now – to be in nature and feel like you are in the wilderness."

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.