Don’t be surprised if you walk into a University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County faculty member’s home this holiday season and see a forlorn-looking pine tree standing in the corner.
Visitors can rest assured these scraggly, sparse trees represent a seasonal tradition of giving back to the environment.
The jack pines, offered for sale to members of the campus community, come from Van Zelst Barrens, a university-owned property off Terrytown Road about five miles west of Baraboo. The area is home to a 70-acre sand prairie in danger of disappearing due to encroaching invasive species such as the pines and other trees and bushes.
Representatives of the campus Green-STEM Club take a yearly trip to the barrens to help rid the area of invasive species.
“The forest has been allowed to continue to come in on the prairie,” said associate dean and chemistry professor Tom Neal, who advises the club.
Jarrett Schnaare, the club’s president, has been involved with the group since last year. He participated in a recent workday along with Neal, club secretary Ambar Sanchez and others.
“Basically what we do is we remove the trees and make room for the lichens to grow,” Schnaare said.
Neal said the focus of the workday was removing hundreds of trees felled by the club over the past few years to give the sand prairie lichens and grasses a chance to grow again.
The group brought back a dozen or so freshly cut trees this year and has distributed many of them to faculty and staff members who put in orders.
The area has been university property since the 1970s, and staff have long been asked to go out and cut the trees, Neal said.
Various campus classes, including those taught by assistant professor Meg Steinweg, are planning to use the area as an interactive, real-world experience for learning about botany, conservation and other concepts. It’s a great teaching tool to show what happens over time with and without different interventions, Neal said.
“For us it’s great to do long-term study,” he said. “It’s a great laboratory for students. It’s a real-world laboratory.”