Order of sisters makes sure lake preserve remains protected

The following story was written by Don Behm for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A pond, woods and wetlands in Mequon used by an order of Catholic Sisters as a rustic, spiritual retreat has been sold to the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust.

As Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother ended its decades-long stewardship of the 155-acre Spirit Lake Preserve, the change in ownership Friday established a milestone — protecting more than 6,000 acres of open spaces — for the regional land trust.

A small, wood-frame cottage at the dead-end of a farm lane provided members of the order with access to solitude: a natural area encompassing the small body of water, an adjacent grassland and a forest with two separate canopies.

Landscape photos (1)

Photo courtesy of Ozaukee Washington Land Trust

The lowland woods is topped with swamp white oak, yellow birch and red maple. Ephemeral ponds form in depressions during spring, providing habitat for salamanders and frogs.

Red and bur oak, shagbark hickory and ironwood dominate the upland. The spring carpet is colored by wildflowers: wild geranium, spring beauty, trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit.

An unnamed, intermittent stream cuts through a cattail marsh and wet meadow on the west edge of the property.

The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother are facing declining numbers of members in the region, and a drop in use of the rural retreat, which is costly to maintain, said Pat Groth, a spokeswoman for the Oshkosh-based order.

Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother was founded in Rome, Italy, in 1883. The order is known for establishing Marian Health Care, a national health care system that created Ministry Health Care in northern and central Wisconsin. Marian became part of Ascension Health in 2014.

The order sold its Spirit Lake Preserve south of Bonniwell Road to the land trust for a little more than $1 million.

The congregation agreed to sell the property at a discount by trimming $150,000 off an appraised value of $1.2 million, said Shawn Graff, executive director of the land trust. A fiberglass canoe was left behind as part of the deal.

“The property will be held in conservancy and used as a nature preserve,” which is in line with the order’s own environmental values, Groth said. “We will continue to use it along with the public.”

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Photo courtesy of Ozaukee Washington Land Trust

Ozaukee Washington Land Trust received a state Stewardship Fund grant of $600,000 to help pay acquisition costs.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District will contribute $200,000 toward the acquisition in exchange for a permanent conservation easement on 85 acres. The L-shaped parcel includes the forest, marsh, meadow and intermittent stream. This is the 100th property protected by the district’s Greenseams flood management program and its inventory now encompasses a total of 3,142 acres. The easement prevents subdivision of the property and future development while harnessing the water-absorbing abilities of the woods and wetlands, said David Grusznski, Greenseams program director for The Conservation Fund. The fund manages Greenseams for MMSD.

Black soils in the wetlands are full of organic matter from decaying plants. Those soils act like natural sponges by trapping water in storms and reducing downstream flows. The intermittent stream draining the property is a tributary of the Milwaukee River.

Landscape photos (2)

Photo courtesy of Ozaukee Washington Land Trust

The forest is part of a larger natural area, known as the Highland Road Woods, recommended for protection by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

Fields on the northeast corner of the property are leased to local farmers. Those acres will remain in agriculture for a few years as the land trust works with other partners, including the Milwaukee Audubon Society, in establishing a management plan for the preserve, Graff said.

The land trust intends to transfer ownership of the entire property to Milwaukee Audubon in several years, he said. The group contributed $133,000 for the acquisition.